Open-Source Software: Boosting women’s participation

By Amira Galal, Internews Senior Program Officer for Multiregional Programs

Open-Source Software (OSS) development originated as a social movement, sparked by computer programmers that advocated for all information to be shared with all individuals and that everyone should be able to access, use, and contribute. Yet, despite its lofty foundational ideals, women are a key demographic often excluded from the OSS world.

A European Union-funded study of OSS communities found that only 1.5% of all contributors were women. While a survey of GitHub members (the world’s largest repository for open-source code) found that 95% of respondents were men; just 3% were women and 1% non-binary. This mirrors the wider tech industry where women’s participation has actually declined sharply over the last 30 years. In the United States alone, women hold just 18% of programming and software development jobs, down from 37% in the 1980s.

What is Open-Source?

OSS is software that is freely available for anyone to use, modify, and distribute. Its source code is open for inspection and modification, allowing for collaborative development and improvement by a global community of developers.

Why is Open-Source important?

OSS is incredibly useful for civil society as it enables cost-effective access to high-quality digital tools and applications that support advocacy, research, and community mobilization. Its open nature also promotes transparency and collaboration, which can help foster a more participatory and democratic civil society.

Why do women find it hard to get in?

A key reason is gender bias and stereotypes in the tech industry that can create a hostile and unwelcoming environment for women. Another is the lack of role models and mentors, which can make it hard for women to envision themselves succeeding in tech. Additionally, the time and resources required to develop skills in software development can be a barrier for women who have additional responsibilities outside of work- especially when OSS initiatives are usually unpaid. Finally, the lack of diversity in the industry can also perpetuate a cycle of exclusion.

Why do we need more women in Open-Source?

Diversity is essential for software to be truly inclusive and accessible. Women bring unique perspectives and experiences to software development, which can help create more diverse and innovative products.

By increasing the women’s representation in OSS development, we can ensure that software is developed with technology’s social implications in mind so that it is accessible and inclusive for a wider range of users and communities.

What can we do?

Improved women’s participation will require the tech industry to commit to creating more inclusive and welcoming environments. Firstly, educational institutions and local authorities should encourage girls and young women to explore technology and computer science and attempt to address unconscious biases that originate at a young age. Concerted efforts should be made to promote role models that highlight women’s accomplishments within the open-source community and that can inspire others to get involved and break down gender stereotypes.

Internews’ Internet Freedom and Resilience Team’s SUSTAIN (Sustaining Safety Tools with Analytics, Insights, and Networking) project focuses on boosting diversity in the Open-Source Software development community and connecting open-source tool teams with human rights defenders to promote better communication and end-user experiences. The project aims to boost open-source software tools’ long-term sustainability.

For more information, contact Amira Galal, Senior Program Officer ([email protected])