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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