Women & Free Software projects

I have never written about this rather sensitive topic before, but I recently realized that when we set up the concept of “Native-Language Communities” back in the old days of OpenOffice.org, the general idea was to allow everyone to participate to a Free Software project. Now, the stated ability -the basic freedom if you will- for women to contribute to any Free Software project has never been offically questioned. The reality, however, is more complex.

Surveying a broad range of Free & Open Source Software projects will highlight one unmistakable trend: Only very few women may be counted as contributors (active, regular, or otherwise) . Even The Document Foundation that is rather on the top of the projects with several women on the board of Directors, part of the foundation’s staff and among the most active developers, the community likely has about a dozen female contributors. A dozen over several hundred contributors: that’s not much. It is possible to explain this relative absence of female developers by several social and cultural factors (some jobs and industries tend to attract more males than females, etc.) . To a large extent that is probably true. What these factors do not take into account, however, is the social games of discrimination towards female developers occuring in some communities.

To many women, a large social group of men they are supposed to join may be intimidating – the same could probably be said of any men joining a large social group primarily populated of women. But when what looks intimidating reveals itself as being actually oppressing , that is the moment we have a true problem. Male developers shunning, criticizing, belittling and offending female developers because they are females, even when not necessarily expressed in an explicit way, is purely not acceptable. It is neither on the most basic moral grounds nor in the letter and spirit of the Free Software movement. The Internet, unfortunately, reveals protracted bullies, the kind of people who would probably not have the guts to ask the targeted woman out, or even not dare look at a female developer in the eyes and tell her what he would be able to write from the comfort of his own keyboard, miles away from her.

In the Free & Open Source Software projects, a particular attention must then be paid to this double issue: ensuring female contributors feel at ease participating to the community while ensuring that no form of discrimination based on sex (or race for that matter) is explicitly or implicitly tolerated as an acceptable behaviour. In concrete terms, clear rules against discrimination should be laid out and enforced – the latter being the key part of the solution – while a number of ideas should be explored in order to ease the participation of female contributors to Free Software projects. The Debian Women project is in many ways a great testbed for future initiatives.

Meanwhile, let’s all remember that regardless of our personal views on society, religion, politics and other topics, no one should be discriminated for its involvement and contribution to Free Software projects. Free Software is too important to let it sink under those issues, and female contributors deserve the same respect and the same roles as male developers. Software freedom comes for everyone.

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