Learning To Listen

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.

  • http://identi.ca/notice/6473821 Jono Bacon (jonobacon) ‘s status on Wednesday, 15-Jul-09 03:02:29 UTC – Identi.ca

    […] To Listen – http://www.jonobacon.org/2009/07/15/learning-to-listen/ – learning to understand the challenges for women in […]

  • http://kubuntulover.blogspot.com/ Bugsbane

    Great to hear this being addressed, Jono. Kudo’s!

    A niggling hunch I have… If you want to find out why most women aren’t involved in open source:

    Don’t just ask the few who are involved in open source why other women aren’t involved. Ask those other women directly.

    Few enough people know why they do things, let alone why other people who differ from them, do things.

  • jono

    I think you make a valid point, bugsbane – I think I need to speak to women in tech but outside of free, open and libre communities.

    A good example is business: my wife has been really insightful here – she is a business-woman in tech, and I think it could be wise to speak to other women in these areas.

    Thanks for the kind words. :-)

  • Melissa

    Hi Jono, thanks for going there! As an applied mathematician and free software pundit I completely agree with Bugsbane. I’ve participated in the Ubuntu Women mailing list for a few months but as interesting as the discussion might be, there is a huge problem: most of the messages were about local meetings and conferences. Being unable to travel, I couldn’t contribute or receive anything from these discussions, and so I left the group.

    I don’t think there is a specific need to cater to women (I would -hate- to see a pink WoBuntu for example, lol) but I think there should be more projects involving women that could perhaps be implemented internationally.

    Ultimately, I think the lack of women involved in open source stems from the same reasons for the lack of women in science and technology in general, and I fully admit that I don’t know why that is. The most important thing to do, in my opinion, is to be welcoming, and leave the door open for girls and women who want to be involved.

  • Melissa

    Sorry, just continuing my comment: to me, the most important thing you could do right now is call a successful woman who works in the open source community to be interviewed in floss weekly NOT ABOUT BEING A WOMAN – but about her job and her experiences. This is what we need: examples.

  • http://identi.ca/notice/6489977 Amber Graner (akgraner) ‘s status on Wednesday, 15-Jul-09 11:41:05 UTC – Identi.ca

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  • http://brainwane.net Sumana Harihareswara

    Jono, I’m sorry we didn’t get to chat more at GCDS! I’m happy to talk about these issues over email.

  • Alex Lourie

    Hi Jono.

    It’s a great idea! I just don’t think you need to limit your talks with women in tech only – many of people (!) who do documentation, art, design – and they are not in technology directly, at least not in “tech” as you were saying.


  • jono

    Thanks for the kind words and the feedback. :-)

    I know you said you are unsure of the reasons why this could be, but do you have any personal experiences to share that made your personal involvement more complex or less motivated?

    My brain seems to be taking me towards the view that we need to try to identify resolve blockers for women participating in technology but to also celebrate great role models and examples of women doing great work in technology. Do you have any thoughts about things we can do to re-enforce a positive message too?

  • jono

    I entirely agree, and I will Randal a line to see what we can arrange. :-)

  • jono

    Heya Sumana!

    Sorry we didn’t get a chance to chat too. Email would be great: could you drop me a quick email so I have your email address?


  • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com Mackenzie

    Have you seen the Ubuntu Women interview series in Full Circle Magazine? The Amarok project lead, Lydia Pintscher, was interviewed in issue 23. Lyz Krumbach, a Debian maintainer, sysadmin, and Ubuntu Women leader was interviewed in issue 24. Issue 26 has Laura Czajkowski, a software tester and event organizer for the Irish LoCo.

    And I’m sorry my message to Ubuntu Women about the conference I’m helping with, if that’s what bothered you. I think IRC is much more active in terms of general chatter than the mailing list, which tends to be more announcement based.

  • http://ubuntutesting.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/me-in-a-floss-community/ Me in a FLOSS community « Let’s test Ubuntu NOW!

    […] 16, 2009 in Uncategorized Jono asked about thoughts on why women are such a minority in open source communities. I already talked […]

  • http://www.ohiolinux.org/dios Beth Lynn Eicher

    As a female voice on the Internet of the past 15 years and a Linux professional for 10 years, I think I have some answers to the questions that you are asking. In order to get to the bottom of why gender is not balanced in technology, we need to look at the root cause which is bigotry. The same people who gave me a hassle along the way where the same people who hindered gay and non-white collegues. The same attitudes extend in all sorts of elitist directions by excluding people who are new, those who do not work in technology, those who come from poverty, anyone who is perceived as being too young or too old to be of use to the FLOSS community. On October 11, 2009 as I was introducing you as the evening keynote, I took the opportunity to declare elitism over and to challenge anyone who sees wrong doing to say “Not in our neighbourhood.” The overall goal of diversity is achieved by calling out nonsense and treating all people with respect and appreciation. During that talk I made reference to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which was a children’s show on public tv where the daily message was the same for 50 years, that you, the viewer, are loved just for who you are. Boy or girl. Black or white. Kid with a large extended family or broken home. Most Americans for 5 generations as adults feel that they are part of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood due to being accepted and appreciated “just for who they are.” Now that is building belonging in a way that the Linux community needs to reproduce. I made the connection between being a neighbor and living the spirit of ubuntu. Those who live ubuntu make it part of their being to treat people with respect – the opposite of bigotry. When we get enough people together living as neighbors in ubuntu, we will get the diversity we seek. Once that happens, crazy fun things will happen like the resolution of bug one (whatwillweuse.com). I am a idealist who believes she can change the world. Linux can too – one neighbor at a time.

  • http://mostlylinux.wordpress.com Little Girl

    I also agree with Bugsbane and would like to add one more angle to your research. I recommend also interviewing men who don’t participate in the Free Software and Open Source communities. The similarities or differences in their answers could be interesting and helpful.

  • http://ericbrown.com/links-for-july-19-2009.htm Links for July 19 2009 | Eric D. Brown – Technology, Strategy, People & Projects

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  • Melissa

    Hi Mackenzie,

    You don’t have to apologize! I understand the utility of the list and I don’t feel bothered by what you do, is just that I felt completely useless because there was nothing I could do to help… In fact, I was absolutely jealous of all these conferences and meetups 😉

    And no, I haven’t heard of Full Circle magazine. I’m going to look for it right now, thanks :)

  • Melissa

    From my personal experience, in science at least, there is a big (unconscious, sometimes) bias against successful women. I didn’t meet any successful women role models in math until my PhD (and that’s because I came to Europe for it – I’m originally from Brazil). I think it might be a matter of personal taste, I’ve always enjoyed fiddling with computers and just exact sciences in general, but I think it might have to do with the expectations for women to like pink, be nurturing and caring, while men do the thinking.. To me, the most important things we can do as a community is just keep the doors open, make sure we don’t make assumptions about gender and highlight good examples. I do think it’s getting better in Europe and the US, but for now, I’ll still be the only woman at my LUG when I go home to Brazil later this year…

  • Melissa

    These might be interesting if you want to draw a parallel between women in open source and women in science:



  • moose

    Please consider attending the Diversity in Open Source Workshop the Sunday of the Ohio LinuxFest. Remember the old saying (well, it’s from a cartoon), “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog”? I’m very sure that women aren’t the only people who get disenfranchised in the computing communities, and I’d like to help people look within and without for how we can better make the Open Source communities truly OPEN, for everyone.

  • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com Mackenzie

    2008, not 2009 😉