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<nettime> Fernanda G. Weiden on women in free software
Florian Cramer on Mon, 12 Sep 2005 22:57:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Fernanda G. Weiden on women in free software

[Culled from

<http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20050911153013536>, which also
includes user comments on the paper. According to Groklaw, Fernanda G.
Weiden <http://people.softwarelivre.org/~fernanda/> works for IBM Brazil
and is the founder of the initiative "Projeto Software Livre Mulheres",
member of the Free Software Foundation, a Debian developer and activist
in the Debian Women project.  -F]


Women in Free Software

 ~ by Fernanda Weiden

The gender issue in the Free Software community is a big paradox:
we have a community of volunteers teaching the world how to develop
technology in a different way, one willing to distribute equal
opportunities through free access to the software, and at the same time
a community in which more than 50% of the total world population doesn't

A couple of studies have been done about female participation on
technology, and they suggest numbers of around 20% ^1 in most countries,
measuring such things as the number of women enrolling in IT courses
like computer science at university, for instance.

What hasn't been studied is a different phenomenon, even worse numbers
when the IT career in question is Free Software. The number of female
developers is around 1.5% in general, and in some communities like
Debian, it is 0.5%. What are the reasons for the lack of women in the
Free Software community? I have some ideas.

When they try to integrate into the user/developers groups of the Free
Software community, most women find barriers, mainly related to two
diametrically opposed behaviors: either they will be treated as the most
loved person in the group, over treating them, or they will be victims
of sexist attacks, jokes or dating approachs.

These behaviors make 50% ^2 of the women who try to join the community
in the end decide not to. It's not unusual for a woman to receive a
invitation to a date as the answer to her technical question, just
as it's not difficult to receive other questions as: *do you have a
boyfriend?* or *can you send me a picture?*.  Because of that, women
tend to keep a little distance from the community, from the exchange of
knowledge and experience, and stay merely an observer in the communities
in which they participate.

The main problem with that is that in Free Software, the user/developers
discussion groups and mailing list play an important and special role,
since the community increases its knowledge and makes their technique
and software better based on knowledge sharing.

Another important point is that Free Software development is often
done as a hobby, just for fun, and in one's spare time. Where is a
woman's spare time? After their working day, most of them still have the
second working journey, which is at home, taking care of the home, the
children and her husband. If the men can have the privilege of doing
Free Software in their spare time, sitting in front of the computer and
having some fun coding what they want, women in general don't have this

All these things end up in missed opportunities for women and for the
Free Software community, because both will never have the opportunity to
access this knowledge which could be crucial for improving some software
or other idea.

People write software to meet their needs, to make software do what
they want. If women don't participate in writing code and writing
documentation, they will never have the results and the answer for their
needs.  That's how it is. Those who merely watch have no influence on
driving development, and the consequence is not having software that
just precisely what you want it to do.

Another issue I see. Women also usually require too much of themselves,
because they have a natural insecurity which results in less women
participating in technical discussions, for instance. It's the old
feeling of *I don't know enough to join this discussion. I'll let the
experts talk.*

Some time ago, I was in an event attending a talk about VPN (Virtual
Private Network) with ipsec. I never had submitted a paper to talk about
this subject because I felt I hadn't mastered the subject sufficiently
to be able to teach other people. After listening the speaker talking
for 30 minutes to 100 people more or less, though, it was impossible to
keep quiet and not say to him that he was spreading wrong information
to the people there. And it's not so unusual in meetings around here
to hear misinformation. I say that, even though I still think that I
haven't enough knowledge to give a talk on VPN with ipsec. The man
didn't either, though, and it didn't stop him at all.

Women need to enpower themselves with the hacker spirit, which is
the spirit of sharing knowledge and ideas.  They need to be aware
that particularly for Free Software, all the ideas, small or big,
cloudy or brilliant, are important to be merged and put together with
other ideas to compose the end product -- the Free Software which
we develop. Software per se is knowledge, built collaboratively by
putting together lots of small bits of knowledge. That's why it's so
powerfull. And no idea is brilliant until it is shared with other
people.  Could you imagine if Einstein had had the idea of relativity
and never told anyone? Would it be a brilliant idea then? How long would
it have taken until another physicist had the same idea? How much time
would have been wasted?

To make sharing knowledge more natural for women, some groups have been
formed in the community with the target goal of creating a more friendly
community for women. The problem is that most women bring to these group
the same behaviors they learned to have in the traditional groups: being
merely an observer.

In the end: the female gender, known for being so communicative, is
intimidated to participate in the community, to share their ideas
because they fear the consequences of doing that. It's the communication
acting against the natural ability attributed to women, the ability to

That's the role of the women's groups, to offer a friendly interface for
women to get their feet wet and then join the community. The problem is
when these groups don't have a clear target, in the end they turn in
Barbie worlds that don't exist in reality. Instead of integrating the
women into the community, they serve as ghettos, re-creating existing
groups in the community with the only objective *being more friendly*
for women.

Groups like Debian Women, ^3 for instance, act to integrate women into
the Debian Project, and also as a thermometer of the sexism level of
this community. Putting women who work for Debian together in a group is
a way to make them feel more confortable, but a reality dose is needed
and should be administrated daily. So, Debian Women has no mailing list
of its own to discuss specific questions about Debian. If women want to
discuss that, they should go to the project's mailing lists. The group
helps you to find the way, but will not create another, separate way
just because you are a women. Debian will not change on its own.

Another important player in the community are the groups that works
on giving to the *normal women* the opportunity to have access to
technology. That's the case of Projeto Software Livre Mulheres ^4
(*Women Free Software Project* - PSL Mulheres) in Brazil. PSL Mulheres
works mainly on talking with other feminists/female groups to get them
discussing about gender and digital divide and about how to use Free
Software to solve that. It also works giving technical support to these
organisations. Women in general has no access to technology. That's
why they not get involved on it. In Brazil, for instance, the feminist
movement is still fighting for basic sexual/reproductive rights,
equality of salaries and oportunities for women and things like that,
and they usually don't talk about technologies. I believe the digital
divide will become a gender problem in the near future if we don't talk
about it from now.

Women need to get involved in the world of technology and make it
change. And I think that's the way it should be: women active in Free
Software use and development helping to change the community, not
passively waiting for this world to change itself.


^1 http://comas.linux-aktivaattori.org/debconf5/general/proposals/file/19
^2 http://people.softwarelivre.org/~fernanda/documentos/pesquisa-mulheres-2004.pdf
^3 http://www.debianwomen.org
^4 http://mulheres.softwarelivre.org


Copyright © Fernanda G Weiden.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or
any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no
Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A
copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free
Documentation License".


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