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September 24, 2009
Carla Schroder of Linux Today published an essay recently dealing with the low level of female participation in open-source projects. Although the article doesn’t deal with Ubuntu in particular, it nonetheless prompted some thoughts about the role of women in the world’s most popular Linux distribution.
The near-absence of women from free-software development is not news. It’s been a clear problem for a long time, with a wide range of explanations and suggestions offered.
Some commentators, like Schroder, blame “sexist” tendencies on the part of male developers. Others cling to the notion that women are naturally less inclined to work with computers–a weak argument, and one that fails to account for the discrepancy between the large number of women employed in IT in general and the very small proportion who work on open-source software.
Ubuntu has yet to suffer a major gender-relations issue of the order of, for example, the ConFusion fiasco in 2008. There was some controversy about wallpaper that shipped with Ubuntu in its early days, but that was resolved, and no one swore off the distribution because of it.
Despite the apparent lack of public sexism associated with Ubuntu, however, women remain quite under-represented, at least among developers. For example, I counted only a single female on the list of current MOTUs, if first names can be interpreted as accurate indicators of gender.
The Ubuntu Women project has existed for some time with the goal of promoting female participation in Ubuntu development and use, and deserves more credit than it receives. But the group has a long way to go if it hopes to smooth over the current gender imbalance.
The lack of participation by women in Ubuntu may simply reflect women’s under-representation within the free-software world in general. But given Ubuntu’s goal of becoming “Linux for human beings,” rather than merely another Linux for geeks, the project would do well to attract more females to its lists of developers and users.
How to achieve that goal is a pretty complex question, and I’m not qualified to give a good answer. A blog post by Elizabeth Krumbach of Ubuntu Women offers some good suggestions for raising the profile of female contributors to Ubuntu, but none of those suggestions has yet been acted upon, as far as I know. Nonetheless, this is an issue that can’t be ignored if bug #1 is truly to be eliminated.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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