Laurent is a software engineer with over 20 years of experience in software development, design and architecture. He has a Masters in Computer Science, obtained at EFREI in Paris, France. Laurent is the founder of JPPF, the open source grid computing solution, and created the French startup Parallel Matters, which provides commercial services around JPPF. Laurent has posted 28 posts at DZone. View Full User Profile

Why Are There So Few Women in Open Source?

  • submit to reddit

I'm currently attending the SCALE 7X conference in Los Angeles. Yesterday, I chose to stick with the talks in the Women In Open Source track, and I was really amazed and impressed by many of the things I heard. First, I acknowledge you, Danese, Emma, Cathy, Sharon, Dru, Rikki and all other women in open source and in IT, for speaking up and taking a stand for what you love to do. This is a very courageous and brave thing to do, in a world that is so embarrassingly dominated by males.

Yes, I'm talking about males, just like me. These talks were a breakthrough for me, as I didn't realize how ostracized women are in the IT - and more specifically open-source - world. In all I heard, there is one key fact that shocked me: 2% of the open source contributors are women. Wow, this had the effect of a slap on me, and I rightly deserve it.

So I'm asking this: what the hell are we guys doing? The world of open source is missing a half (a half!) of its contributors, and we should just be happy with that? Should we just be resigned and say "nothing we can do about it", and avoid taking responsibility for what is happening? Where is the so vaunted freedom of open source, when only males have a real chance to thrive in it?

I am henceforth committed to making a difference in this world of un-fairness. First I acknowledge that I have been ignorant of, as well as indifferent and resigned to, this situation. This is no longer acceptable. I am making this promise: from now on, the open-source project that I founded will only recruit female members, until we have an even distribution in the team. I will also speak up about this situation, and enroll others into acting about it.

I am also requesting advice on what more I can do to make a difference. What are your thoughts, and what do you think will work?

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Laurent Cohen. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Tony Siciliani replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 6:35am

Why are there so few women in OS? Gee, I don´t know, could it be because they are so few of them enrolled in Computer Science courses to begin with? AFAIK there are no discrimination in IT enrollment, but maybe you know something I don´t.

 Not much to do if anything with "unfairness" or with evil sexist men who "ostracize" & oppress women. Please don´t bring politically correct nonsense into IT.

 Good luck with your affirmative-action, reverse-discriminating style female recruiting. Let us know how it goes.


Amir Laher replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 10:26am

Haha, I can't help but agree with Mr Siciliano here. He sounds a little bit snidey but he has a fair point. There just arent very many women who *want* to do programming. I'm sure that many female programmers come up against sexism in the workplace, as much as in other male-dominated industries, and these issues are worth discussing. However, in terms of software output, the figures you're quoting don't surprise me at all - 99% of women I know would rather be doing something else - anything else!

Porter Woodward replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 10:45am

While the above issue of low enrollment in Comp-Sci is certainly a factor.  It's far from the only factor.  Open Source software - has a lot of work - not all of it in "coding";  don't forget UI design, documentation, etc.

I'm not saying that, that is "women's work" - far from it.

In general women are gently or not so gently directed away from comp-sci and IT.  Part of it is due to the attitudes of educators and part of it is due to the practicioners in the field.  The question to ask yourself is _why_ 99% of women you know would rather be doing something else.

For my money it's too much waving of e-penii.  

Tim O'farrell replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 10:47am

I can only think that this is flamebait...

Ray Walker replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 11:11am



I would imagine there are a number of cultural reasons for that.  But that aside, and focusing on open source in particular, I would venture to guess that the reputation of the hardcore attitudes of open source developers plays a role.  Yes, Ubuntu and others have made a lot of headway in softening the attitude but it still persists to a large degree.  And if it's someone's first exposure to that world, they might think twice about becoming a participant. Look at many of the responses to the cries of help with sarcasm and the RTFM (translated: you're not trying hard enough to solve your own problem and it's right there in front of you, you idiot!) on the various Linux forums.  Linux is a tough crowd that doesn't suffers fools.  It's no different than the alpha male attitude in other disciplines and certainly other software.  I suspect there are a number of people who would love to learn Linux but are driven away because of the lack of a coddling supportive attitude towards apprentices.  Now, I'm not singling out Linux on this as most software developers have this attitude in one way or another.  Perhaps is time to rethink the RTFM! response and offer a more supportive attitude towards those taking the initiative to learn a complicated field. After all, we need them.

Ray Walker replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 11:12am


Amir Laher replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 12:18pm

@pwoodward: I take your point, that a smart-arse-male -dominated industry makes it less conducive to female participation. That's true in many walks of life.

I guess the point of the author here was highlighting problems women have faced in the field. Having worked with a couple of female developers, I have noticed a couple of times where a female colleague's work seemed to be questioned more readily than that of male colleagues. It's hard to tell though, with such an informal level of observation.

Perhaps Mr Cohen could go further in describing how these problems have come about, or what he heard at this conference?



Mike P(Okidoky) replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 12:32pm

As long as parents don't properly stimulate and encourage their kids to develop properly, they remain left to be raised by mindless crap like reality shows and today's dumb stupid crappy music.

Fix that, and you'll see the difference trickle down everywhere, including open source participants.

Tim O'farrell replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 12:39pm

I think when people are told to RTFM, it has nothing to do with their gender, and much of the time it is well deserved.

If developers spent the time to answer every single question from a noob who has been too lazy to even google for the answer themselves (and just wants somebody else to do it for them), then there would be little or no time for development. (I do admit that there are times when responses to such requests should be put more tactfully.)

Conversely, if a person makes some effort to formulate their question logically and shows that they have at least put some effort into finding an answer on their own, in most open source communities the user gets a respectful reply. (Respect is returned for respect)

I don't feel that this could or should be changed - If a person cannot take the time to ask a question properly then regardless of gender it is most likely they will be of little or no use to the community where many hours of time may be required. 


Laurent Cohen replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 1:40pm in response to: Amir Laher

I believe there are indeed a set of cultural biases that make the IT, and especially open source, realm, less attractive to females than to males. And this starts with education as well.

When I see a 98% vs. 2% discrepency, I have no doubt that something is not working in our society. I also believe that pretending there is no problem is part of the problem.

If you want to read more about it, here are a few links, and feel free to look for yourself on the subject:

Richard D. Jackson replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 4:49pm

If you stop and think about it most participants in open source software projects are doing so in there spare time. They do this for various reasons which I'm not going to go into here. But lets look at the part that I think drives most women from participation "spare time" or "done after work at night and on the weekend". Now lets look at my wife who is also in IT and does know what she is doing. Her attitude is that she is not about to give up her free time to do more IT work when she could be doing other things (no matter what that other thing may be). And yes I have tried to get her involved in at least helping with some of the open source software she uses but with the same response (She is not going to give up her free time). I even asked if she was intimidated by the rudeness in the various groups and she told me that it did not bother her as she has the same attitude when the user won't bother to RTFM. Actually she tells the Male developers she supports to RTFM all the time but will generally point out the part of the manual they need to read. So the problem at least as far as my wife goes is not attitudes it is all about time and what she would prefer to do with it.

Now on to the Male participant. Lets be honest here Men in general are obsessive and for some reason we want to do more of what we do at work in our spare time. True we will do other things as well but we still spend some of our free time if not most of it working on open source projects. Why because we are obssesed with software that is all we really want to do even when that means giving up some of our free time.

I really hope you can find women that want to participate as we could really use their input. I'm just not sure that you will find them. Most of the female developers I know have the same attitude as my wife (They would prefer to do something else with there free time).


Hontvári József... replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 5:30pm

The proportion of males to females in my university class was exactly 2%. 

Ray Walker replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 7:00pm in response to: Tim O'farrell

"If developers spent the time to answer every single question from a noob who has been too lazy to even google for the answer themselves..."


And there it is: the tough guy approach assuming that the burden of research lies with the questioner.  You're right, it has nothing to do with gender, but who do you think is going to shy away faster from those kind of sentiments?  The burden of apprenticeship lies with the mentor.   Even your use of "noob" is a smug term.  As a developer of OS kernels for over 30 years, I have taught hunderds of "noobs."  You're wrong.  You can answer all their questions if you're willing.  It's not that hard.

Ray Walker replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 7:22pm in response to: Richard D. Jackson

"I even asked if she was intimidated by the rudeness in the various groups and she told me that it did not bother her as she has the same attitud..."


The problem with this comparison is that your wife has already been indoctrinated into the male culture of IT.  The question is why do so many shy away from it to begin with.  The assumption that it takes a tough personality to weather the hours of dedication is false.  There are plenty of female academics, which itself demonstrates they can handle hours of dedication.  The problem with the programming field over the years is that since the advent of the PC it has attracted quite a number of petulant hobbyists who like to engage in intellectual chest thumping.  They create a barrier that you can only enter if you're intellectually tough enough.  This barrier is also found in physics.  It used to be there were quite a number of women programmers (Grace Hopper anyone?) when the field was mostly filled with professionals.


Alex Ruiz replied on Tue, 2009/02/24 - 11:31pm

"I am making this promise: from now on, the open-source project that I founded will only recruit female members, until we have an even distribution in the team."

You have good intentions, but don't do anybody any favors. Just recruit members by their merits/skills, people that can make a project grow.

BTW, my OS project has a female member, who happens to be the co-founder.



Zqudlyba Navis replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 1:04am

Women in IT can be found mostly in the following areas :
  • Testing
  • Web design
  • Project management
  • Business Analysis
  • Help Desk
  • Software Configuration Administration

Milos Silhanek replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 1:37am

There is a few women in IT - for typing or testing.
Women do not program for their own enjoying and for free.

Laurent Cohen replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 2:49am in response to: Ray Walker

[... The burden of apprenticeship lies with the mentor ...]

Exactly. If you want your project to be used, you have to be willing to educate its users.  If people don't read the doc, maybe it's not so easy to find, or maye it can be improved in some way. It is a way to have even beginners contribute, if only in a small way. I personally am grateful when a user tells me that a part of the doc I wrote is unclear, for it is the best (and only) feedback I ever get.

In the end, it's up to us to choose whether we want to see users as a bunch of annoying peole or as potential contributors. We've all been "noobs" at some time, and the fact we had to go through some tough reactions to our questions doesn't mean we have to put our users through the same process. As I said, we choose...

Michele Scaramal replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 3:21am

Honestly, 80% of computer jobs suck, the idea of "being a software engineer" (= working 40 hours a week in front of a computer, trying to solve complex problems...or still worse working at some tedious task or with mediocre colleagues, for presumptuous people with a necktie that don't recognize the meaning of what you do, and don't even care to ask you anything about it...and whenever you try to explain something to them they just fake they are listening) not so appealing. How could you blame girls for choosing other professions? Ok 20% of the jobs in computer science are very interesting, but the overall reputation of the "enjoyability" of the profession is very low in my opinion. Maybe girls are smarter than boys. Miguel

Tim O'farrell replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 6:41am in response to: Ray Walker

Not to get into a flame war here, but I have to disagree with you on this one. Most of the boards you mention are not a "master apprentice" situation, but an unknown entity who comes along to ask a single question. Most of the time, you never hear from them again - in many cases not even a thank you.

This is a matter of respect - as I pointed out in my original comment. When a person comes along without at least trying to answer the question for themselves, they are effectively saying:

"I value my time highly, and do not think this problem is worthy of my time. But I am willing to use your time on it..."

This is a highly disrespectful attitude, and no wonder it is met with rudeness in response! People in IT have faced this a lot - from the "Will you fix my computer (While I go watch television) " crowd to the people who ask questions that have already been answered and the answers are easily publicly available.

 This is not a "tough guy" stance - it is a "show us respect and you will get the same" stance. As I said before, most of the time when that respect is shown, an open source community is more than happy to help anyone coming to them for assistance.

I would never advocate being rude to anyone as I think it degrades the whole community. Responses to individuals whe clearly have little interest in helping themselves tend to be product specific - For software that is designed to be used by anyone (e.g.: Ubuntu), those asking questions are cut more slack. For products with a more technical audience (e.g.: Tomcat), more is expected of the person asking the question.

I think the issue (as another commenter pointed out) is not with rudeness, but with less women in IT, and that they tend to be have more obsessive personalities.

Michele Scaramal replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 5:39am

I don't know how do you expect open source project to be staffed with 50 % men and 50 % women when the average IT project is staffed with 85% males and 15 % females. Don't you think open source with respect to gender roles is a representative subset of the overall state of the IT sector? Michele

Laurent Cohen replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 7:37am in response to: Michele Scaramal

Hi Michele,

[Don't you think open source with respect to gender roles is a representative subset of the overall state of the IT sector?]

Indeed, I agree that it is representative. I just don't see why it should remain that way. I am simply acknowledging that I, personally, have been encouraging this situation, if only by refusing to see it. I'm also committed to making a difference, as small as it might be, and the only way I know is by example, by doing something that may (or may not) inspire others and open up new possibilities, for all genders, in the open source and IT worlds.

 I don't know if this will work or not, I just know that "nothing" is one of the worst things I can do.


Michele Scaramal replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 9:18am in response to: Laurent Cohen

I'm afraid I don't understand your point. I can't understand why would you want to change this situation... you are trying to create a problem that doesn't exist. To me the matter is simple: most women don't like IT's professions. It's as simple as that. And there's nothing wrong with it. At least as far as I can see.

Colin Mainoo replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 1:22pm

I agree that is it a problem if people who want to be involved are disuaded from doing so.

However  I don't find it surprising that the number of women who want to spend their spare time writing code is much lower than the number of men.

You may as well complain about the % of non geeks writing open source code ;)  




Rebecca Reamy replied on Wed, 2009/02/25 - 4:22pm I read through the posts on here, and I am a woman in IT.  I am a software engineer.  I love what I do.  But, I have not yet participated in an open source project.

 My reasons for not participating in open source are the following(these are my reasons alone, and may not pertain to other female developers) :

1) Even though I love what I do, I don't want to spend my free time on doing more software development projects.  I do spend a fair amoutn of my free time reading trying to become better at my job that way.

2) I never felt like I had the expertise to work on an open source project.  I always held the preconception that the people that worked on open source were THE experts in the field.

3) It is quite an investment of time to pick the open source project to work on.  I have never had the motivation to dig through all of the open source projects out there to pick the one that I wanted to work on.

 As I said, these are my reasons, and mine alone.  I love what I do, but I can see that it isn't for everyone, men and women alike.

As for why more women don't come into the industry, I really can't say why since I obviously chose to be a part of it.  Perhaps it is personality, perhaps it has something to do with trying to work in a male dominated field scares women away...I just don't know, and unfortunately do not have any insight into this. 

Bruno Vernay replied on Thu, 2009/02/26 - 8:08am

If we read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, there is this idea that men enjoy spending time alone with a machine  as  women would better communicate with other human being.

So, does the programming/procrastinating/lonelyness fits with Male's nature ?

If you watch Irina Slutsky, you will see that there are geek women, but in communication, not in programming.

Maybe coding should and will evolve to a more social work. (I strongly believe that it will be the case, with both "social" IDE: Jazz IBM;  Bespin (Mozilla) ; ECCO (SourceForge) ...  AND code search engines.   More on collaborative IDE and other tools.)

And maybe the %  did count commiters and not organisers or other non coding work ?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.