One of the attributes in the Free Software, Open Source and Free Culture world that I am most proud of is the seeming openness and accessibility in the patch-work of communities that form this inspiring landscape. Every day we hear wonderful stories of people joining these communities, furnished with the opportunity to collaborate and having their contributions make a difference to the very community they joined. These stories often talk of openness, transparency, equality and meritocracy, yet as many have acknowledged over the years, the number of women participating in these communities is still worryingly low.
Typically when I hear of a problem I tend to naturally latch into problem-solving mode. You know how it goes: you perform some research into the topic, talk to the key stake-holders, build a strategy around a solution and seek to implement that solution by working with said stake-holders. While this approach can work for projects and project management, it doesn’t really wash with understanding and improving a social phenomena. When I started working in community I used this approach with most issues as they were typically project and goal-orientated.
Hindsight though has taught me that with social patterns and misnomers, the real challenge is learning how to listen and really understanding the problems, drivers and environmental influences, not just assuming you understand. I get the impression that many of us (and I am included here) think we understand the issues but we are often basing our knowledge on a limited pool of input and experience. As such, I am trying to mentally switch gears away from my natural problem-solving mode and instead of finding solutions I want to myself better understand the scope of the problem about why fewer women are involved in Open Source than men.
To do this I am going to be gathering feedback from a diverse range of places. Traditionally this feedback has come from people who I have actively engaged with or who have engaged with me around this topic, and this has mostly included some participants in projects such as Ubuntu Women and Linuxchix as well as female friends and colleagues who work inside and outside of IT. While a great source of opinion and feedback, I feel like I need to (a) engage in these discussions again but with this renewed perspective, but also (b) there are many women who I have not sought input from and I feel I need to expand my reach and speak to women involved in other communities, other collaborative mediums (such as Free Culture art, design, music and social media projects) and from a greater breadth of cultures, countries and backgrounds. While I unfortunately don’t have the time to turn this into a full research project, if nothing else it will help me as one voice on the Internet, understand the issues better and help me be a more effective participant in these discussions.
I used my trip to Gran Canaria as an opportunity to gather some of this feedback (thanks to everyone who I spoke to there) and since I have been home I have been kicking off some phone calls and IRC discussions on this topic. I have already had some really interesting discussions that have already been eye-opening. I am also planning on running a few sessions on this topic this weekend at the Community Leadership Summit in San Jose which I have put together to discuss community growth, leadership and best practice.
If you are a woman involved in technology, I would love to gather your thoughts too either in a private discussion or feel free to post a comment on this entry.