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IWD 2024: Are we investing enough in women and open-source?
Fri, 8th Mar 2024

International Women’s Day (IWD) takes place every year and celebrates the goals, achievements and contributions made by women in their fields. This year’s theme is around how to inspire inclusion, and for the United Nations, the campaign is around how to invest in women. The technology industry is famous for conversations around funding and capital, where people make million- or billion-dollar bets to win in a given market and create a return on investment. 

The technology sector is a strong supporter of IWD as companies encourage more women and non-binary people to join the industry. Yet, for women working in this environment, we need both more mentorship and more investment in people in equal measure. This is not just about money, although it would be good to see more funding going into companies led by women, which currently get between one percent and three percent of venture capital funding.

Instead, we have to look at the bigger picture of how we can support more women to be successful. According to Giola Ghezzi, chairperson of Azienda Trasporti Milanesi, Europe needs nearly one million more women to get involved in the technology sector every year to reach gender parity by 2035.

A brief history of women in computing
Computing used to be seen as ‘women’s work’ - Ada Lovelace has been described as the first programmer for her work around Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine. Programming and calculations for the first space flights were computed by women manually, as told in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Grace Hopper created the theory of machine-independent programming languages, and her work led to the creation of COBOL, which still underpins many of the applications and services that we rely on decades later in banking and government.

These pioneers led the way in establishing the value of computing. Today, we recognize their contributions. At the same time, the number of women involved in technology is far below the wider population. According to Tech Nation, only 26 percent of the tech workforce are women. It’s even worse in the open source sector - for a community that thinks of itself as a meritocracy, women are still a minority. According to the last Linux Foundation report on Diversity and Inclusion in 2021, the open source community is predominantly male - 82 percent of respondents identified as men, compared to 14 percent of women and 4 percent non-binary or third gender. The world of open source is, therefore, lagging and missing out on that long-term impact.

The beauty of open source is that the community itself is built around helping each other, sharing expertise and experiences and prompting others to do the same. However, the community as a whole loses out when diversity is lacking. Rather than looking at each and every contribution as something without context, we have to consider the wider scope for involvement, opinions and contributions over time. While areas like code review will be determined by the quality of code, how can we get more people to think that they can and should be involved in the first place? While we might want more opinions and viewpoints shared, how can we encourage those who are currently outside the community that they will be valued and listened to? 

Open-source software is at the heart of innovation, from mobile, telecoms, and cloud computing to artificial intelligence. Being involved in open source is to invest in building the future, so everyone must be represented in its creation. 

How do we accelerate progress in open source and invest in bringing women into the community? Peer mentoring is important, but this can’t just be women mentoring women. Instead, we need to build environments where all are welcome and able to participate irrespective of their backgrounds and beliefs, eventually becoming blind to everything but people and their contributions. For now, we need to ensure that there is a strong and diverse pool of individuals with the right skills, characteristics and backgrounds participating in open source so that others see someone like themselves in that community and then want to be involved.

Increasing involvement in open source is not about tokenism but about improving results over time. Investing time into getting more women involved should be seen as a way to improve the quality of the code that communities create in general. It then makes those projects more applicable, whether to individual technology issues or as part of solutions to thornier real-world problems. This covers both the technical side - for example, that the code does what it says and is secure - and also how that code is applied in fair and equitable ways. 

IWD provides a platform to show how women contribute to successful businesses and initiatives. In the world of open source, we have to recognise this and invest our time and attention in getting more people involved. This leads to better open-source projects that get adopted more widely, which is what the community wants to achieve. Most importantly, this has to take place every day.