Research reveals value of gender diversity in open source communities

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In my humble opinion

Open source research often paints the community as a homogeneous landscape. I have collected stories from open source contributors to begin constructing a new narrative of diverse experience. These contributors are 20 women and men, living in seven countries.

Dedicated people have enacted some impressive initiatives, but a deep gender gap still exists. You may have heard recent conference sessions about increasing diversity in open source, seen the anti-harassment policies, or noticed the women's groups in large open source projects.

There should be a place for anyone. There are as many open source solutions as there are interests, and just as many ways to contribute. Researchers and community members have proposed reasons that keep women out of open source, but overlooked are social reasons, like new contributors navigating teams of people who have worked together for years.

Through the interviews, I have uncovered traits that contributors need to succeed in an open source project, and so far I am finding a surprisingly human-centered view, where participants praise community members who help them navigate their projects. People acknowledge these gatekeepers first by name and personality traits, but also acknowledge their complimentary skill sets. These successful pairings are not necessarily of the same gender, or from the same country, or same culture, but everyone lights up at the mention of these mentors.

None of my survey participants have demanded exceptional technical genius from other open source contributors. Instead, they praise personal qualities like "patient," "passionate," "driven," and "curious." Participants recognize that people are not born contributors; they succeed with a combination of personal qualities, diverse aptitudes, and a community where personalities mesh.

Open source projects have the unique opportunity to reach wide audiences. It is detrimental to leave out entire segments of the population who offer constructive perspectives and talents. Women all over the world are making amazing contributions to open source, and enjoying themselves in the process. I hope this research will give readers a lens to re-examine the open source community through diverse perspectives, while illuminating some positive aspects of being a part of open source.

(During the 2011 school year, Sarah Riggs conducted research concerning gender and participation in open source communities. This article previews her research, the results of which are forthcoming from the UNC School of Information and Library Science. She'll present her conclusions in a future piece for

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Sarah Riggs used to be a CRM archaeologist; but now she's pursuing an MS in Information Science from UNC Chapel Hill, where she learns about the democratization of information. She loves open hardware, playing the mandolin, and making people like coding.


Sarah, in the past year, I have attended several open source conferences. Each conference had 150-300 attendees, and with the exception of OSCON, less than 10% of the attendees were women. In fact, of the few women in attendance, the majority were not developers, rather they were attorneys, marketing professionals, and business executives. I think we need to look at a broader sector of IT, study the ratios of women engineers, and ask ourselves why they are not engaging in the OSS community. Sadly, we may just find that the majority of college bound women are not migrating to engineering, rather choosing life sciences, law, and other professions.

This got me thinking, could I answer my own question? NSF did an interesting report on representation of women in various sciences:
While the data clearly shows that CS/Eng is the lowest area for women.. there is still room for growth beyond the less than 10% I see in the OSS community.

I grew up with the philosophy of "A woman's
place is in the House.....and the Senate."
A few times, my mother left us kids with Dad to
testify to the above bodies about her area of
expertise (health care).

Our organization does not generally publish
Open Source Software, but we are big
consumers of it (and small contributors).
Much of our development is in Perl.
My team has "gender Parity" (as they say at
Princeton :-) - four men and four women.
(Actually, our extended team includes 2
other women, so we men are outnumbered :-)

I certainly would support if one of my daughters
were to pursue a CS or IT career, though early
signs point to my son doing that. (They have
about 9 years to choose colleges :-)

BSIS,MS in Telecommunication @
SLIS @ University of Pittsburgh

Sarah, could you spell out the connection between the middle part of your writeup and the ends? Is the argument that OSS project members are lacking "human-centered traits"?

Actually I was hinting at just the opposite. A lot of the interviewees showed me that when seeking out a project, personal qualities of community members were essential to finding a place where they eventually became successful contributors. Most of the past research on Open Source doesn't look at social and cultural contexts, so I was focusing in there. This post was done pre-analysis, and I'm working on a follow up that connects the dots.

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