We assume FOSS benefits all equally. But does it really?

Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FOSS) is good. This is a
"fact" that can hardly be debated in development circles by
now. FOSS provides affordable and sustainable solutions to
different sectors' information and communication needs,
particularly for those sectors in the 'developing' countries
where most people and organisations cannot afford high
licensing fees that are bundled with proprietary software.



At the core of FOSS is a noble principle: because it opens up
the source code of applications, individuals have the freedom
to modify and improve upon software to suit their needs and
realities better. The FOSS environment allows for free and
democratic development and design of software. Therefore, it
is inherently a more empowering framework than that of
proprietary software development.


Both Governments and the private sector are becoming
increasingly aware of the benefits of FOSS. In Indonesia, the
government has initiated the project, "Indonesia Goes Open
Source" (IGOS), to promote the use of FOSS at the national
level, primarily with the government migrating to FOSS [1]
and through projects that will encourage FOSS development in
the country.


Taiwanese researcher Yuwei Lin has recently argued that FOSS,
or Free/Libre and Open Source Software, has dramatically
changed the way software is "produced, distributed, supported
and used".


While the Philippines and Malaysia both do not have an Open
Source Policy, government agencies in the the two countries
are becoming more supportive of the widespread use of FOSS.
Kuala Lumpur unveiled The Public Sector Open Source Master
Plan in 2004, and, since then, the Malaysian Administration
Modernisation and Management Planning (MAMPU), the agency
taking the lead in the public sector's FOSS strategy, has
become more aggressive in promoting the use of FOSS in
government bodies and agencies [2].


The Philippine Commission on Information and Communications
Technology (CICT) has undertaken ICT-based projects that
utilise FOSS [3], and has become more active in promoting the use of FOSS in
the government. (See also: Open Source in Government Gaining
Momentum [4].


All these grand plans to increase the use of FOSS at the
national level, and therefore maximise the benefits that can
be gained from FOSS. But not once have the words, gender and
women been used. None of the plans or programmes have taken
existing and potential gender issues in the widespread
promotion and use of FOSS.


The underlying assumption, of course, is that FOSS includes
and benefits everyone equally. But does it?


Experience shows that it doesn't.


In countries, places and spaces where there are healthy and
robust FOSS communities, it is quite clear that FOSS is a
male-dominated environment.


Yuwei Lin's paper, Inclusion, Diversity and Gender Equality:
Gender Dimensions of Free / Libre Open Source Software
Development" [5] states that as of 2002, only 1% of FOSS developers are women.


By August 2005, at the the O'Reilly Open Source Convention
(OSCON), held in Oregon, USA this figure was updated to 2%. A
100% increase since 2002, but still a very small number!


'Developing' countries do not need to look further than their
existing LUGs (Linux User Groups), GLUGs (GNU/Linux User
Groups), FSUGs (Free Software User Groups) or BUGs (BSD User
Groups) to confirm the low participation of women in FOSS.
This can be contrasted with women's participation in
proprietary software development and use -- where 25% of
software developers are women.


It is imperative that any plans and initiatives to promote
and increase the use of FOSS -- whether by government,
private sector or civil society -- takes a close look at the
reasons why there are so few women using FOSS and
participating in existing FOSS communities.


Further, the reasons for such low FOSS participation by women
should be addressed. Only then, will FOSS be able to include
and benefit everyone.


The FOSSophy of gender politics:


Why Don't Women FOSS?


There is a lack of comprehensive research on the gender
dimensions of FOSS. FLOSS Pols [6] is currently attempting to conduct a research on this with results to be released by end of February 2006. Till this emerges, we have to rely on
stories, rants, anecdotes from blogs, boards and mailing
lists to gain better understanding of the women's low
participation in and use of FOSS.


The OSCON in Oregon held a panel on "Women in Open Source" on
August 5, 2005, where notable women in the Open Source
development such as, Danese Cooper (Intel and the Open Source
Initiative), Mitchell Baker (Mozilla Foundation), Zaheda
Bohrat (Google Open Source Programmes) and Allison Randall
(The Perl Foundation), were featured. The panel garnered
much-needed exposure to the reasons for the lack of women in
FOSS and challenged the Open Source community to take this
matter more seriously.


See Where are All the Women in Open Source? (New Diva Blog)
[7]; Ted Leung Blog [8]; Getting In Touch with the Feminine
Side of Open Source, a Newsforge feature article [9]; the
TechWorld article Geeks Want Women [10] and Women in Open
Source (Piers Cawley's blog) [11].


The reasons cited for the lack of women in FOSS communities,
particularly developer communities, range from sexism and
chauvinism that discourage women from participating in FOSS
projects and communities, to differences in life-work
priorities between men and women, particularly in balancing
work and personal life. Based on the reports written about
the panel, the women shared the balancing acts they needed to
do in order to resolve conflicting priorities: the time that
being involved in Free Software and Open Source requires and
the need to attend to their family or personal lives.


These reasons are supported by accounts from various
FOSS-related blogs and boards where women and some men
complain about the behaviour of men towards women. One of the
most cited reasons why women are discouraged from
participating in FOSS communities is the blatant sexism that
they encounter, as discussed in Piers Cawley's blog.


This ranges from men attempting romantic relationships with
them, to chauvinistic attitudes and responses from men
whenever women ask questions. One woman developer stated that
FOSS community members tended to assume her boyfriend, an
active member of the community as well, was the one writing
the code. See [12] and [13]




Val Henson's "How to Encourage Women in Linux" [14] outlines
experiences from women in LUGs (Linux User Groups, also
called GNU/Linux User Groups or GLUGs) that discourage them
from participating more actively (even pushing some of them
to leave these communities). It goes on to list what men in a
male-dominated environment must do in order to get women more
involved in FOSS communities.


Not all FOSS communities are filled with chauvinists who make
it difficult for women to participate. In most activist FOSS
spaces and communities, women are encouraged to participate,
and interrogating gender issues in FOSS is assumed to be an
important topic.


But this certainly does not mean, as noted above, that there
is equality in numbers as far as women and men's
participation are concerned, or that there are no
gender-based division of roles in projects and initiatives.
What this means is that the behaviour of men towards women in
FOSS communities does not completely account for the lack of
women's participation in and use of FOSS.


So if it is not just sexism in FOSS communities, then what is
it that is keeping women away from FOSS?


The idea that FOSS can have a disempowering effect on women
needs to be confronted in order to answer the question.


Up until recently, FOSS advocates have focused on the code --
its freedom, licensing, development and modification. Based
on this, "Open Source" hardly means anything -- aside from a
very politically correct, philosophically sound concept -- if
one is unable to do anything with, or even comprehend, the
code.


It is software developers who fully appreciate what "Open
Source" means because they are the ones who can tinker with
it. The dichotomy and hierarchy between developer and user is
very stark from this angle -- as stark as the division
between proprietary software developers and users. And quite
disempowering, if one happens to fall under the 'user'
category.


Given current trends in computing and software development,
it is logical to assume that women will find themselves in
the 'user' category in FOSS -- much like they find themselves
'users' and consumers in proprietary software environments.
If FOSS offers no significant change in women's place and
role in the "software hierarchy", why then should they opt
for FOSS?


This issue is compounded by the time required to engage in
FOSS and its communities, particularly in relation to
existing gender-based roles that women have. "Commitment to
free software requires lots of free time. A woman usually
doesn't have that luxury because domestic and family
obligations usually falls on her. We noted that this may be
particularly so in an Asian context." (from The GENDER &
FLOSS STATEMENT, Asia Source, January 28-February 4, 2005,
Bangalore, India).


Avid FOSS developers and users have had to devote a lot of
time to build capacities in understanding and utilising FOSS.
In most cases, this means familiarising one's self to an Free
Software and Open Source, Unix-based environment after years
of using proprietary and Windows-based systems. Given that
women's lives are significantly different from men's, based
on socially-accepted and -reinforced, gender roles and
stereotypes, women simply do not have a lot of time to devote
to learning FOSS.


This is only further exacerbated by the lack of opportunities
for women to learn how to use FOSS. While some organisations
do have a pro-active approach in ensuring women's
participation in FOSS training, and there are some women-led
FOSS events (like the Ecclectic Tech Festival or the FOSS
Camp ran by Women'sNet in South Africa), there is room for
more women-focused and -led FOSS capacity-building
initiatives. These venues for women to learn about FOSS must
be hard-coded into any plan


So Why Should Women FOSS?


What do women stand to gain by using FOSS? Given all the
challenges that women face upon taking up FOSS (as users, as
developers, as members of a community), is FOSS really worth
it?


It is.


Beyond the practical and economic benefits of using FOSS --
the freedom from steep licensing fees and having to use
'pirated' software, FOSS offers an alternative paradigm to
software development and use.


As 'users', women will have the opportunity to influence
software development to meet their needs. FOSS developers
take their cue from user communities through online forums
where users can report bugs and request new features and
functionalities.


Given the nature of FOSS development where hobbyists and
enthusiasts are able to modify code and share applications or
extensions freely, it is much easier for 'users' to find
solutions for their needs. FOSS provides software options for
different kinds of applications. It provides choice.


As developers, the principle behind FOSS (open standards,
open content) is one that encourages a more collaborative
environment, in which women developers may discover more
freedom to create applications and solutions.


As FOSS community members, women will be able to find other
women through various user groups (such as Linuxchix,
Debianwomen, Ubuntuwomen). These women FOSS users communities
generally provide online support for women in various stages
of FOSS use (beginners, intermediate users, advanced users,
developers).


FOSS has the potential to change the way women relate with
ICTs, allowing for more control over the tools they use.


But all of these are potential benefits. Until women are
recognised as equal partners, collaborators, contributors,
users and developers in FOSS, these potentials will remain at
rest. Or, at best, a privilege enjoyed only by a handful of
women.


This is why women should FOSS. Every woman who breaks through
the glass walls of the FOSS community, who stakes her claim
in this environment, who uses these tools, who engages the
debates, is a woman who helps tip the balance towards FOSS
movement/s and technolog/ies that acknowledge and address
women's needs and realities -- technology that actually works
for women.


So, why do you think women should FOSS? And if FOSS is so great, how can we get women more involved?



[1] http://www.igos.web.id/english/english.htm

[2] http://www.zdnetasia.com/insight/specialreports/0,39044853,39230757-3,00.htm

[3] http://www.unescap.org/icstd/events/documents/egm_km/Philippines.doc

[4] http://www.itnetcentral.com/computerworld/article.asp?id=14990&leveli=0&info=Computerworld

[5] http://www.genderit.org/en/index.shtml?w=r&x=91400
[6] http://flosspols.org/index.php

[7] http://danesecooper.blogs.com/divablog/2005/08/catchuposcon_li.html

[8] http://www.sauria.com/blog/2005/08/05

[9] http://www.newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=05/08/08/1449259&from=rss

[10] http://www.techworld.com/applications/news/index.cfm?NewsID=4182

[11] http://www.bofh.org.uk/articles/2005/11/02/women-in-open-source

[12] http://www.bofh.org.uk/articles/2005/11/02/women-in-open-source

[13] http://www.linuxformat.co.uk/index.php?name=PNphpBB2&file=viewtopic&t=2015

[14] http://www.faqs.org/docs/Linux-HOWTO/Encourage-Women-Linux-HOWTO.html

Responses to this post

I think this article that highlights discrimination against women in FOSS projects is exaggerated. I am a male and have collaborated with gender activists standing for their cause and support. Free Software, is a technical term, which provides anyone the freedom to use, modify, distribute and publish with amendment. Obviously, such an enlarged scope of freedom, I feel, is not being explored to its extent possible by women activists. The freedom to publish with amendments should propel the women activists to fork the application wherever a discrimination is observed or experienced. With the forked out branch, the women activists can attract other developers to join and participate in further development. Since the space is virtual, and creative, complaining about a minor variation will only put the male chauvinistic people at an advantage. The gender activists should create their own FOSS user groups and lead by example. Best wishes.
Posted on 02/19/2007 - 06:28 | Reply
I think this article that highlights discrimination against women in FOSS projects is exaggerated. I am a male and have collaborated with gender activists standing for their cause and support. Free Software, is a technical term, which provides anyone the freedom to use, modify, distribute and publish with amendment. Obviously, such an enlarged scope of freedom, I feel, is not being explored to its extent possible by women activists. The freedom to publish with amendments should propel the women activists to fork the application wherever a discrimination is observed or experienced. With the forked out branch, the women activists can attract other developers to join and participate in further development. Since the space is virtual, and creative, complaining about a minor variation will only put the male chauvinistic people at an advantage. The gender activists should create their own FOSS user groups and lead by example. Best wishes.
Posted on 02/19/2007 - 06:26 | Reply
the first crucial step, in my opinion is for a woman who want "to FOSS" to simply FOSS it. we have to be a FOSS user first if we want to engage the big bad FOSS community. there is no skirting this. it's not only a question practicing what you preach blah-di-blah, it's a matter of experiencing FOSS, making FOSS a cultural practice. and we have to be honest with the experience. FOSS may be great and all, but there are real barriers to women fully and creatively adapting it. in some ways, the difficulties women face with FOSS are similar to the difficulties we initially faced when the Internet was young and the main work of organisations was to get more women to embrace ICT. if we go back to the lessons we learned in those years, women are quick to adapt ICT if and when they are able to make a clear connection between ICT and everyday life. <br />we need to find a clear and direct connection between FOSS and women's everyday life. it's not enough to show the technological and political/ideological "superiority" of FOSS over proprietary software. because if this is the case, then we would all be communists. and this is an intentional pun to stress the point that the average woman make decisions on what technology to use based on a combination of the rational and irrational, what is considered desirable and what is simply desired. <br />to a lot of the women i know, specially those who are already comfortable with electronic computing, a most common point of resistance in adapting FOSS is the implied requirement of investing a serious amount of time and energy to learn new tools to do basically the same things they're allready doing using the old tools. why switch to OpenOffice, for instance, when MSOffice already does the job? why would a woman who's spent years learning a proprietary office suite leave her comfort zone and start using a different set of applications? <br />from my observation, i find that women adapting FOSS enmass is a phenomena that happens only in computing labs in schools and in offices where top management has decided to migrate to FOSS. there is no avoiding pragmatism because we're talking about making people move away from their comfort zones. but i do reserve the right to cringe.<br />the reality is women are already locked into a specific techno-cultural mode. do we want to break said mode or do we simply create counter-cultures or pockets of resistance. or maybe there is an entirely different configuration that has yet to be defined.
Posted on 09/15/2006 - 21:09 | Reply

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