Open source, opportunity, and women in software

Linux Journal recently ran a thoughtful essay by Susan Sons about females in open source and hacking communities.

Sons starts by talking about how she first engaged with the Linux community. It was the 1990’s, and Sons was around age 12. She applauds that community for including anyone who was interested and skillful — even a 12 year old girl living on a farm.

Sons goes on to talk about how her way of learning technology is very different than the way girls are typically introduced to tech nowadays, like in high school STEM courses. She seems to feel like she was introduced to technology in a healthy way. But she thinks that, unfortunately, most girls are not given the opportunity to learn about computers the way she did.

Twelve-year-old girls today don’t generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn’t turn the young women into hackers.

Her main point seems to be that, as she learned technology (on a computer at home, communicating over IRC), it did not matter whether she was male or female, and it didn’t matter how old she was. But the way we introduce most girls to technology now is much less healthy. We expect them to live up to certain gender roles — wearing make-up, dressing stylishly, projecting femininity — and emphasize those things instead of encouraging them to hack and create. Then, when girls who have never had the opportunity to learn about computers get to high school, we act like there must be something wrong with them and act like they need special help (like special classes for women in STEM).

Sons also explains how these differences in learning technology result in differences in the ways women and men are treated later as adults in technology and computer occupations. Sons also seems to think that the situation has become a lot worse over the last 20 years.

I’ve never had a problem with old-school hackers. These guys treat me like one of them, rather than “the woman in the group”, and many are old enough to remember when they worked on teams that were about one third women, and no one thought that strange. Of course, the key word here is “old” (sorry guys). Most of the programmers I like are closer to my father’s age than mine.

The new breed of open-source programmer isn’t like the old. They’ve changed the rules in ways that have put a spotlight on my sex for the first time in my 18 years in this community.

Maybe Sons’ underlying message is this: We treat girls and women unfairly when it comes to computers and technology. But the main problem is not individual cases of prejudice. It is an educational system and a technology culture that puts women at a disadvantage from an early age — primarily by having very different expectations for women and men. Is that right? If so, then it is clearly very unfair.

Sons has an interesting perspective, and I wonder if it matches what you have seen in the tech world — in school, in online communities, in the workplace.

One Response to Open source, opportunity, and women in software

  1. Expectations, I think, is the operative word. Young girls (and young boys for that matter), are very impressionable. They observe what is the ‘norm’, and most tend to follow suit. But I have seen a larger number of females in the computer industry than 5-10 years ago. I think it’s just going to get larger in the years to come.