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Women and free software.

By ObeseWhale in Culture
Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 08:44:12 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that a vastly disproportionate amount of programmers, sysadmins, and CS professors are male. What is interesting, however, is that of the small percentage of women for whom computers are a primary interest, a great amount use Linux/BSD and Free Software. Indeed, organizations such as LinuxChix have arised based around the very concept of pooling the female interest in free software. What is it that draws women to free software?

As stated in the intro, it's fairly obvious that the IT world is very much male dominated. Starting from childhood and on, it seems there is an utter lack of females interested in computers and technology. My high school programming classes are male. Completely male. I spent last summer at a programming camp in the University of Michigan where the male to female ration was a good fifty to one. Nobody needs a magnifying glass to realize the disparity.

Many people have their own theories as to why women aren't pulled into computers in their early ages. Some say it is the parental generation enforcing quaint and antiquated values of male and female roles and interests. Others seem to think it's a natural apathy. I myself feel that video games, which are one of the primary draws of young boys to computers, are targeted almost exclusively at the male population.

All this is disconcerting, but there is one particular element in the realm of female "geeks" that I find to be particularly interesting; the amount of women who like Linux, BSD, and free software. The number must be particularly high.

Now I'm not a statistician, and I don't have a survey in my hand telling me that "chicks dig UNIX" (as a Copyleft t-shirt says), but I'm quite convinced that a very high percentage of women who love computing are Linux/BSD users.

My local LUG, which is comprised of about ten to twelve "regular" members, has one woman in it, the only woman I know locally that likes computers. The only female in my high school that I know is into Linux. At my University of Michigan summer camp, one of about four women who were there was an OpenBSD user. I'm not unusually surrounded by Linux users either, the VAST majority of my "geek" friends are Windows users.

Perhaps my life is just unusually filled with Linux loving women, but there is further evidence suggesting otherwise. Linuxchix is an organization founded with the principle of drawing women into Linux, and it seems to be faring rather successfully.

I have my own theories as to what draws women into Linux. To begin, for a young woman or teenager especially, becoming a "geek" is almost an act of rebellion. Getting into computers, unfortunately, is still not considered something to be commended, in the societies of youth and traditional adults, and it's ten times more frowned upon for girls than for boys. While many parents would rather have their son play basketball, they will often oblige and eventually buy the boy a computer. The girls and women I have talked to who like computers had a much tougher time convincing their parents to endorse their hobbies than my male friends did. Getting into Linux, especially in high school, is yet another act of rebellion, this time, among young computer enthusiasts. The premise may sound ridiculous at first, but severing one's connections with a proprietary OS means shunning many of the games and software that one's friends use. For me, it meant being excluded from a lot of discussion about the latest Windows stuff. To get to the point, a teenage girl who has already committed the act of rebellion of getting into computers in the first place will have a much easier time committing another and using free software.

This is of course, my own theory, and I would love to hear yours! Does anyone have some firm data about women in the computing field who specialize in free software? What are your thoughts about why women who like computers tend to do be members of the free software "movement".


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What draws women to free software?
o The ease of female "geeks" to rebel again. 1%
o Their intelligence and practicality. 13%
o The draw of organizations such as LinuxChix. 1%
o The LUG community. 0%
o Tux is a cutie. 26%
o Women, what women? 36%
o ObeseWhale can't write a poll! 21%

Votes: 91
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Copyleft
o Linuxchix
o Also by ObeseWhale

Display: Sort:
Women and free software. | 41 comments (40 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Bias? (4.61 / 13) (#2)
by Khedak on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 05:48:48 PM EST

I hate to point this out, but the obvious bias to this post is that women need a reason to get involved in the open source movement that's somehow different from the reason men do. They don't. They can be involved because they agree with the principles, because they love technology, because they like to tinker with stuff. The problem is that women feel (or seem to act as if) they need a reason, probably because of strong social scripting and active discouragement of female geeks. The truth is, once people realize that geekdom is not an inherently male trait, then many more female geeks will show up. The only reason they need encouragement now (which admittedly they do) is because this bias exists. I'm not saying you should ignore ways to get women involved in the geek community, but I am saying that you shouldn't assume the biases that cause the problem.

needing a reason (3.66 / 3) (#11)
by ocelot on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:55:57 PM EST

Perhaps we act like we need a reason to be involved with free software/computers/whatever because males make us feel like we need to have a reason that is different from their reasons. This whole story is a perfect example of that.

[ Parent ]
misunderstood? (4.00 / 3) (#13)
by _Quinn on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 07:20:23 PM EST

   I think you two misunderstood the question. I think the author intended to drop the issue of 'why so few female computer geeks' and ask 'It looks like, among geeks, that women are proportionally more interested in OSS than men. Why?' That is, supposing women are proportionally more interested in OSS, it's a legitimate question to ask why. It's the same as asking, 'It looks like, among football fans, proportionally more women like the Chiefs than men do. Why?' It's also similar to, 'It looks like, among auto mechanics, that left-handers are proportionally more likely to use Black&Decker power tools than right-handers do. Why?' A difference exists -- can it be explained?

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Not really (4.66 / 3) (#15)
by ocelot on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 07:42:03 PM EST

Ok, so perhaps not the story as a whole. But the poll, for example, does make the assumption that we have different reasons than males for getting involved with free software. So do comments like #9.

[ Parent ]
Quite Right (3.00 / 2) (#27)
by _Quinn on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 11:21:20 PM EST

(I neglected to look at the poll.)

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
What brought my girlfriend to use unix (4.12 / 8) (#3)
by theboz on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 05:55:39 PM EST


Seriously. At my old job I was doing some sysadmin work at a college. She was going to a different school, but I gave her an account to use on a test machine so she could see how it works, as well as have a place to play with some web development stuff. She was already into computers some, so it wasn't like I converted a cheerleader or something, but I did bring her from being completely loving Microsoft stuff to using both. So far she has used IBM's AIX and SuSE Linux. Also, she is more of a c++ programmer than I am, so she can have more fun with the source code than me...although I can do some hella sql stuff, and decent perl (if there is such a thing.)

Anyways, to get back to the point, there are a lot of women and girls out there that already like computers. They may not automatically go to the fringe areas like linux and free software, but they find out that it is the best tool to get the job done that they want to do, they use it. Also, women tend to not make it as much of a social or principle based thing as guys do. My girlfriend would probably be mad if "pillow talk" was about how cool it is that I made a way to send email via SMS to my cellphone, without paying the $5 extra a month to my phone service, but if there is work to be done and she needs to make a website or inventory database for work...I am there to help her and she is gung ho to get the job done and learn what is necessary to do it.

I also tried to convert my sister to linux, but she just wanted to know enough to start X and play xbackgammon or something. :oD


Whatever (3.82 / 17) (#4)
by fluffy grue on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 05:58:24 PM EST

Somehow I doubt that the ratio of females to males in the free software "community" is any higher than the ratio of females to males in the general "community" of computer users. Okay, so a woman using Linux is noticeable, but it's not like a woman using Windows or MacOS isn't. And there's plenty of female geeks on Everything which don't use Linux, and although Everything is a relatively geeky thing, its female-to-male ratio is quite high as far as Internet-based geek communities go.

IMHO, gender is irrelevent, and making an article on "Women and free software" is like making an article on "Italians and free software," or "Caucasians and free software." What's next, "Gun owners and free software?" Oh, wait, ESR already covered that one...

Hey, my parents have cats living with them! Let's write a special article on "People whose parents live with cats and free software."
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

hardly (4.40 / 5) (#14)
by gregholmes on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 07:40:33 PM EST

Gender is hardly irrelevant here; the disparity is so incredibly obvious and strong that no statistics are required to see it.

Something must explain it one way or another; reasonable people may disagree as to what, but that's what weblogs (among other discussions) are for ;)

[ Parent ]
Not irrelevant, but the wrong question (3.80 / 5) (#17)
by fluffy grue on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 08:37:14 PM EST

The question was "Why is there such a high ratio of women in the free software community vs. the non-free software community?" And I posit that it's not.

First of all, what is meant by "in the community?" Is a kernel hacker/application writer? How many free programs were written by women? What is the approximate ratio of female:male free software, vs. the approximate ratio of female:male non-free software? I'd wager they're about the same.

Okay, so what about "in the community" being "users of free software"? Then compare female:male users of free software with female:male users of commercial software. I'm sure that the female:male ratio of commercial-software users is much higher than free-software users.

"Readers of Slashdot/Kuro5hin/etc" -> "Readers of Yahoo/CNN/etc." And so forth.

Basically, the entire premise of the article is based on a false, or at least gravely misled, perception, that "free software attracts females more [than non-free software]."

Oh, and as far as the tired "we need to get more women into free software" argument, the common counter is along the lines as "we need to get more men into home economics," based on the same sort of line of gender-based stereotypes.

Now, I admit that there is a lot of societal pressure against females openly getting into geeky things, but that's an answer to an entirely different question, and it doesn't really matter whether the software is free or not.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

ooh! more stats! stats fun! (4.50 / 4) (#24)
by vsync on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 10:43:18 PM EST

IMHO, gender is irrelevent, and making an article on "Women and free software" is like making an article on "Italians and free software," or "Caucasians and free software."

What's wrong with that? I know I'd be interested in some stats on software usage patterns across country/race/culture lines...

"The problem I had with the story, before I even finished reading, was the copious attribution of thoughts and ideas to vsync. What made it worse was the ones attributed to him were the only ones that made any sense whatsoever."
[ Parent ]

Was meant to make a point ;) (4.50 / 2) (#28)
by fluffy grue on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 02:23:32 AM EST

My point was just that any demographic category, while interesting to know about, isn't something which you can really glean any information on, and doesn't really warrant special treatment or the like when it comes to [insert field].

Like, in the article, replace every instance of "woman" with "brown-haired person" and every reference to computing as "eating pizza," and every reference to free software as "cooking pizza."
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

I'll be curious to see... (3.16 / 6) (#5)
by FelixTheCat on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:16:51 PM EST

what my hooked-on-computers 5-year-old daughter will do in this regard. Currently, she's into Reader Rabbit and other stuff that runs on Windoze (Barbie...ugh!). But with all of the various computers in my house running various Unices it'll be interesting to see if she makes this leap as she grows up.

It'd really be interesting to see if the theories espoused here about drawing females into Linux are accurate. Of course, it may not be an accurate experiment around my house....:-)


Tux is a major Cutie! (4.33 / 9) (#6)
by ramses0 on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:32:25 PM EST

We advertised a ACM/LUG hardware swap at our university, and the girl making the posters said "Awww... that penguin is soooo cute."

Chicks dig the penguin.

[ rate all comments , for great justice | sell.com ]

That *must* be it. (4.33 / 6) (#7)
by blixco on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:38:33 PM EST

True story: a co-worker used to work at Sea World, and to get "chicks," he would take them on little personal tours of the pengiun shack, because the "chicks" would just freaking melt at the site of baby pengiuns and, well, that was that.
The root of the problem has been isolated.
[ Parent ]
No, that doesn't work... (3.11 / 9) (#20)
by Whimsy on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 09:59:54 PM EST

Then you only get the chicks that dig chicks...

Whoa! Free peanuts!

[ Parent ]
Forgot to mention.... (2.40 / 5) (#21)
by blixco on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 10:03:01 PM EST

...thats perfectly OK.
The root of the problem has been isolated.
[ Parent ]
Kind? (2.14 / 7) (#23)
by maarken on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 10:38:10 PM EST

Were these real girls, or the air-head ditzy type?
Flip the symbols in my email.
[ Parent ]
sick of the damn penguin! (3.00 / 3) (#39)
by AtomZombie on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 05:30:14 PM EST

every single page in this month's Linux Journal has an ad featuring that damn penguin. everywhere i turn, there the thing is, staring at me with its glossed-over eyes. i am so sick of looking at that thing! penguins are cool (and that remaining 90% of our brain which we don't use is used to store penguins :), but for god's sake this is overkill!

from a chick who doesn't dig the penguin.


"why did they have to call it UNIX. that's kind of... ewww." -mom.
[ Parent ]
Thoughts (4.73 / 15) (#8)
by ocelot on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:45:48 PM EST

Darn, you beat me. I've been meaning to post something about being a female geek for a while now :) Anyway, here's my thoughts on the matter...

I haven't noticed any particular discrepancy between the number of females interested in Unix and females interested in Windows. I think that there tend to be more rabid Linux/*BSD fans than their are rabid windows fans, which may make it difficult to see the real numbers.

I myself feel that video games, which are one of the primary draws of young boys to computers, are targeted almost exclusively at the male population.

Let's take this a step further. How many people do you know that say that they would use Linux, but they need Windows for games? If females are less into games, they have less tying them to Windows, and therefor more freedom to switch.

I disagree that the targetting of games at males drives females away from computers, though. By that reasoning, my brother should be the geek, not me. As children, he used the computer the most, and he's always been heavily into games. I played Oregon Trail and stuff like that from time to time, but in general, I explored instead. I remember sepending hours playing with mathematical programs I didn't understand, and learning to program BASIC on the Apple IIe from this "Computer Programming for Kids" book my mom picked up. I suspect that this is why I ended up in the IT field, and my brother is simply a competent computer user who likes gaming.

Actually, to some extent it may be true. Perhaps the targetting of games at males drives the females who would end up being "marginal geeks" (for lack of a better term) to other activities instead, leaving only those who have little use for computers at all, and the hardcore geeks who are more likely to use alternative OSes.

Another possibility, based on my experience, is that females often have to try harder to prove that they have the least idea about what's going on. This may lead to using Linux/whatever (herein referred to as Linux) as a form of self defense - going a step further in order to be taken seriously. Conversely, it may be that unless a female geek who isn't using Linux is overlooked.

One other thing that I've seen observed by several people (including myself) is that females tend to be interested in more things than males. Females have a bunch of activities, while males tend to focus more on one thing. Big generalization here, and I'm sure it doesn't apply to everyone, but since I'm not the only one who's noticed, I'll mention it anyways :) This may lead to the false assumption that a female is not a geek because she's involved in all these other activities as well. Again, in this case, using Linux simply emphasises that the female is indeed a geek, a fact that might be overlooked otherwise.

I don't perceive using free software as an act of rebellion. Perhaps some females do. I personally use it because I like how Unix works, it does what I need, it's stable, I can mess with the insides in a way that I can't with Windows, and it's free, so I don't have to pirate or pay licensing fees. I also don't perceive being a geek as an act of rebellion (Though other people do, apparently. I've had people assume I'm a feminist simply because I happen to work with computers). Its simply something that I am. If this means that I'm different from how society expects me to be, then that's their problem, not mine. Ok, so perhaps that's a slightly rebellious attitude :) But the point is that I'm not a geek in order to rebel, but that I'm considered a rebel because I'm a geek. Effect, rather than cause.

I'm going to go out on a limb here. (3.00 / 7) (#9)
by Sheepdot on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:46:28 PM EST

Actually, I'm glad you brought this up because I've often wondered about this too. My response is that it is money that draws women to free software.

I am an idiot, right?

Well, let me explain. I think the growth in IT is getting near its high point for the time being. A lot of men and women have been drawn to take courses in this area, in hopes of getting a secure, high-paying job.

It makes sense that people would like something of this nature other than the just the geeks who have grown up with it. It is a great way to start off your professional life, and in most cases isn't too complex unless you want it to be.

My guess is that women have seen the amazing potential of IT related jobs and started off taking up a career in this field for that. Through time, they may have discovered Linux and open source and find it more appealing that something of this nature can exist in a cut-throat competitive world.

I would even go as far as to say that women can identify with open source more than men normally would, and would find that it justifies why they entered the IT field moreso than the money.

I'm open to arguments against what I've said, but I honestly do think that the money is what draws most women, and the open source movement may prove to be what keeps them.

I have used Linux for 5 or 6 years... (3.57 / 7) (#10)
by SIGFPE on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 06:47:58 PM EST

...and FreeBSD for 2. I have frequently mixed with other Linux and FreeBSD users (after all I work in software engineering). I have attended a FreeBSD convention. I am not a recluse. I am yet to meet a woman who I know uses either Linux or FreeBSD. Now don't get mad - this is an honest account of my experience. I know many female users of computers. I know female software developers too. But none of them are Linux users.

So why am I saying this? I guess the point is that anecdotal evidence doesn't mean much and this posting needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Field Dependancy (4.00 / 2) (#26)
by Mad Hughagi on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 11:05:55 PM EST

I'd have to agree with your view for the most part with the general public, however, in computer intensive fields where Unix/Linux is the most popular OS I think the proportion of (female/male) Unix/Linux users to total computer users is quite higher.

Since Linux/Unix is the choice platform for most scientific computing this draws quite a few (women/men) into the picture since they are faced to *have* to use the computers to do their job, regardless if they were 'traditional computer geeks' in the first place. Most of the women I know that have gone through (/are going through) the physics program at my school (not a terribly great number, mind you) use Linux/Unix all the time for their work, whether it be programming or data analysis. I guess the point to make is that everyone uses it, regardless of their sex and thus it makes most females in physics Linux/Unix users as well. Compared to the general public, that is quite a difference percentage-wise.

I find it fairly interesting that you have yet to meet a female Linux user. I remember at one place I worked they had a programming division with quite a few women in it - probably at least 25% (5 out of 20) and they all used Unix, it was a great company (lots of common geek interests!).

I just thought that this might be a factor in the situation.


We don't make the products you like, we make you like the products we make.
[ Parent ]

Unix != Linux (4.00 / 1) (#34)
by SIGFPE on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 12:29:16 PM EST

they had a programming division with quite a few women in it - probably at least 25% (5 out of 20) and they all used Unix
Unix is different. My company has traditionaly been Irix based and as there are both artists and programmers here we have a higher proportion of women than you would expect in a purely software engineering based company. As a result I know and have met many female Irix users. But none of them run Linux either at work or at home.
[ Parent ]
Gosh, even Einstein couldn't understand women, so (2.77 / 9) (#12)
by mami on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 07:01:11 PM EST

don't worry, you are in esteemed company. What are you talking about ?

You heard of OSS, right ? You can read the source code, right ? So, as long "woman" can read, I think woman will want to use open source code, duh.

How else should we learn this stuff ? Marry a geek ? The only women I know (aside from some few very young ones) came into programming through their scientific fields of study, in which they had to use it, the rest through their husbands/ better halves/significant others. Some by pure accident. What the heck.

I can't stand those stupid questions. But if you can't help it, go ahead and whine your heart out about the "lacking women in the scientific field" and discuss it in "all depth".

Who says women have to be there ? Who tells you that truthfully "men" do want us at their (professional) sides ? Listen, Goethe loved his maid, Einstein couldn't stand his first wife (I think she understood something about science), Karl Marx wasn't the most caring and let his wife literally starve, Sartre's love affair with Simon Beauvoir was easily demystified, after some Americans couldn't help but dig deep enough in their very personal affairs, your esteemed President humiliated his quite smart wife in front of the whole world (gosh, luckily she had nerves to ignore it), can you give me any reason why a smart woman would be so stupid to go public with their "scientific aptitudes" if they have them ? But of course, if your girlfriend likes you then she picks Linux, logic, no ? So, make sure, she likes you a bit longer, otherwise she might just flee through the "Windows". 8-)

Funny stuff 8-) off-topic. .. +/- 0

Grrr (4.53 / 13) (#16)
by DemiGodez on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 07:50:42 PM EST

Look I know women are confusing and it's always interesting to consider why women do or don't do stuff. But here's the thing: I can't ever remeber not programming. When I was a kid, I would write Commodore 64 programs for my parents instead of coloring. It is what I have always done.

And as a chick, no one ever told me I shouldn't be doing it, couldn't do it, or was even in the least bit suprised. My parents are older and had no clue about computers. In fact, I can even remember meeting anyone else who was into computers (male or female) until college. In fact, it wasn't until a college advisor pointed out to me that someone majoring in journalism but taking high level programming classes "for fun" should consider switching to computer science, that I even considered computers as a career. It was always just my thing.

It wasn't until I graduated college in '97 that I even realized there were people who thought a chick in computers was anything but totally normal. I was 21 when I started working as a consultant. I did notice some resistence from clients and co-workers until I opened my mouth. I am very good at what I do in addition to being very confident and articulate. So I have to prove myself - big deal, I like it.

So, as to the article. If I grew up in the midwestern US (not the technical center of the world) and didn't have any issues, then I see no reason why anyone else would. I know it happens, but I can't see it being widespread. So, chicks don't choose computers. Big deal. I LOATHE programs that "encourage" chicks to get into computers. All that type of thing/mentality does is a) water down the talent pool and b) make people hesitant about chicks who can do the job.

I guess I'm saying it's a non-issue. And should be. And I don't like free software, but I don't think its a sex thing.

-1 (3.80 / 5) (#18)
by johnzo on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 08:52:41 PM EST

The author doesn't make anything like a decent case that women are really drawn to free software -- his sample set is kinda tiny. And I don't see any interest in seeing a whole bunch of people calling him on those conclusions. Sorry, but I'm voting it down.


duh (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by johnzo on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 08:58:29 PM EST

That should've been an editorial. Sorry folks.


[ Parent ]

They want to USE computers (3.75 / 4) (#22)
by Skippy on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 10:08:37 PM EST

You'll also find MANY women using Macs (and not because they're pretty). It has been my experience that while guys seem to like to tinker, women use computers to get things done. Macs are great for that. The user interface is much easier to deal with (for a novice) and you can start getting things done sooner.

I think the number of women using unices can be explained the same way. If you want to get something done with minimum of fuss then a unix is often the way to go. Yes, initially NT *MAY* be easier to set up, but then keeping it up can be a pain. You can only reboot a machine so many times before realizing there has to be a better way to get things done. So I think that women whose interests take them into heavy computing areas often end up using unices because they want to get things done.

Hence many women seem to end up using Free/Open-Source software because the cost factor is low. I think you'll also find a seeming high percentage using commercial unices in the workplace where cost isn't factor. Just my 2 cents.

# I am now finished talking out my ass about things that I am not qualified to discuss. #

chicks don't mess around with stuff :( (3.25 / 8) (#25)
by vsync on Wed Dec 06, 2000 at 10:50:22 PM EST

Here's a comment I posted on a mailing list recently:

Slightly more on-topic: I would venture to say that making alterations to one's computing environment is one of those risk-taking behaviors that [other dude] was talking about. Consider that most hacks are widely considered to have been created to "scratch an itch". Tweak something, in other words.

I have never personally met a woman who did more to her computing environment than change the background. In fact, if I offered to modify their system, they declined, for no other reason than that changing things was "risky". Most men are also like this, of course, but more of them tend to be much less paranoid about such things. This is mere coincidence, of course, and proves nothing. But it coincides interestingly with [other dude]'s theory, and also with the fact that most famous hackers are male.

"The problem I had with the story, before I even finished reading, was the copious attribution of thoughts and ideas to vsync. What made it worse was the ones attributed to him were the only ones that made any sense whatsoever."

"It just looks...flimsy." (3.50 / 2) (#29)
by oleandrin on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 02:52:51 AM EST

My girlfriend never liked using Windows--she said it looked too flimsy. I agreed! She uses a Mac at home, for the opposite reason. I use Linux, so when she visits me, she uses that instead.

<boast>The first time I opened up an xterm while she was here, I just did two simple things using 'ls' and 'cat', and when I came back a few minutes later, she was 'ls'-this! and 'cat'-that! Pretty soon she figured out how to open terminals, run xmms and gnapster, telnet and ssh and ftp to places, run netscape, change backgrounds, mkdir and cd and all the basic shell commands......and I even gave her the r00t password so she could do some things (and haven't regretted it :)</boast>

This is of course an anecdote. However, it is true that she's less interested in tinkering with the internals and more interested in using the computer as a tool to do things. Windows is just not a very good tool, whereas Macs and Linux/Unix are very good for what they were designed to do. I think the same thing there.

The nice thing about Linux is that it combines the best of both worlds--it makes an excellent, stable tool, and it's also highly tinkerable. She can go off on gimp, and I can compile the latest test kernel. Hooray!

A question of visibility (4.00 / 3) (#30)
by Merekat on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 05:10:20 AM EST

Two points in this article caught my attention.

  • What is it that draws women to free software?
What is it that leads you to think it is something different than what leads men? If it is part of their job, then the technical requirements are the same, whether it is a man or a woman using the machine. If it is for ideological reasons, why should the concept of Open Source or Free Software appeal differently? I don't think our brains are wired that differently<g>.

  • The proportion of females interested in computing using Free Software must be particularly high.

I think it is not so much a case of there being a higher proportion interested in Free Software as much as those that are are easier to notice. If computing is male dominated, the subsection of people interested in it as more than a job is even more so, so any female in that environment is going to be very visible. eg. You notice LinuxChix only because there are not so many women involved that they are no longer something unusual.

Furthermore, in my experience, women who are interested in this area seem to be more outgoing than their male counterparts, which attracts attention to them even more. Yes, I know this is a generalisation, but no more so than the premise of this article ;) I would not count the existence of groups such as LinuxChix to be too significant a measurement of there being more women involved in Free Software. They are more outgrowing of the tendancy to form groups within the community combined with the outgoing nature of the people involved, I think.

Thirdly, the Free Software/Open Source movement has as followers people who are generally more vocal than those who just use computers as a tool. These people may have an interest in computing beyond their job, but don't run around evangelising, which is a side-effect of interest in non proprietary systems. Thus, if you yourself fall into this category, regardless of how many women you know in computing, it will be the noisy section you notice.

I've always had the greatest respect for other peoples crack-pot beliefs.
- Sam the Eagle, The Muppet Show

Just maybe ... (3.00 / 3) (#31)
by Bad Mojo on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 11:02:34 AM EST

Maybe all of these guys sitting around saying, "Where's all the chicks?" is enough to keep most women out. Maybe that's a good thing for women. I feel sorry for any woman who accidentally reveals they are technologically minded only to end up being hounded by tons of geeks. Blah.

-Bad Mojo
"The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!"
B. Watterson's Calvin - "Calvin & Hobbes"

Hmm... (3.00 / 2) (#32)
by Matrix on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 11:15:14 AM EST

Some excellent points in this article. As for young girls being even more encouraged not to get into comptuters than young guys... I can only say that must be truely painful. My parents were fairly understanding about my computer interest, but few of my friends at school or teachers were.

Strangely, there seem to be a lot of girls in the CS department at the university I'm attending now... I'm not sure how many use Free Software (as I've never run into any outside of classes), but it'll be interesting to find out sometime...

"...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
- Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

Generalities (4.00 / 3) (#33)
by YvRich on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 12:19:13 PM EST

Personally, I've long since given up on fitting into ANY stereotype. It was completely reactionary at the time, but that's probably the best thing I got out of surviving high school.

So when a discussion like this comes up, I feel I should have something to say, because I am female and a geek, but I find myself at a loss. Why do women like foo? How the hell should I know? I can't see myself being the average female geek, for I know, fundamentally, that I am not the average anything.

I guess I'm just not comfortable in a demographic. :-)

As an aside, why isn't tinkering an option on the poll? That's what I'd pick, myself. Oh, and free is good too.

Nature of females (2.50 / 2) (#35)
by amokscience on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 02:17:49 PM EST

NOTE: These are probably gross generalizations, deal with it. (I'm also male)

Females tend to like to understand things. As long as they are technicaly competent, the free OSes certainly are much simpler to understand more fully than Windows.

Females also like to help more than males. They like social interaction as well. At least half of my CS teachers in college were females, disproportionate to the ratio of students (areound 20 to 1).

As for why the unusual ratio of males to females you could probably argue forever. However a couple things I've noticed in my short life. Females are every bit as intelligent as males (heck, Ada Lovelace is regarded as the first programmer) regarding math/science/tech but something seems to happen around high school. Their priorities seem to change. By the time I meet them again in college they're studying business or political science, or "psychology".

I don't really buy the social pressuring arguments that much. If someone wants to do something strongly enough they will. Tech also has the applead of high pay, hardly a discouraging factor. Heck, my mother wanted me to stay as far away from computers as possible. Now I'm a full-time and off-time programmer. Oh, and the "males don't want chix in tech" argument doesn't seem to hold water. How many men do you know that DON'T want MORE *women* in tech???

Anyways, It'll be interesting to see if all these programs in elementary through high school to influence women to move into math/science/tech will result in a shift of the ratio. I gues we'll have to wait another 5-10 years though.

These things -have- been studied... (4.00 / 2) (#36)
by Parity on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 02:43:30 PM EST

I can't site the study, because I heard about it on an NPR show several months ago, however, it -has- been shown in studies that women tend to more goal-oriented in their computer use, and men tend to be more interested in getting under the hood. Or, in analogy, men will climb the mountain because it's there, women climb the mountain in order to be able to see 100 miles. Of course, those women who become 'computer geeks' at all are probably the substantial minority that goes against the trend in the study, and it is a trend, not an absolute.

As for social pressures - They are very real, especially at the collegiate level where many professors come out of traditional engineering and out of the military-industrial sector, both strongly sexist communities, and the 'modern, liberated male geek' wants lots of female computer geeks around so he can hit on them. 'Come join our profession and be a sex object for us' is not exactly an inspiration to women everywhere.

As for why females veer away from math and science when they do, this has been well studied in sociology; it's simply because mathematical women aren't sexy to the majority - be smart in math = don't get dates. (It goes deeper than that into peer approval issues and all that). Basically, as females enter into puberty and start taking an interest in the opposite sex they have a choice of pursuing their intellectual interests and pursuing their social interests, and unfortunately, except for the very strongest willed, their subconscious simply makes the decision for them and they start to believe that they aren't good at math or science and hence... they aren't. (Unless you play psychological tricks to make them believe that they are... how men and women fare on math and science tests depending on what you tell them the test is about is a fascinating study in itself, one which a friend of mine is working on actually.)

Parity None

[ Parent ]
Perhaps it's the games... (4.00 / 2) (#37)
by Giant Space Hamster on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 03:25:24 PM EST

You noted that:
I myself feel that video games, which are one of the primary draws of young boys to computers, are targeted almost exclusively at the male population.

Perhaps this accounts for the disparity between genders in Windows and Linux. In my group (primarily computer engineering students) the majority of us use Windows because we play games and Windows is the best OS for that. The ability to play most games is what keeps us using Windows.

Now, if less females play computer game than males, then they don't really have a good reason to stay with Windows and thus are free to use/experiment with other OSes.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.
-- Bertrand Russell

Huh? (4.66 / 3) (#38)
by tfoh on Thu Dec 07, 2000 at 05:16:13 PM EST

I'm sorry, but you haven't made a very compelling argument for the claim that a high number of women who are into computing use free software/OSS. Congruatulations on knowing a female in your high school, but this together with your other acquaintance of (admittedly few) female linux/*BSD users does not give you enough information to extrapolate and support your claim.

I also debate your claim that adolescent-style rebellion is a significant reason why women enter computing, in addition to your claim that using linux is an implicit form of rebellion. I strongly suspect that people who use linux/*BSD (and in particular women) use it for reasons other than rebellion against "The Man".

I'm a student at one of the top 5 computer science schools, and I interact with people I guess qualify as "geeks" (sic) in your book. Based on my casual recollection, I don't recall a disproportionate number of females using linux/*BSD over other operating systems. In fact, all the (vocal) proponents of free software I know here are men. If you are interested in some research on women in computing, may I suggest the following link. In particular, I recommend the paper "Geek Mythology and Attracting Undergraduate Women to Computer Science". Oh hell, that gives away where I go to school. :) In the meantime, I think you need to do some more research before you can start making such broad claims.

Why Are There so few Female Computer Scientists? (3.00 / 1) (#40)
by red on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 01:07:56 PM EST

This is an article which tries to address why there are more males than females in computer science. It's a long but very interesting read.


Windows is from Mars, Linux is from Venus (5.00 / 1) (#41)
by lewbowtica on Tue Dec 12, 2000 at 07:15:28 PM EST

Let's ignore the flakiness of the anecdotal evidence and assume for the time being that there *are* proportionately more female linux users than males.

Bringing in some equally flaky pseudo-psychology that seems to work for whatever reason (see the subject line) let's see if we can (with tongue firmly in cheek) apply it to the field of Operating System choice.

What is the basis of each OS philosophy?

Windows: Control of the system is in the hands of a monolithic corporation. What Microsoft says, goes. There's a distinct hierarchy of who can make a difference - BillG at the top, his Windows developers underneath, under them the Microsoft application developers, then third party corporate application developers, followed by the shareware/freeware guys, and then the lowly users.

Those near the top can affect greater changes to the OS than those near the bottom. It's essentially militaristic in style, and there are strong authority figures who must be obeyed. It's a 50s corporation thing - no deadbeats or hippies here - cleancut, straight, and very strict. Things get done without a lot of discussion or debate. End users don't get a chance to communicate their ideas or contribute in any way to the direction of Windows.

Linux: The philosophy here is one of open dialogue and communication. Everyone can express their opinion and has the potential of having their code incorporated into a release. Opinions are listened to, and debate is encouraged. The watchword is 'collaboration'.

So there we have it - Marsian, uncommunicative Windows vs Venusain co-operation driven Linux. "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". So that must be it. *cough*

Oh, and there are lots of cool laid back hippy hackers working in Linux development... and because they need to collaborate with each other rather than just taking orders, they're capable of communicating in a more female way. So they get all the girls at parties, and make a better impression than your typical anally-retentive uptight Windows developer.

Ahem. I'd like to think there was something in that, but... well, I know I'd rather say I was a Linux developer at a party than a Windows one...

Women and free software. | 41 comments (40 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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