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What place for Women as Software Developers?

At the 8th IGF, i had the great opportunity to be part of a panel discussing Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) opportunities for developing countries and empowering women. The later is something still missing from a lot of discussions at the IGF, in spite of a series of efforts to make that part of the agenda. But here is why this is so important, in particular for the region I know best, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

While gender gap in access to internet varies massively around the world, for the largest part of developing countries the percentage of women online is far lower than that of men online. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, approx. 30 % fewer women than man have access to internet. According to the recent Women and the Web report, the reverse is happening in countries like France and the US, where women tend to be more present online than men. Yet, in places like sub-Saharan Africa,  these gaps are larger than 45%. At the global level, it is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women are not connected to the internet at all, making this group 25% less likely to be online. In this regard, it is important to look beyond the availability of the connection itself and to take into account also the affordability of price, since this is one of the obstacles in accessing the internet. Currently, for the Commonwealth of Independent States, the price of the average broadband monthly subscription of 7.3% of the annual per capita income, with great disparities between the rural and the urban areas, in terms of broadband availability, but also connected to the gender roles in the house (the head of the family usually bringing the money and deciding on its allocation).

Apart from the physical connection that facilitates access to the internet, there’s also a need to investigate the engagement of women with the use and development of software. As we know, software is not neutral but rather gendered in both design and use embedding a series of behavioural standards. In 2006, according to a study of the European Commission, only 1.6% of all FOSS developers in the EU were women. This is lower than 2%, which compared to proprietary software, makes a big difference, since for the later women engagement reached 28% of the same time period that the survey covered in order to illustrate the situation.

The FOSS community has a lot to gain from the different approaches that women might take to software development. However, this potential is almost completely sidelined by a series of challenges posed to women developers. First, the main pressure is thinking through the cycle of disparities to ensure that technology is developed within and keeping in mind the community at large, and this is also thinking at those who need it more – low income and rural populations. The second challenge would be overcoming the restrictive gender norms in certain part of the world, and going beyond the myth of techno phobia, that women are less technological savvy than men are.  In this case, developing a context that is fostering women’s involvement would be probably the most fruitful avenue for helping out with increasing the no. of women in FOSS. And there is a 4th challenge, that is that of including more women in decision and policy-making processes, as women are able to speak to a different audience, think through the challenges posed to the larger communities, look at the benefit for the next generations, as well as bringing diversity and innovate in unexplored ways if given a seat at the table and a voice in the process.

At the same time, women empowerment, understood as the capacity to alter structural conditions, in order to govern oneself in the best interest, presupposes that women are not treated as a monolithic group, as being all the same, but rather need to be as a diverse group, revealing the differences across cultures. In the CIS, there is a configuration of structural conditions that reflect both the potential and the pitfall of advancing women empowerment in FOSS. On the one hand, there are very high literacy rates, with only slight variation by gender and almost the entire population being literate in these countries. On the other hand, the computer education lags behind, with the materials taught in school being, most of the times, basic or even outdated, meaning that those who look into doing a career in developing software need to do a lot of work independently.

Third, there is also the context of limited windows of opportunity for consistent and sustainable involvement of women, so even though there might be certain initiatives to involve women more in FOSS, they tend to be one-shot initiatives rather than long-term processes.

I  turn now to policy directions and some potential mechanisms for women empowerment in FOSS. In the first place, there is a need to rethink the learning orientation, from this independent focus to a community thinking. Women tend to be more inclined to participate if they are made aware of the benefits for their communities, their families, their grandchildren. And they tend to work better in groups rather than by themselves – and this is one of the things that does happen in the FOSS community, yet it seems to be dominated by people who are specializing in computer technology from an early age – women, on the other hand, tend to start quite late. In the FOSS community there is the need to work by yourself quite a lot, which might be one of the obstacles preventing women from engaging more, as they might be more community-oriented.

In the second place, there is a need for an integrated approach that would go beyond just singling out women and creating spaces for women only, but actually interacting more with men and teaching also men about what it means to have women involved in FOSS processes. And third, there is a need to create a policy-making infrastructure that gives priority also to women in particular as FOSS is becoming more and more used for governmental operations and it might become the standard in the future for gov websites. There is an urgent need to involve women in such processes, reaching out to segments of the population that might have differentiated needs that might have been unaccounted for so far.

Last but not least, there is a need to sustainable initiatives, that should be ensured constant support and which would foster innovation. I hope we can all work towards this in the post-2015 development agenda.