[COLUMN] Open software movements, open content, free culture: Where are the women?

18 April 2017

In 2011 a study by GroupLens revealed the gender imbalance on Wikipedia, and there was an outpouring of articles in the global media about the notorious absence of women in the world’s largest virtual encyclopedia. At that point the Wikimedia Foundation set in motion an ambitious plan to try to incorporate more women. Above all, user groups appeared, making it their business to get more women involved as their main goal. One of these groups was called Wikimujeres in its Spanish version and Wikiwomen on the international level.

In spite of the rivers of ink expended on gender imbalance in Wikipedia, little or nothing has been said about the other open software, free culture and open content movements. What is the status of gender balance in such established and deep-rooted movements as the open software movement, Mozilla users’ groups or open culture communities? Above all, what about those organisations that partially support progressive ideals in movements?

In spite of the rivers of ink expended on gender imbalance in Wikipedia, little or nothing has been said about the other open software, free culture and open content movements. What is the status of gender balance in such established and deep-rooted movements as the open software movement, Mozilla users’ groups or open culture communities?

For example, a rapid glance at the Free Software Foundation shows that only 4 of the 19 members of the staff and board are women (i.e. approximately 20%). The situation at the Mozilla Foundation is a little better: 38% of the board are women. However in practice, most Mozilla representatives in different parts of the world are men, and it appears that this situation will remain unchanged for a long time. In Creative Commons, another of the leading organisations for the free software movement, the board is made up of 33% women and the staff is 50% women.

Although the extent of gender diversity on the board and staff does not directly reflect the diversity of the movement, it does give an approximate indication of the seriousness with which the problem is being addressed by project leaders.

Is the gender imbalance women’s responsibility?

It is not a question of apportioning blame; there is a deeper level to the gender debate, linked directly to the way the problem is conceptualised by movements and environments that had not considered it before. When there is a lack of diversity in the movements, it is women who are looked at askance, with the idea that gender problems are women’s responsibility. We are the ones who should take charge and solve the inequities by bringing more women into the movement, so that men are allowed to be more diverse. Isn’t that so? No.

Women are the ones who should take charge and solve the inequities by bringing more women into the movement, so that men are allowed to be more diverse.

In practice, one of the first exercises towards solving a lack of diversity is for men to become aware of their male privileges. Of course, nothing is more difficult than to recognise a privilege only to immediately affirm that it is necessary to abandon that privilege, and it is often difficult to understand exactly what is meant by abandoning it. Are we just talking about using more inclusive language, without changing behaviours? Is it about refraining from making jokes about women at the table?

While these steps help, there are certainly other steps that can be taken to bring more women into the movement. Although they are subtle, they contribute enormously to making the gender problem visible.

The first point is that giving up gender privileges is not merely a declamatory position, but requires positive action to change the situation. In concrete terms, this means that men in the movement must take a deliberate decision to incorporate, recruit and hire more women. Often this means more than just advertising “we want women” or “we prefer women candidates,” but implies actively seeking women out in their own spaces in order to invite them to be part of the movement and its activities.

Men are often not aware of the gender differences evident in a room, at a table or in a large meeting room. However, when a panel of speakers is made up exclusively of men, the difference stands out. We specially consulted Ryan Merkley, CEO of Creative Commons, for this article. He told us that “at the last CC summit, in South Korea, I realised that I had participated in a panel made up exclusively of men. At the end of the panel discussion I felt something had been missing. Since then, I promised myself that I would no longer speak on panels made up only of men. The event organisers tell me, ‘That must be very difficult,’ and I reply that it is not difficult for me. They have to find a woman to sit on the panel. If there is no woman at the table, I simply will not participate.”

Issues about qualified technical employees

Another critical issue is the recruitment and hiring of women, which is a particularly difficult aspect in the world of software and even more so in the free software world. The “myth of meritocracy” in the free software world excludes a large part of the community who cannot contribute to projects of this nature because they lack the qualifications. Taylor Barnett, a member of KeenIo, gave a speech at the Open Conference in London this year, analysing the privileges enjoyed by open source communities.

The privileges of open source communities add another layer of complexity to the recruitment and hiring of women. These communities face the challenge of simplifying their rules and lowering their access barriers (it is not a coincidence that Wikipedia faces the same challenge). Some of the requirements could easily be explained by the community itself at an introductory talk, and do not disqualify a person from being a part of the movement or from filling a given position.

Merkley told us: “This year I hired people for three job positions, and I expected all of them to be women. In communications and administration it was easy, I had plenty of candidates and we hired two terrific women. But in development it was very difficult. I held two rounds of interviews and I did not have enough qualified candidates. I really failed that first time. I showed the job description I had written to other colleagues with experience of hiring for diverse communities, and one of the first things they said was that I had to simplify my list of requirements. Women tend to look at the list of requirements, and if they see they do not have one or other of them, they do not apply for the position. Men, perhaps unsurprisingly, if they see they lack a requirement, go ahead and apply anyway. So this must be combated by writing a job description that includes only the indispensable requirements. When I rewrote the job description I was much more successful, I did not get the person I wanted but at least I had many more women candidates.”


I showed the job description I had written to other colleagues with experience of hiring for diverse communities, and one of the first things they said was that I had to simplify my list of requirements. Women tend to look at the list of requirements, and if they see they do not have one or other of them, they do not apply for the position. Men, perhaps unsurprisingly, if they see they lack a requirement, go ahead and apply anyway.

Valuing diversity

Many actions can be taken to bring more women into the movement. Perhaps the fundamental question is: why do it? A simple answer is that women are over 50% of the world population, and if our movement does not even reflect this fact, we are in trouble. But the main answer is that there is a proper and specific value in diversity, and if our movements fail to see it, they will continue to preach to the converted or to those predisposed to find out about the community. And in the long run this has repercussions on the capacity of any movement for growth.

There is a proper and specific value in diversity, and if our movements fail to see it, they will continue to preach to the converted or to those predisposed to find out about the community. And in the long run this has repercussions on the capacity of any movement for growth.

This article is part of a series of GenderIT.org columns, and here we feature translations from Spanish. Evelin Heidel from Argentina shares her experiences in gender, technology, programming and access; and Angelica Contreras from Mexico writes about young women and their lives immersed in technology.

Share this
 

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.