Open Source Software Communities and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

I recently was at a workshop that wanted to tackle diversity, equity and inclusion within an open source software community. One thing that stood out to me was this consistent, underlying assumption that the open source research software community was somehow different than other communities.

If you know me, you know that I tried to challenge that assumption by saying that open source software communities are no different to other communities. In this post, I wanted to backup my statement about tech and open source software communities being no different to other industries.

When I went looking for evidence, some of the information I found was out of date but still relevant. For example:

Open source undoubtedly has a diversity problem. In fact, tech has a diversity problem. But this isn’t news — women, people of color, parents, non-technical contributors, gay, lesbian, transgender, and other marginalized people and allies have shared stories of challenge for years. [1]

This is what I was trying to highlight throughout the workshop. People from marginalised groups have been fighting this for a while and there is already a body of work on how to tackle this, but only if people from marginalised groups are centered.

Advocates of open source inclusiveness felt sidelined this March when the Free Software Foundation (FSF) reelected Richard Stallman to its board of directors. And this week, the FSF doubled down on this controversial decision in a statement on the election of Stallman.

This move echoes a lot of the issues that the open source community continues to reckon with, including a toxic environment toward women and an overall lack of transparency. [2]

This is another example which sounds very familiar if you follow the current furore over David Sabatini[3], who resigned from MIT amid sexual harassment allegations, and is now being discussed as a possible faculty member at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine.

And here is a personal story about a toxic community:

It was such a short, vile little email, but everything about the situation exemplified the disrespectful, boundary-pushing nature of the open source community I was involved in. Worse, based on past experiences, I knew no one would back me up if I called this person out on their emotionally manipulative email.

I was depressed. I felt powerless in a community that had a history of tolerating harassment, sexism, and homophobia. I had been told that I needed a “tough skin” to work in the community, and I needed to “not take it personally” when developers were abrasive during code review. When I complained about the toxic environment, I was told it was “tradition” to be blunt and rude in order to have a truly open dialogue. [4]

There are also reports around the lack of diversity. Here is a report of open source having a diversity problem:

Of that randomly selected cohort, a full 95 percent of respondents were male. Only three percent identified as female and one percent as non-binary. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 22.6 percent of professional computer programmers are female. [5]

and here is some more background of how privilege stays entrenched, even in the tech start-up culture. Or should I say especially in the tech start-up culture.

“During the 80s, the major growth in the tech sector was founded primarily by cis-gendered, hetero, white men,” says Jason Behrmann, Vice President of community advocacy group Queer Tech Montreal.

This has led to a “founder effect,” in which the tech start-up culture is most favorable to people similar to those who began the movement. Since the tech industry was developed by straight, white men, it’s tough for those who don’t fit that profile to break into the club. [6]

and

The most important problems today are twofold: first, a general lack of contributors, and second, a lack of diversity among the contributors that do exist. This is driven by the prevalent idea that open source software should be free and the people who work on it should be driven by passion and sheer will (rather than by a salary). This means most open source contributors have to code in their free time. [7]

I want to highlight this with the fact that Open Source Software communities aren’t the only ones that think that their communities are “a little bit better”. See this tweet by Guilaine Kinouani[8] talking about psychology:

This is why exposure to people from highly marginalised groups is key, as I mentioned in the workshop and what a colleague of mine made the theme of the “Missing Narratives”[9] panel.

In Remote usability evaluations with disabled people, Helen Petrie reasons that many developers have little experience with peripherals employed by those who are disabled, and thus do not have a theoretical framework available to assist in developing for such technology. However, with exposure to assistive technologies, it is possible for designers to be more inclusive and aware of issues with the relative technology. [10]

I hope this allows for more reflection within the community, with the hope that it will drive change that starts with centering people from one or more highly marginalised groups.

[1] September 2017 – https://opensource.com/article/17/9/diversity-and-inclusion-innovation
[2] April 2021 – https://thenewstack.io/why-almost-everyone-wants-richard-stallman-cancelled/
[3] April 2022 – https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7vyyv/in-secret-meeting-nyu-defends-potential-hiring-of-researcher-accused-of-sexual-misconduct
[4] July 2014 – https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/leaving-toxic-open-source-communities
[5] June 2017 – https://www.wired.com/2017/06/diversity-open-source-even-worse-tech-overall/
[6] July 2017 – https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/technology/blog/problem-with-diversity-in-tech/
[7] May 2018 – https://dzone.com/articles/common-problems-with-open-source
[8] April 2022 – https://twitter.com/kguilaine/status/1520684337578057730
[9] September 2021 – https://www.practicaldiversity.org/2021/11/05/missing-narratives-in-discussions-around-diversity-and-inclusion-in-research-software-engineering/
[10] February 2015 – https://opensource.com/life/15/2/why-open-source-needs-accessibility-standards