The gender-code divide

Is free software a macho thing?

A stranger walks into a bar. All of a sudden, everything stops; conversations are put on hold as patrons turn to appraise the newcomer, and the sound of glasses being set down on their coasters seem almost deafening in the silence.

That's the scene Sulamita Garcia, president of LinuxChix Brazil, envisions when describing the situation women face in the open-source community. As relative newcomers to Free Linux and Open Source Software (FLOSS) and the IT industry in general, women are still a minority in the FLOSS community and may sometimes find it difficult to connect and contribute, she said.

LinuxChix Brazil is one of the most active chapters of LinuxChix worldwide, with 293 subscribers, of whom half are women, and a Web site that averages 5,000 visits per month. But it was an entirely different story when Garcia first became involved in the chapter in 2001, when LinuxChix Brazil was a mailing list with only 30 members and hardly any representation at FLOSS conferences.

"There were me and five or six girls in the 6,000 person conference," she said, laughingly adding, "There were other women, but they were on the commercial [advertising] stands."

Speaking at this week's linux.conf.au, Garcia highlighted recent findings that women comprise only two percent of all FLOSS developers; a staggering statistic which she says begs the question: "Is free software a macho thing?"

One of the boasts of the FLOSS community is that it is free and open to everyone, and places emphasis on good code rather than individual characteristics such as gender. According to Garcia, however, the open, gender-neutral FLOSS Utopia is a myth.

In reality, she said, women in FLOSS are faced with what can sometimes be insulting assumptions, as male colleagues approach them for romantic relationships involving "weekends playing tuxracer", constantly express surprise in seeing "a woman in FLOSS", or expect that a woman in an FLOSS situation "must be here with her brother or boyfriend".

Garcia attributed the gender disparity to historical, educational and social reasons that dissuade women from entering into a technical career. In Brazil, she explained, women are not encouraged to go to school, but to focus on household chores instead. And even after overcoming all obstacles and entering into a professional career, Brazillian women can expect to be paid up to 27 percent less than their male counterparts.

"Women are seen to be worth less in the workforce," she said. "We all know we have to work twice as hard in half the time to get half the returns."

As a result of poor education and the absence of careers for women, women comprise 70 percent of the world's poor, Garcia said. The situation may be improved via the principles of FLOSS, she said, which promote professional development, personal development and creativity.

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