FSCONS keynote. Women in Open Source: what are the issues?

As announced on the FSCONS schedule, I will be giving a keynote speech regarding women's contribution to free and open source software.

Here is the preliminary summary of the keynote:

Rethink Women's Contribution to Free Software Development
by Christina Haralanova

Free and Open Source Software development is seen by many as a technical, but also social phenomenon of the past several decades. The FOSS community bases itself on collaborative principles which lead to fast code evolution, a diminishing distance between users and developers, by allowing them to work together in order to produce a high quality code, available to all through a free licence.

Even if the FOSS community values inclusion and cooperation as basic principles, it persists as being rather homogeneous by its social structure. There are many challenges for women to join the FOSS community. Research shows a one per cent participation of women in the FOSS development projects. Even if we don't agree with this rather reductive number, we recognise women represent a minority in FOSS.

We will propose a critical point of view of the free software development processes, and its definition which limits software building to writing code, by excluding other processes such as usability, testing, documentation writing, bug finding and fixing, training end-users etc. Women's contributions relate a lot to these “side processes” related to software development. Therefore, by ignoring them, there is a strong possibility that women's work in FOSS remains invisible.

If software development can be assumed as a complexity of socio-technical processes, this could also be a way to value the work of non-programmers and non-experts in the field, including a large number of women. Such turn into the FOSS paradigm can also make a change in the overall perception that FOSS is too technical, and therefore difficult to use.

So, here are the main issues:

  1. As a feminist activist, I am most often confronted to presenting the Free Software paradigm and use by women's rights activists. It is now turning the other way around that I have to present the gender imbalance in the FOSS community. Seems like a really different challenge.
  2. Presenting a three years academic work on Women's Contribution to FOSS Development, in 30-35 minutes is another one.
  3. Since similar debate is already raised by a number of FOSS conference participants, I think maybe I should present the same problem from a different point of view. In fact, I am tired of hearing the number 1.1% as of women participation in FOSS - I like to argue it is not completely true, and repeating it creates even more stereotypes...

Dear readers, your comments on the topic will be welcome. Dear FSCONS participants - please bring in your suggestions. I will try to take them in consideration.