With all of the recent argument over the lack of women in the free software community, especially as relates to the reports from the Free/Libre/Open Source Software Group, which state that only 1.5% of the free software development community is female, and that women are actively discouraged from becoming free software developers. I decided to take a new approach and ask myself, "Why am I not a free software developer?"
I've been using free software almost exclusively for at least six years now. I use software, I test it, I send in bug reports. I would assume that would make me a member of the free software community, but as with any society there are members and there are members. Using free software isn't enough to be counted as a true participant in the free software community. A user is a second-class citizen. All of the bug reports in the world don't make you a contributor. You aren't really anyone in free software until you write code or contribute a bug fix.
The true citizen in the free software community is the open source developer. They who have this shiny title are worthy of being honored and have their picture on the cover of magazines like Linux Journal or interviewed in Linux User and Developer. The more people use their software, the more of a cult status the developer has. Just look at Linus Torvalds. How many women have that kind of status in the IT world? Can you name any out of hand? Women won't get respect in the free software community until they write more programs.
But if everyone expects free software development to be the domain of men, who will make a cosy place for women developers to work? Women should not be "also rans" running at the coat-tails of male developers. Women need to feel that free software development belongs to them before they will claim it as their own.
But what will get women to write free software? Why does anyone write free software? There are lots of reasons.
- Because they want software that they can't find.
- Because the software that they use isn't good enough.
- Because they want to benefit mankind.
- Because they want to prove that they can do it.
- Because they want to get back at Microsoft.
I have some of these feelings, but my response has been to search for programs that do what I want, not to write them myself. I never felt the need to become a developer. Even the prestige wasn't a draw. Why would I want kids to post my picture on their wall?
But what exactly is it that turned me away from free software development. Why isn't my first thought to write a program if I need it?
First of all, I don't consider myself a programmer. This isn't because I don't know how to program. In the nineteen eighties I taught myself to program in Apple Basic because it was the only way to do things on those early PCs. I spent most of my time trying to write database software for my sister, and it worked. Well, parts of it did. Never the whole thing at once, but if having a completely working program is a criteria for being a programmer, there would be a lot fewer programmers in the world.
Point is, that after I went to college and left that old Apple behind, I also left behind my desire to program. I had an Apple Macintosh in the dorms. I had computer accounts, but I didn't program. I talked to guys about learning new languages like Forth and the guys seemed almost as interested in getting me to learn the new languages as they were to getting me to make out with them behind the CS building. I knew a lot about computer languages, but I didn't use them. I tried to learn C, but didn't like the book, and didn't have the time to waste on something that clearly was not my major.
Later, I found that there were lots of programs out there already written. It was a matter of finding the ones that worked for you, and if they didn't, you could encourage the developer to add new features. I felt comfortable like this and never finished learning C or Fortran or any of the other languages that I'd heard about.
So now, when I think of writing a program, it fills me with dread. I have to go back and relearn how to program. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that I must learn how to program in a “real" computer language. I'm not the teenager that I was. I have a job, I have kids. How am I going to get the time to learn? And, if I do write a program, won't others just ridicule my work as amateurish? Won't the program that I want to write already be out there and better implemented? Why torture myself for this? I'm never gonna finish it anyway, so why start?
Now isn't that a load of doubts to start a program with? I didn't think like that the first time I used GIMP. I said, “What fun. I wonder what amazing things I can do with this program?" Why is programming different? Is it because I'm female? Somehow, I don't think that's it.
Being an open source developer requires time, persistance, and pain. There's a psychological barrier to be surmounted before you even begin to write a program, and you have to have something that drives you to face that pain and work through it, or you'll never start.
But I guess understanding the problem is the first step in facing it. Time to go brush the dust off of those old programming books and cut open the pages. Maybe if I try to make an open source program I can see the real reason that so few other women like me are free software developers.
To be continued...