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Women in the Free/Libre Open Source Software Development

Women in the Free/Libre Open Source Software Development
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Author(s): Yuwei Lin (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Copyright: 2006
Pages: 6
Source title: Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology
Source Author(s)/Editor(s): Eileen M. Trauth (Pennsylvania State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-815-4.ch202


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Free/libre open source software (FLOSS) has become a prominent phenomenon in the ICT field and the wider public domain for the past years. However, according to a FLOSS survey on FLOSS developers in 2002, “women do not play a role in the [FLOSS] development; only 1.1% of the FLOSS sample is female.” (Ghosh, Glott, Krieger, & Robles, 2002). In the mainstream research on FLOSS communities, many researchers also overlook different processes of community-building and diverse experiences of members, and presume a stereotyped male-dominated “hacker community” (e.g., Levy, 1984; Raymond, 2001; Himanen, 2001; Thomas, 2002). Moreover, issues around gender inequality are often ignored and/or muted in the pile of FLOSS studies. Female programmers often are rejected ex/implicitly from the software labour market (Levesque & Wilson 2004). The requirements of female users are not respected and consulted either (European Commission, 2001). This feature is opposite to the FLOSS ideal world where users should be equally treated and embraced (op. cit.). While many researchers endeavour to understand the FLOSS development, few found a gender-biased situation problematic. In short, women are almost invisible in current FLOSS-related literature. Most policies targeting at advocating FLOSS are also gender blind. Thus, this essay highlights the need for increased action to address imbalances between women’s and men’s access to and participation in the FLOSS development in cultural (e.g., chauvinistic and/or gender-biased languages in discussions on mailing lists or in documentations), economic (e.g., unequal salary levels for women and men), political (e.g., male-dominated advocacy environment) and technical (e.g., unbalanced students gender in technical tutorials) spheres. On the other hand, it also emphasises the powerful potential of FLOSS as a vehicle for advancing gender equality in software expertise. FLOSS helps transport knowledge and experience of software engineering through distributing source code together with the binary code almost without any limit. Many FLOSS licences such as the General Public Licence (GPL) also facilitates the flow of information and knowledge. In other words, if appropriately harnessed, FLOSS stands to meaningfully contribute to and mutually reinforce the advancement of effective, more expedited solutions to bridging the gender digital divide. In the end, this article points out that while women in more advanced countries have a better chance of upgrading their ICT skills and knowledge through participating in the FLOSS development, the opportunity is less available for women in the developing world. It is worth noting that although the gender issues raised in this article are widespread, they should not be considered as universally indifferent. Regional specificities in gender agenda in software engineering should be addressed distinctly (UNDP/UNIFEM, 2004).

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