When Angela @webchick Byron started writing a talk about women in open source for Open Web Vancouver 2009, she found the topic silly. In fact, she planned not to talk about that at all. There was no shortage of women. Instead, she would focus on recruiting people to projects.

Then she looked for data to support her theory. Except, she was in for a wee surprise.

The Real Story

Saying that Byron is a Drupal (news, site) fan is like saying that Martha Stewart is kind of into home decorating. After all, she's co-authored Using Drupal for O'Reilly publishing, is the Drupal 7 Maintainer, works at Drupal consulting and training company Lullabot (news, site), is on the Board of the Drupal Association, and does Drupal development, design and documentation work.

According to FLOSSPOLS from 2004 through 2006, in the proprietary software world 28% of the industry is female. One third -- that's a respectable number given all of the gender doom and gloom.

Yet, when she looked at the same study and years for open source, Byron found herself staring at a sad, sad fact. Only 1.5% of open source participants are women.

So What's the Cause?

First, it's important to see this issue for the problem it is. On a purely practical level, Byron points to some Drupal statistics: 99.63% of people who download Drupal don't interact with the project again, .32% of downloaders only go as far as registering an account, and .05% got genuinely involved in some fashion.

So driving away possible contributors? Not so smart. The problem tends to center in these four areas:

  • Anonymity creates a safe haven for abuse.
  • Open source can be combative. If a woman gives as good as she gets, loud, assertive women are not called nice things.
  • The perception that you have to be Einstein to contribute to open source.
  • "OMG! A GURL!!!!!!!"

Specific things that drive women away include:

Learning Opportunities

  • Jokes - Humor is subjective. Byron suggests that you stick with jokes that you'd say with your mother in the room.
  • Dates and marriage proposals - Most women in open source, after they've done or said some geeky thing, hear, "wow will you marry me?" Such statements make it painfully clear that she's not just one of the guys.
  • Doubting women's intelligence and expertise - Watch discussions. Eventually a woman posts a problem with a detailed, competent bug report. Then watch guys who would have taken a guy seriously treat her like she's incompetent.
  • Insults specific to women - Ever commented that it "must be her time of the month"? Make insulting comments about her body you'd never make about a guy?

Did you find yourself saying that you've never seen anything like this happen? That it just plain doesn't happen? Then you'll be surprised by these numbers.


Men and women answer in complete opposites when asked a simple question. Image from Byron's presentation.

What's the Solution?

Byron shared some horror stories from the community. In all of these cases, the biggest problem was the guy's (or the collective) reaction when a woman spoke up.

The lashing out at such women can be done with a shocking amount of nastiness, to the point of sexually violent and death threats. Of course most guys wouldn't do such a thing, but in an anonymous online venue, the mob mentality does kick in.

For those who like having women around and want to help, Byron offers some suggestions:

  • If you see discrimination, speak up. At the very least it will show the woman that she's dealing with one bad apple and not a whole bad community.
  • Want girls to come to your group? Ask them!
  • Fight the Einstein perception. Value all contributions, not just code (this one brought applause from throughout the room from men and women alike).
  • Create low hanging fruit tasks to help people start contributing when they're new.
  • Foster a friendly and encouraging environment.
  • Make sure that how to contribute to your project is well-documented.
  • Start a mentorship program for your project.
  • If you're a woman in open source, make yourself known.