Open Source research ideas

If you had a research team at your disposal to study women in open source, what would you set them doing?

My biggest wishlist item would be to look at retention of women in open source. How long do we stay on individual projects and in the community as a whole, and what makes us leave?

Another one would be to study how financial support for open source work is distributed. Who gets paid to work on open source, attend conferences, has hardware donated, etc? Is there a gender gap? (Might want to study within companies that use open source, but are not explicitly open source companies, for this one.)

Related: Do people mostly work on open source during work hours or leisure time? How do disparities in available leisure time affect open source contributions? (Would love to see this visualised as coloured timelines.)

What Women-In-Open-Source studies would your team of researchers do?

22 thoughts on “Open Source research ideas

  1. srl

    I’d tack something onto your retention question about the style and medium of social interactions for projects. What are the differences in retention between projects that do lots of business on IRC versus ones that do lots of business on email? (Having seen a lot of… antisocial behavior on IRC that doesn’t usually make it to mailing lists.)

    I’d also be interested in the formal versus informal CS/etc training of women who do stuff in open source, and whether that has anything to do with retention.

    1. Skud Post author

      Yeah, I was also thinking of something along the lines of looking at mailing list archives and IRC logs and studying the prevalence of anti-social behaviour and seeing if there were any patterns based on eg. size of project, age of project, existence of behavioural guidelines in the community.

  2. Mary

    I’d be interested in finding out about concurrent interests/hobbies of men and women in open source. If they differed in aggregate, I would look at the other hobbies in terms of social interactions, how volunteer and paid opportunities are constructed when volunteering in that area, and similar things and comparing/contrasting with open source.

    Based on anecdotal problems, I’d be interested in looking at mainly/entirely open source companies for some of your questions too. Is their applicant pool representative of the gender ratio in either open source or overall software? Are their hires representative of their applicant pool?

    1. Skud Post author

      Do open source companies actually have applicant pools? The ones I’ve worked for seem to recruit mostly by word of mouth. I guess it might be different for the Red Hats and Canonicals, though; the explicitly open source companies I’ve worked for (as opposed to companies that use open source) have been small.

      1. Mary

        Yeah, the bigger ones have job ads section on their websites and so on. I don’t know their hiring patterns well, but it seems that for things where there is a big community of developers,, say, Ubuntu packaging itself, the paid developers are hired out of the community. But for specific skill sets that the community doesn’t tend to develop, say kernel development, they’re going through all of community, word of mouth, traditional recruitment, whatever works.

  3. Quinn Weaver

    I’d like to know what kind of projects female hackers work on (or what kind they wish they could work on). Do they have different visions of open-source software’s potential than male hackers do?

    1. Skud Post author

      Mmm, that’s a good one. Maybe also the kinds of work women do on the projects? Are women disproportionately working on “soft” stuff (documentation, etc) and does this actually reflect their skills and experience?

      1. Mary

        Another thought might be matching men and women for, say, years of experience, education and similar relevant characteristics and comparing salary, job title, job responsibilities, conference speaking engagements, keynotes given, and similar marks of paid and volunteer developer status.

  4. James Morris

    I think it’d be interesting to look at why people choose a career (or hobby) in computing in the first place, setting aside discussions about personal interest in the field (how many surgeons were deeply interested in anatomy as teenagers?)

    I suspect we’re losing a lot of women before they even start, because other professional fields (such as medicine, law and accounting) provide much better career support and lifestyle options.

    A man usually doesn’t have to think about what happens if they need to take a few years out of the industry to have children — what happens to IT skills in that time?

    I think there are plenty of other questions along this line.

    1. Skud Post author

      The stuff about why girls don’t get into computing has been done before — see Unlocking the Clubhouse. As has the stuff on the effects of having kids on careers, I”m pretty sure, though I don’t have a cite for it. Neither is really specific to open source.

      1. James Morris

        I’ve just added it to my amazon wishlist & will buy it next time I buy stuff from there (probably within the next week).

  5. jadelennox

    I would really focus on the financial compensation part. We know what the leisure time research will show, and ultimately, there’s so much research saying that women don’t excel in [anything women don't excel in] because the people who do excel at it aren’t responsible for child care and home care that one more nail in that coffin won’t help.

    On the other hand, have worked in many software companies where it was taken for granted by the powers that be that men were spending a fair amount of their paid time working on Linux/NetBSD/tcsh/ssh/etc., but I have never worked in a company where women had the same level of permissiveness. I’ve worked at companies where men had it written into their contracts that they would be working on open-source software on business hours, but never women. I think that would make a real difference, correcting that — especially because we are so far from being able to correct the leisure time problem.

    1. Skud Post author

      The leisure time thing seems obvious to *us*, but I’ve seen it coming up again and again lately and people saying “really!? I’m sure it’s not that big a deal! Most people work on FLOSS as part of their dayjob anyway!”

      I actually think it ties in quite closely with the financial remuneration thing.

  6. Sarah Allen

    I wonder if you ask men and women in the industry “how many people do you know who develop open source software?” that men would have a higher number. That is just a guess, but it would tie into the social element and also, how people even know that such jobs/activities exist and understand the motives behind them.

    1. Mackenzie

      I suspect even within the local LinuxChix chapter, the average answer would be lower than within the local hackerspace. I say that because the others in the LinuxChix chapter were surprised to find I work on open source software, saying they’d never considered it. Seemed odd to me…I mean…it’s LinuxChix! Meanwhile there is quite a bit of overlap between the hackerspace and the local Python and Linux communities. Oh, um, most of the LinuxChix here do not go to LUG.

    1. Skud Post author

      What do you consider female traits? Also, I’m interested to hear how you would measure success of an open source project.

  7. Terri

    I’d like to see what women in open source most *want* to be doing. I’m thinking medium and long-term goals, like “I want to be a core developer on $OSSProject” or “I want to make this software available in my language” or “I want to make a new IM client that does $foo” or “I want to make $OSSProject community more welcoming to newcomers.”

    I’m curious as to whether these goals are different from those of our male counterparts the way studies have claimed that our job goals are different (e.g. more focus on work/life balance, less focus on rising in the hierarchy). And I’m curious whether these goals are typically getting met and whether it takes longer, shorter or comparable time.

    1. Mackenzie

      I wonder how many have that “core developer” goal. For the last year my goal has been Ubuntu Developer (not core, just regular dev), and I intend to apply after this release is out the door. As it is there are 2 women in the Ubuntu Developer ranks (1 is core), out of about 150.

  8. Ana

    I would totally look at the retention of women in open source.
    There are a lot efforts going on in attract women into open source projects, they are more or less successful. Then, what I see in the projects I work on, they start, give some shy steps and then disappear. Given the most difficult step is starting, I would love to know better why they disappear or become disenchanted so soon.
    I know this happens to most of the people trying to contribute in FLOSS, but the percent I see in women is higher.

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