It’s no secret that the tech world has historically been a boys club. Programmers, engineers, hackers, makers; the majority of them are all male. Any females who wander into the fray tend to be ostracized, or perhaps even worse, garner so much unwanted attention that they are treated more like a sideshow than a colleague.
The situation is a matter of fact, but the causes are still a matter of debate. Are females really less interested in technology? Or is it more likely that there are many females who would have gotten into the field had it not been for the negative connotations of a “girl on the Internet”?
In an effort to help increase female participation in open source development, the Ada Initiative recently announced they had entered into an agreement with social programming site GitHub, wherein any female who requested a private repository on the service could receive one free of charge (a feature which usually costs $7+ per month).
While this sounds good on paper, and is no doubt an excellent PR move for both parties, who does this actually help?
Fear of Open Source
The open source world is sadly not immune to this particular plaque of the larger technology field: females are in very short supply. One would hope that the more enlightened open source community would be somewhat more inviting for female participants, but the reality of the situation doesn’t seem to agree.
The Ada Initiative reports they’ve found a general reluctance among the comparatively few female programmers to open up the source code of their software for a number of reasons:
In working with women in open source, the Ada Initiative found that many women are reluctant to post their code publicly when they are first getting started in open source software. This reluctance has good reasons behind it: fear of being told they are bad programmers, fear of being publicly mocked or harassed, and even fear of losing job opportunities. All of these are greater risks for women on average than men.
These fears are well known to anyone looking to start in the open source world. Every person who has submitted a patch or published an open source project has, at least once, had a pang of self-consciousness. In the wide world of open source there are players of every conceivable skill level, all the way up to industry leaders; putting your code out for that vast repository of knowledge and experience to examine causes a feeling that is every bit like stage fright.
The claim that female programmers feel this fear any more than males seems a bit dubious. It’s pretty hard to put a number on emotion, and I say you’d be hard pressed to find any open source developer who could say with a straight face that they entered into the community without any fear of inferiority; male or otherwise.
While this is absolutely an issue that the community should be addressing, what good to separate it into male and female categories? Work should be done to make the open source community a more accepting place for new contributors of both sexes, rather than focusing on females and letting the males fend for themselves.
Helping or Hurting?
Despite the dichotomy the Ada Initiative is bringing to the situation, their core observations are indeed correct: open source can be intimidating So how do we fix this? How do we make it so new developers are more comfortable with releasing their source code?
Apparently GitHub feels that the best way to do that…is to help developers hide their code.
GitHub’s offer to give free private repositories to female open source developers seems to be a complete step backwards. By making this public policy, it simply strengthens the notion that female programmers aren’t good enough to play with the “big boys”. Setting the precedent that any female who requests it can have the source code of their supposedly open source software hidden from public view does nothing but validate the fears that keep females from releasing their source in the first place.
I am a male who has written open source code, and know all to well the feeling of uncertainly you get when developers who are clearly more skilled than yourself review your code. Can I have a free private repository? If not, why not? Why is it that women should receive special treatment if they are nervous about contributing to the open source community? Isn’t that the opposite of equality?
But besides the issue of gender, how does using GitHub’s private repository feature help further the cause of open source software? Even the blog post that announced this partnership mentioned how the key to becoming accepted and comfortable in the open source community is just that: opening up your source for peer review:
But the best way to get better at programming is to collaborate with and get review from other programmers, which is far easier to do with a shared repository like those provided by GitHub.
Advising that female programmers use GitHub private repositories as a way to control who looks at their source code is against the principles of open source, and furthers the stereotype that female programmers are unable to operate on the same playing field as the rest of the open source community.
Make no mistake, the goals of the Ada Initiative are honorable enough. There is no question that the gender ratio is strongly skewed towards males, which is something that clearly needs to be addressed. But advising policies which segregate development into male and female categories is certainly not the right approach.