Breaking down the gender divide in open source and open culture

How the Ada Initiative aims to increase women's participation and challenge sexism in open source, open technology and open culture

The tipping point for Linux kernel developer Valerie Aurora was when one of her friends was groped for the third time in a single year at a conference. "As I heard about it I knew I'd remember all the times I'd been groped as well, and insulted and harassed — and that was just too much," Aurora says.

Aurora waited a month then emailed Mary Gardiner, who she knew from LinuxChix and The result was the Ada Initiative: A non-profit organisation the two formed that aims to break down barriers women face when it comes to participation in open source, open technology and open culture more broadly.

"I think part of what happens in some of these fields [like open source is that] you have a really extreme minority of women and you get the outsider status that's associated with being an extreme minority," Gardiner says. "People at have started it calling it being a unicorn. I think someone last year actually had their camera and would take pictures of women [when they spotted some]."

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According to Aurora, women's participation in open source development is an order of magnitude worse than in the proprietary software world. In a 2009 keynote at OSCON (O'Reilly Open Source Convention) Alex Bayley cited a 2006 EU survey that found only 1.5 per cent of contributors to open source are women.

Almost two thirds of female participants in the EU study, conducted by the University of Maastricht, believed that it was easier for men to get acknowledgement for their contribution to open source projects.

An online survey for a study published in Journal of Information Technology Management, Volume XXI, Number 4, 2010 on the open source community found that 50 per cent of the women who participated had experienced online or offline harassment

When it comes to other aspects of open culture, things aren't that much better. For example only 15 per cent of contributors to Wikipedia, probably the most widely known product of open culture, are women, according to a 2010 study (PDF).

One of the reasons for the Ada Initiative's focus on open source/tech is that "it's such a powerful a lever to move world culture with," Aurora says. "It comes down to first 'wow it's so much worse' [in the open source world] and then at the same time [open source] is so incredibly powerful."

"We believe that open technology and culture has a higher leverage affect on society as a whole," Aurora says. "So it's like we can say 'Oh well what we really need to do is fix sexism in society overall', and then we can say 'Well look if we're writing Wikipedia, if we're writing the software that everybody uses, if we're creating what's on the internet and setting the culture on the internet, which spreads to everybody, then we are changing sexism in society at large'."

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so what do programming women think when they mix with programming men on a Linux conference? Computer-addict men are also known by a lack of knowledge for making proper compliments to women..... like me, a German living in Mongolia I feel like a unicorn in a horses heard.



if women with families have any free time from working in the craziness of the tech industry, bet it wont be doing some more code in the evening - however interesting that may be.. 20yrs + as a female engineer and I still see no advertising for permanent part-time/job share software engineers/programmers (UK). Till that changes, talk about gender diversity in this industry is just that blah.blah blah..



" not even just male dominated, but white male dominated"

Gardiner is a vile bigot. She should be sent to sensitivity training for her sexism and racism.



WTF? EVERYONE can contribute to Open Source. And if women want to invent something spectacular, that changes the world... Please. Feel free to do so. I'm waiting for Mamapedia, Femux or grrloogle...

Jacobus Erasmus


I think most of the comments miss the point.

The problem is that the environment in the open source community is such the Woman feel uncomfortable. I am very ashamed of the situation and so should the whole community.

This is one situation we cannot pull out the Rightous card we are simply wrong.



The fallacy of the reasoning that the cause of the lack of participation of women is that they are "uncomfortable". If you don't want to participate because you got other things on your mind, but there is no reason why you shouldn't you do the human thing, that is: find excuses. For some reason there is a lack of female subscribers to "Dr. Dobbs" - probably because the editors make women uncomfortable. Maybe because they are laughed at at the newsstands. Most programming forums are filled up to capacity with sexist jokes. And consequently, women who have bad experiences and have a passion for programming advertise themselves over and over again as a single women, simply because they want dinner dates with nerds with broken-and-taped glasses. C'mon. There is nothing to prevent women to start their own projects - you don't have to join an existing one. Still, although every single sect has its own distribution, there is not a single one targeted to women, made by women. In fact, the only ones that can change the current situation are women themselves. Go ahead, what's keeping you? Or too busy whining like a spoiled kid?

the goat


When communicating via e-mail, IRC, webforums, etc. how would anybody know the gender of the other participants? There is no barrier preventing women from participating in opensource projects. In fact opensource has absolutely nothing to do with gender.



Gender, gender, gender is all I hear these white women talking about, but I never see them talking about *RACE*. There are far fewer blacks, including black men, in Free Software than there are women of any race. And non-white women don't seem to get hardly any attention from these feminists. What's up, white women? Don't care about anybody not just like you?

Yes, I am a BLACK WOMAN. Start focusing on the lack of racial minorities as much as you do the folks who look like you, and then I might consider supporting you. To date, you have not done this.



Love the project, the more that the open source community can reach out to underrepresented groups, the better. With that in mind, I also agree with Yolanda, that any attempt to do this would be better served by including race in addition to gender in your outreach. But this is a step :)



Open source is about the software. Not the gender...Damn feminism sticks its nose into everything! And its always WHITE women with nothing better to do. They won't be happy until society itself is in chaos from political correctness...Then, they'll come up with another excuse blaming males for something they did.

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