Gender diversity: why women matter in FLOSS

The agenda of the upcoming Open World Forum, Paris includes a Diversity Summit: Why women matter? The assumption is that “FLOSS still faces gender inequality, to an even greater extent than the wider IT industry which itself is seen as an area where discrimination is widespread.”

About the same topic, Free Software Foundation hosts a caucus about Women in Free Software; they recently published their initial findings and recommendations.

In 2007, Gartner released a research on the wider general topic “Women and men in IT: breaking through sexual stereotypes”, and hosted a debate in a Gartner summit.

I am particularly interested in this topic, mainly because I’m an IT manager and in my about 30-year career I’ve led many development teams. In the 80’s, developing in cobol for mainframe, my project teams were about 50-50 percent (male-female). The rate started to decrease approaching java development and distributed computers. Now, I am leading a team of 43 people, 11 of which are women (9 playing a technical role). I think that nowadays this is a good feminine percentage (25%), but it’s not enough!

So, I will enter the “gender diversity debate” with a particular focus on FLOSS and ecology of value. I’m neither a sociologist nor a psychologist or anthropologist and my contribution is not the result of a scientific research. I just want to share with you my experience and my thoughts about this evergreen topic.

Gender diversity in social choices and opportunities

Psychologists do not universally agree on many gender differences. In 2005, the American Psychological Association published a study pointing out that “one’s sex has little or no bearing on personality, cognition and leadership”. In a word “the similarities are greater than the differences”.

In my perception – which is a shared perception, I guess – differences exist in gender behavioural traits. For example: women understand multiple views and listen to others’ opinion better than men do. You can agree or not, but this is not the point.

The ASA study says that “differences are not deficiencies”.

I think that every difference is a potential value, a new resource for the ecology where we live. Moreover, different attitudes are opportunities for learning. Even people who are not used to listening to others may improve their listening skills if they live close to people who are willing to listen to others (even in boring situations). That’s why it’s important to have a mix of different behavioural traits in organizations, at a peer level. To this end, women’s presence may help (we must just provide them with the right environment for peer relationships).

Women’s role in IT industry

There is a widespread consensus that the number of women working in the IT field is continuously decreasing. In 2007, Gartner reported that the percentage of women in the IT workforce had dropped to around 25%, characterised by a steady decrease. “According to the Information Technology Association of America, the number of women in IT declined 20% between 1996 and 2004, dropping from 41% in 1996, to 32.4% in 2004. Furthermore, there was no noticeable progress in the number of women in professional or management ranks in organizations”.

Fewer women are going to elect computer science programs at schools and universities. In my personal experience (some years ago I was an Adjunct Professor for open source at the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science degree, University of Padua, Italy), in 2008 just 2 girls attended the final course of computer science, whose class was made up of about 30 students (about 6%). In my FLOSS training course, 2 women went to final examinations, among 15 students (13% – a little success for FLOSS this time!).

Women’s role in OSS communities

FLOSS is just a piece of the IT industry inheriting the same characteristics. I am currently participating in two of the most important FLOSS communities in the world: OW2 Consortium and Eclipse Foundation. Look at their staff: in OW2 management office women are involved in marketing/coordination roles, in Eclipse Foundation staff you can find women working in the IP management, marketing, support and administration fields. Now, look at the Board of Directors: in OW2 BoD 18 men, 1 woman; in Eclipse Foundation BoD 20 men, no woman. Do you think this is a problem of these communities? I don’t think so. They are real communities living in the real IT world! Once more: IT lies in the real world and FLOSS is part of the IT domain.

What’s the barrier for women in IT?

In some cases, the IT profession is seen as “a boy thing” for computer nerds and geeks (i.e.: male). As a consequence, girls tend to eliminate any consideration of jobs in the IT field in their early stages, right from the beginning of their scholastic path.

Then, the language used in this field is masculine and not inclusive (mainly, excluding women traits). Just one example: look at the usual “war/battle” metaphor and at sexual hints at work.

Moreover, the imbalance of power in the IT industry (reflecting the imbalance of power in the human society) drives women away.

And men are more comfortable with men, and they’re the ones who pick who gets promoted.

Why women matter in the IT industry

In 2007, the above mentioned Gartner research reported some new perspectives that would be critical to success in the challenges of the 21st century business environments. The first one was “consumer centricity or filling the consumers’ wants and needs for usability, convenience, productivity and social connectivity”. Other assumptions were: “women, on average, are better than men at building the trust and collaboration that underline relationships” and “ in a world dominated by relationships, communities, collective decision making and consumer spending, women are innately better-suited than men” while “women influence or control upward of 80% of consumer spending decisions; worldwide, men design upward of 90% of IT products/services”.

Furthermore, Gartner reported an independent research of Catalyst, containing some stereotypically feminine and masculine traits. Reported feminine traits were: supporting, rewarding, mentoring, networking, consulting, team building, inspiring; while masculine traits were problem solving, influencing upward, delegating (wohw!!; women win 7 to 3!).

A final consideration was that “in general, women score better on social skills and understanding other’s views, while the perception of women as being less effective in problem solving will tend to limit their opportunity to take on leadership roles”.

I think that some of them are stereotypes and that there is no general consensus over the above assumption. Each man and woman must be treated and assessed individually, since there is a variety of personalities. But, generalizations can be made with some validity. Most of them make sense.

Why women matter in FLOSS

Looking at the final findings of the Gartner research, we can find a lot of potential women involvement in FLOSS projects activities focusing on building trust relationships between providers and users/customers, market evaluation, promotion.

Gartner mainly focuses on the IT commercial market, which also includes the OSS commercial market. But I’d like to focus myself on IT development and community building now. It deals much more with FLOSS.

In my recent post about Foundation of community relationships in FLOSS, I argued that “a community can stably and constantly grow only if its members are aware of the basic emotional/cognitive relations existing among single individuals or in a group, instead of considering the mere rational element and rough scope. In other words, participating in a community means “loving” it, where the word “love” has to be referred to this specific context. In relation to this, it is important to actively participate in the community, to contribute to its growth and to create trustworthy relations within the community itself and among its members, especially when they are different in nature and dimension”.

I think that the Gartner’s referred feminine traits matter with team and community building a lot. They are also key features in software development.

Gender diversity: a different perspective

How could we solve the issue of gender diversity in organizations? Must we increase the number of women in FLOSS communities and companies (and in IT companies in general)? Must we open the doors to them for leading roles in organizations? Should we create women quotas? We surely cannot change the whole game! But we can make some reflections on this topic.

Is gender diversity the issue? Or does it deal with the different gender behavioural traits?

Going back to stereotypes (are they really stereotypes?), organizations and teams need more feminine attitudes like peer-support, rewarding, mentoring, networking, team building (I can also add solidarity, empathy, inclusion, and … problem solving, looking at the ability of women to solve many and parallel processes in their life, especially when they start to manage a family).

Do these behavioural traits belong to women exclusively?

I know some men who are more feminine than women, looking at these traits (and women with a very masculine attitude, especially the few who get a leading role!)

I think that the key is not to have more women in IT (it helps, obviously), but to foster a spread adoption of the above mentioned traits in people in order to have a wide mix and match of different behavioural traits, increasing the ones dealing with team building and participation and decreasing the importance of competition at work.

More collaboration and less competition could be the new formula to live in the new knowledge society. Once more, FLOSS could provide the leading experimental model.

Why does it matter with ecology of value?

This blog section is about ecology of value. Why gender diversity matters? Because diversity matters with ecology. The mix of different genders, and as I assumed above, of different gender traits (no matter if belonging to men or women), fosters the growth of a real ecology of value. It’s about inclusion, addition, redundancy sometimes, rather than lack of resources.

My personal solution

In conclusion, how can I improve the presence of women (and of women behavioural traits) in the IT domain and in FLOSS communities in my daily work? I don’t have any general solution but, as part of the recruitment team of my organization (SpagoWorld initiative by Engineering Group) I adopt the following rules.

1)      I receive very few candidacies by women compared to men. Then, every women sending a curriculum vitae for a technical recruitment gets an answer and mostly a recruitment interview. Then, the process is the same for women and men. Do you think it’s about quotas for women? No, it’s about giving them a chance.

I work to foster the collaborative behavioural traits, in men and women, at home, at work, in speeches, in FLOSS communities. We are living in a world getting more and more commercial, where everything is monetized and people are becoming consumers. We must balance these attitudes with something else. Education is a key to the success in order to nurture different behavioural traits in new generations.

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