The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is acting to implement strategies to broaden the participation of women in the free and open-source software community (FOSS).
Recommendations for removing barriers and broadening membership among women in open-source projects were published July 16 by the FSF’s Women’s Caucus, which was formed nearly a year ago and was tasked to devise solutions to address the problem.
Barriers include the perception that the FOSS movement is a “boys’ club,” a shortage of female role models in the community, the feeling that women are being judged at a higher standard than men, feelings of isolation, sexist behavior, and non-coding roles that are often occupied by women being undervalued.
The Women’s Caucus also found that finances were more likely to be an obstacle for women than men (in terms of being able to donate to open-source projects), and that young girls were not being exposed to FOSS software in K-12 education.
Several of those findings mirror research compiled by Teresa Dahlberg, director of the Diversity in Information Technology Institute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She found that isolation is a key factor for a higher attrition rate in programming jobs among women and minorities.
People tend to associate with “like communities,” where people have similar backgrounds and interests, Dahlberg explained in a previous interview. She also cited personal interviews conducted by Carnegie Mellon University where women felt that they had less room for error than men.
The FSF views itself as being in a conundrum, because it has observed that even when young girls have access to technology in the classroom, that “public computers means running proprietary software,” according to the report. It suggests inserting open-source software into computer science classes.
The National Science Foundation has found that many women are turned off of computer science in grade school before they understand computing due to the perception that it is an isolating profession.
The Women’s Caucus has recommended that steps be taken to highlight women who are already participating by using them to recruit other women within projects and as mentors to other women. Project leaders emphasize participating over competition, using diversity statements to communicate what kinds of behavior are acceptable, and establish paid internships for women, the report says.
“I like the focus on mentorship…I found myself uncomfortable in an all-male computer science center [while attending college],” said Karen Sandler, general counsel of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC). The SFLC provides legal services to open-source projects and organizations. “There were no female employees or users at workstations. It was not a welcoming place for women to be.”
Sandler was hired to work at the center as a student worker after expressing her concerns to its administrators. Having a woman around all the time encouraged greater participation from women, she said. “Women would try to come in at the time I was at the center…I found myself mentoring other women [in computing] at the beginnings of their college careers. We need to do more of that.”
A public wiki is being maintained by FSF to provide resources for projects that wish to attract more women to their ranks. A new mailing list will announce free software speaking opportunities to women, and it has created a pilot program to increase women’s attendance at free software events with a travel fund specifically for women.
Further suggestions include encouraging all-women mailing lists within projects and making space for all-women networking events. It is also seeking to create programs to bring free software specifically to girls. The Women’s Caucus will be supported by an internship in the development of targets and other measures of success, said FSF spokesperson Peter Brown.