Women in Open Source and Florida's Bohemian Index

Just a quick somewhat brief follow up to yesterday’s post on women in open source.

I got lots of great feedback and comments for which I’m grateful and wanted to say one or two things.

First, I recognize the title to the post, particularly the “Canary in a Coal Mine” was far from perfect. The exclusion of women from Open Source is not – as some might read the title – an existential threat to open source. OS communities will not collapse or fail if more women are not included (the broader IT industry seems to continue, for better for worse despite a poor male to female ratio). The point is that growth will, however, be limited. Moreover the success of OS communities  – defined in terms of an active and engaged community, one whose members treat each other well and where differences and disagreements are resolved respectfully and effectively – might also be limited.

Actually I’d go further – Richard Florida found a positive correlation between gay household and regional (especially tech) economic development among cities. This quote is from one of his academic papers on the subject:

Florida and Gates (2001) found a positive association between concentrations of gay households and regional development. This tolerance or open culture premium acts on the demand side by reducing barriers to entry for human capital; increasing the efficiencies of human capital externalities and knowledge spillovers; promoting self-expression and new idea generation; and facilitating entrepreneurial mobilization of resources, thus acting on regional income and real estate prices.

The same hypothesis could could hold true for open source communities with regard to women.  Gay men in America and women in tech are both (sadly still) marginalized groups. As such, women are the canary in the coal mine in that the more women you find in an open source community – the more likely that community is tolerant and open to new ideas and self-expression.  In short, the number of women participants is probably a pretty one good metric of the community’s health.

Second, I think the stats around the post are quite interesting. So far:

Page hits: 600+

Feedburner “reach:” 2379

Tweets: 7 from women, 1 from an aggregator

Comments: 10 comments from 7 people (not including mine). All from women

2 emails: both from men

In short, no men participated publicly the the post. My inclination is not to believe that men in open source don’t see this as an issue (I’m sure some don’t, but I know many do), but I do suspect that many don’t feel like it is safe to talk about. That’s a problem in of itself. (Alternatively, and I accept this as a very real possibility, but my blog may not be popular enough to gain attention – or that people haven’t had a ton of time to respond).

As the author it is important to me that nothing in yesterday’s post lead open source participants to believe (or feel accused of) deliberately excluding women. However, I know that reading it, that accusation can feel like it is (implicitly) there anyway. A key to success in communicating around difficult subjects is to separate impact from intent. Open source communities, and the men who participate within them may not be trying to exclude women or other groups (intent). But that doesn’t mean women aren’t being or shouldn’t feel, excluded (impact). The key is for a community to acknowledge and accept that it can be having an impact without that intent – and the solution is to get really intentional about the skills, tools and culture of the community to change the impact.

It was important to me that yesterday’s post resonate with the women who read it AND that men involved in open source read the post without feeling accused of being sexist or part of a sexist community. The goal is to generate discussion on how we can change the impact since, given most of the people I know in OS, the intent is already there.

6 thoughts on “Women in Open Source and Florida's Bohemian Index

  1. Pingback: Women in Open Source and Florida's Bohemian Index | eaves.ca | Open Hacking

  2. Majken "Lucy" Connor

    “I do suspect that no one feels like it is safe to talk about.”This is entirely true. There are jerks on both sides of the fence. Unfortunately many of the women who are _vocal_ about this issue insist that they're being intentionally excluded because they're women.I was invited to form a panel for a conference on this subject. I wanted the focus of the panel to be what women can do to help each other break this apparent barrier. The others wanted to talk about how excluded women were and all the things men are doing wrong, so much so that they backed out when I didn't agree with them. I invited two other successful women I know to replace them. Both related experiences with the blame game and frustration that these discussions don't seem to get past it. One declined outright as she preferred not to accept the issue as gender based anymore.Impact isn't just determined by experience, it's also determined by what you expected going in. It also relies on someone making an attempt. There aren't throngs of women banging on the doors of open source. Women in general aren't being excluded by impact, they're self-excluding by lack of interest.Everyone I know who is involved in open source is self taught or started that way. A very few had the fortune of learning about Mozilla development in a classroom. All skills and talents being equal it's actually impossible to exclude someone from open source itself. Let's use Mozilla add-ons as an example. Most add-ons are written by a single author who was self taught. There is no layer in the approval process that makes it easy to discriminate based on anything like gender or race. As a determined woman myself I just find it impossible to believe that women who have a passion for development wouldn't start their own project. Forks happen all the time, and many of today's success stories started with the work of one or two people. On top of that, most men I know code for themselves as a hobby, writing an app for their own use because they couldn't find an existing one that worked “just right.” Someone can only be excluded from existing projects, they can't be excluded from open source as a whole.So in an environment where anyone who has an interest has the ability to start a project, I believe the impact a particular project has matters a lot more to their own success than to the success of the individual in open source. They're preventing people from joining their projects, which can hurt them if their goal is success in a broad user-base, a la Firefox. But this should just mean that a friendlier more accepting project would have no trouble surpassing their success. I don't believe the biggest barrier to open source development is the friendliness of existing communities.Open source is hard, it happens in your spare time, and most people don't see the need to make a new app by hand when there are existing ones that do pretty much the same thing. Open source development just isn't *interesting* to a broad range of people. Obviously you need to have/create receptive communities for people to join once more people are interested, but with the number of people involved in these types of discussions I don't see that being a problem.

  3. Ben Combee

    I'm an employee at Mozilla since January where I've been working on the Fennec mobile browser project. I was disappointed when I joined to see a lack of diversity there in the company — Mitchell Baker is a great leader, but it looked like the vast majority of the technical staff were white men like me. I've talked with friends about the cause, but it's difficult to see how to address this issue. I'm glad to see more public interest on this issue, and I really love efforts like the recently launched Women on Mozilla project to try to reverse this. I'll do my best in my own efforts to treat everyone with respect and to search out input from more than the usual sources.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    I am a male from the Mozillasphere.I did not comment on your previous post because it followed the posts from Delphine Lebédel, and the title seemed to reflect that it really wanted to be along the same lines. Those posts in turn felt a lot more focused on women in particular, and not just inclusion.In fact, I felt I was specifically excluded from the discussion because of my gender, even though for the first few years in this world I lived behind a gender-neutral alias and how I was born really didn't matter in the community.It is possible that those impressions are incorrect. Unfortunately, if that is the case, you will need to be able to overcome them.

  5. Majken "Lucy" Connor

    They may be white men, but they aren't all like you. This gets to the core of how destructive approaching this issue based on *visual* diversity can be. Now we're marginalizing a very diverse group because we *can't* see their differences. Of course we need to take care that a group isn't being deliberately excluded because of visual differences, but we also need to take care that such an accusation is founded.Just because we look alike doesn't mean we are. If the point of these discussions is making sure there are a wide variety of viewpoints and voices being heard, simply including more women won't cut it. The vast majority of people who try and fail to participate successfully in Mozilla (and I'd wager in any OS project) are men. Yes, people are being inadvertently excluded due to the current environment, and yes, if we do a better job at integrating different cultures and viewpoints into that environment we should see more women being successful. What we have here though, is a big huge case of “correlation does not equal causation.”

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