Women's contribution to FOSS development : discussion notes, slides and recording from my speech at Oekonux Conf

The Fourth Oekonux Conference has just passed (27-29 March). My lecture was my first actual academic presentation of findings, which I have made in public. There were two feelings at the beginning: enthusiasm and disappointment.

Enthusiasm, because I really wanted to share my work and ideas, and I felt I had moved far from previous popular presentations done at Open Source conferences. I did not like to stick to the "one million dollar question" on WHY there are so few women in Open Source, I actually bypass this issue, and go deeper to see actually WHERE are the women in the FOSS movement, and what specific contributions they provide. Some answers to these questions might actually better motivate FOSS community groups to make efforts and encourage women's participation.

Disappointment, because all the male participants had left for another session (I heard a bit later that I have had a fierce competition with a famous lecturer), and all the female ones have stayed. Few minutes later, it was not so bad, when some late comers joined the conference, and we were actually almost as many women as men in the room.

So, in brief, my 1,5 hours lecture was not recorded, except on my small voice recorder, therefore with very bad quality. I listened to it again, in order to note the questions and the comments made by the participants (the worst part of the recording). So, here they are, in a summarized form, with some of the answers, also in résumé.


  • Women do valuable work in FOSS development, which is often informal, therefore invisible
  • Majority of women do the “boring job” in FOSS projects, such as usability, training, documentation...
  • Women have low confidence in their work, coming mainly from the fact they are not developers by education
  • Need for minimization of the importance of programming, in order to value the work of “other contributors” and of users, for producing a better and widely spread code.

Comment 1. Minimising programmers' importance is a very important point. It needs to be analysed in depth and publicised, to write about it, and not necessarily in an academic context (First Monday or somewhere where it can make a bigger of an impact).

Comment 2. On of the solutions for preserving women in the foss community is to create a space for women where they can exchange and discuss and but you run the risk that it becomes a women only men and they don't actually go and exchange into the general list.

Comment 3. I think the programming work is fundamental. There are very few people who invent new programs, and who are genius to do something good. If you write code in an elegant way, you don't need documentation. But you have to be a very good programmer for that.

Answer. Yes, if a software is written in an excellent way – we don't need documentation. But how many are the programs, written in such an elegant way, in such an irreproachable way, that everyone on earth to be able to use it right away. We need documentation because :

  • need for people to learn the logic of use
  • software is a process, and not a product. If product can be stable for years, software changes all the time in terms of new features, terminology and design.
  • need to think about non users
  • software is done is a more and more complex way, where even programmers need to read documentation to understand it or to explore it in depth.

Comment 4. I understand that programming is taking too much space and I agree with you that this has to change. But then, this opens up an argumentation that if foss is less technical, there
will be more women, and there is division of work by gender.

Answer. Yes, it is a tricky way of speaking indeed. But if we agree with the education gap from the very beginning of childhood, with less women going to computer science faculty, to the extent that you save only about 25% of women with technical background, then how do you get the rest 75% of women into foss community and the development process? One possibility is that they can start working on something less technical, like translation. Then you learn some more about the logic of the code, learn some tags, start applying the software in your practice, teach other people to use the program. You test, you see the application of your translation, etc. But once you start up, you become more confident with technology, gaining more of the geek logic.

Comment 5. One problematic issue is that women do a lot more of the childcare and
domestic tasks, which is an unpaid work, taking lots of time. I read somewhere that women do 80% of the work, and get 20% of the wage in the world. I remember it was really difficult in the 60's to get to the science school. And even once we got there, we had biology one year, then chemistry another year..

Comment 6. Another problem is related to the terminology. It is so quickly changing,
and it is so much, and by the time you learn it, it is again changes.

Answer. A recent study showed that if women take 2 hours less per day in free time to deal experiment with their hardware and software, this makes a huge gap in longer term, for someone who
uses this time to get acquainted with his tools. Just feeling more comfortable with the technology you use, makes you go further, use more interesting functions.

Comment 6. Do you think there are more women joining the foss movement these days or even less?

Answer. I hear there are more and more women joining the free software community. I also have the feeling that more non technical women join rather than technical ones. I have the impression that the computer science female (and male) graduates tend to be more attached to programs like java which they obligatorily learn in their school, so it might be more that innovation comes from non computer science field (as it is often with men, too).

Comment 7. I have the impression I see more Apple developers or more Windows
developers and I just wonder what that it. What is it about Free Software that makes it so hard for women to enter the field?

Answer. Yes, indeed. There are factors that make free software more challenging than the mainstream development (see my presentation). At the same time, there is the number that comes out of Microsoft, namely 28%, but it is imprecise who they have counted into this number – are these the
developers only, or they include also the accounting stuff, human resource and trainers. This is why I question the 1% of women in free software, too. Who is counted into this number? At the same time, big
software industries do encourage a lot women's participation, in a formal way : they create special places for women, prises (Google Summer of Code for example), big congresses about women in computer science.

Comment 8. It is also probable that in a formalised community like a big corporation, there are rules that can be imposed for balancing the situation, rather than in the foss community, being mainly online and mainly informal, it is difficult to control a more respective individual expression. An example of one of the participants, that just the fact she is a woman, the developer does not answer her technical question, thinking probably she won't even have use of it.

In conclusion: in computer science, as in every masculine profession, women need to make more efforts in order to prove they are capable and they can do as much as men, if not sometimes even more. They need to show higher degrees, and still might be the first ones to be sacked, in
case of mistakes or in case of the company's bad market situation, or even if she plans to have children. They need to speak stronger when they want their voice to be heard, they need to have better arguments,
especially if they are “too young” or “too old”, or if they want to propose a free software solution.