For the last few days I’ve been thinking about the reasons why there are so few women in the Open Source or Free Software communities. I have asked female system administrators why they don’t want to attend the meetings of their local linux user group. They make going to a group like that sound as likely as getting one the guys from the linux group to go and have a pedicure or to enjoy going shopping for clothes. Not impossible but unlikely all the same.
I have accepted for a long time that women just don’t want to do these things and haven’t really seen it as a problem. But now I want to know why. What is it that stops a woman for even going once to see what it’s like? Why do they automatically think it’s something they wouldn’t enjoy?
A lot of research has been carried out in this area as it isn’t just me who wants to know this. There are many different reasons cited but one I’ve never thought about before is the impact of role models. I have a 13 year old sister and she’s quite happy to tell me that when she grows up so wants to be like Jordan or Nicky from Big Brother. This horrifies me. But it’s not that surprising since the media is full of stories of celebrities and their glamorous existences.
Looking back on my childhood the strongest female role model was that of Margaret Thatcher. She showed that a woman could become the leader of the country. But the things I remember most about her was that everyone seemed to hate her and that she was described as the Iron Lady and supposedly had balls of steel. Well, I wasn’t quite sure what all of that meant but it certainly didn’t seem like something I wanted to aspire to when I grew up.
The Information Technology Association of America released a report [pdf] in 2003 which stated the following:
Underrepresentation of women and minorities in IT leads to the inevitable “vicious cycle” of fewer professional role models for those who wish to enter the IT profession. The Panel believes that the scarcity of adequate role models and mentors has a direct correlation to the perceptions that female and minority candidates will develop about IT. These candidates may tend to view the profession as lonely and isolated or may find assimilation into mainstream networks of companies difficult due, in part, to a lack of common interests or a sense of just not belonging.
When my little sister thinks about what she wants to do when she grows up she doesn’t think about going in IT. To her it’s full of geeks and weirdos like her brother-in-law and her sister’s friends. Because of the generation she is growing up in she is much more aware of computer technology than I was. She spends hours on bebo and MSN. But she sees a computer as a communication tool and not something that she needs to understand. In the same way that I had no interest in how the phone worked when I was 13.
I don’t know what can be done to change the perceptions that woman have or to provide them with role models that they will aspire to be like. But I am starting to realise that although I expect to be accepted by any community of technologists that many woman do not feel this way.