Feminist reflection on internet policies

Changing the way you see ICT

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

Cheekay Cinco
Cheekay Cinco on 27 February, 2006
3 comments | 3656 reads

   free and open source software, women developing technology, prejudice, stereotypes, gender roles, education, professional skills and opportunities
Share this Free/Libre and Open Source Softwarei (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 licensingi fees that are bundled with proprietary softwarei.

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 Policyi, 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 Equalityi: 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 Blogi) [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-buildingi 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 contenti) 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

8 years 10 weeks ago

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 Interneti was young and the main work of organisations was to get more women to embrace ICTi. 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.

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 softwarei. 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.

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 OpenOfficei, 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?

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.

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.

7 years 39 weeks ago

I think this article that highlights discrimination against women in FOSS projects is exaggerated. I am a male and have collaborated with gender iactivists 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.

7 years 39 weeks ago

I think this article that highlights discrimination against women in FOSS projects is exaggerated. I am a male and have collaborated with gender iactivists 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.

Post new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.