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There are fewer women in open source than in the ICT sector overall

Where are women in open source?

Published on: 09/06/2021 Last update: 09/02/2024 News

Study after study has shown that women are underrepresented in virtually all sectors of ICT. According to PwC’s Women in Tech report, women comprise only a quarter of the worforce in the tech industry. Open source communities are even more male-dominated, with women accounting for no more than 10% of contributors and participants.

Surveys and research consistently indicate that the proportion of women involved in open source is significantly lower than that of men. For instance, in the most recent Linux Foundation survey, fewer than 7% of respondents were women. Similarly, an unpublished study commissioned by the European Commission found that women represent approximately 5% of contributors to the Apache Software Foundation, 9% of the Linux kernel contributors, and 10% of OpenStack contributors. Only about 9% of GitHub users are women. A 2006 research report revealed that merely 1.5% of open-source software (OSS) contributors were women, in contrast to 28% in proprietary software.

Open source is ubiquitous and all developers use it at some point, so it is crucial to improve its accessibility to women for a more equal and innovative digital economy. Like in any other field, there are several benefits of diversity for the projects, companies and organisations, such as responding to the needs of users in a better way, a healthier work environment and increased innovativeness.

Many reasons contribute to the lack of women in open source, affecting women throughout the ecosystem. Women tend to have increased caring responsibilities, which often limit the time they can spend on other paid and unpaid activities, including getting involved in open source communities. This is especially difficult and detrimental at the beginning of their careers as open source contributions from junior developers are often unpaid and on a voluntary basis. Such early involvement helps to develop necessary skills needed to fully participate in open source, provides networking possibilities, allows building one’s profile in the community and learning official and unofficial rules. 

Moreover, women are more likely than men to acquire software development knowledge through formal training, such as paid courses, universities, and online training, necessitating dedicated time for education and upskilling. This can result in less experience in terms of duration and smaller portfolios, which can disadvantage women applying for jobs, especially since some companies assess candidates' GitHub profiles as part of the recruitment process. In a developer's role, continuous learning is critical due to rapidly evolving technologies, but women often have fewer opportunities for this due to responsibilities outside of work.

However, most (up to 75%) of open source developers contribute during their daily, paid job, so in theory it should be possible for female developers to contribute to these projects. In practice, many women refrain from or discontinue contributing to projects due to reported incidents of discrimination, abusive language, and sexism within open source communities at various levels. While not exclusive to the open source ecosystem, this issue is exacerbated by a male-dominated, meritocratic culture, and a lack of female role models and networks.

There are also several differences between men and women in how they contribute to open source projects and how often their pull requests are accepted. There is a documented bias against unkown female-sounding usernames ('outsiders') compared to male-sounding ones, raising barrier of entry for many less experiences women.

Overall, women's contributions tend to be actually accepted at a higher rate by 4.1%. This is likely due to the generally higher competencies and educational levels of women who contribute to open source projects, as observed in most male-dominated fields. This conclusion aligns with the aforementioned higher barrier to entry for women in open source, requiring them, especially if inexperienced, to demonstrate higher expertise than their male counterparts to participate.

When analysing and deriving conclusions from research on developers’ motivations, paths of growth, ensuring sustainability and security of open source components, it is worth remembering that such research is usually based on data that underrepresents women and genders other than men, and often does not account for their experiences and does not showcase the full extent of the open source landscape. Individuals’ motivations to contribute, workplace situation, goals of a given project and its governance including preventing sexism and abusive langauge, caring responsibilities and many other factors all contribute to the diversity of experiences and engagement level.

Several approaches are being employed to address these imbalances, including issuing and enforcing codes of conduct, promoting women to leadership positions, providing mentoring, and improving tools to mitigate gender bias. Some researchers suggest that implementing gender quotas in projects may lead to women being relegated to stereotypically feminine tasks in open source, such as documentation production or community engagement which might not be responding to the initial wishes of a female participant. However, some surveys indicate that women tend to enjoy such activities more, but it is unclear how biased such data is, considering the current composition of most open source communities.

Many initiatives try to challenge the status quo, attract more women to open source and recognise the challenges they have to overcome. For example, when Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement, rejoined the board of the Free Software Foundation in 2021, many voices were raised to condemn the decision based on misogynistic actions Stallman was accused of, including FSF sister organisation, the Free Software Foundation Europe. Several open source projects have launched initiatives to promote women's participation, such as Debian's Debian Women project and initiatives by GNOME, KDE, and Mozilla.

Increasing gender equality and diversity of open source communities is beneficial for both the communities and projects they create. Therefore, it is crucial to address these issues when establishing new initiatives or participating in, promoting, and developing existing ones. And, take open source communities into account while researching women's participation in tech.