Today’s world runs on open source software. The web, smartphones, the Amazon Echo, your car—everything high-tech depends on open source these days. Where free, collaborative software projects were once the flags flown by indie developers bucking corporate computing, today even companies like Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart, and Wells Fargo are releasing their own open source tools.
Still, even though users of the open source software present in countless products and services are now as diverse as the internet itself, the open source development community remains startlingly white and male—even by the tech industry’s dismal standards.
GitHub, the world’s leading repository of open-source code, surveyed 5,500 open source users and developers from around the world on a range of topics. It also asked for demographic information. And it was informative. 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. About 16 percent of respondents said they belonged to ethnic or national groups that are in the minority in the country they live in. Black, Asian, and Latino programmers account for a total of about 34 percent of programmers in the US, according to the bureau.
It wasn’t all bad news for inclusion. About 7 percent of the survey respondents identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, or another minority sexual orientation. According to Gallup, about 4.1 percent of the US population identifies as LGBTQ. But it’s clear that open source has work to do.
Beyond the consequences for open source projects themselves, the community’s diversity problem could actually make the larger tech industry’s entrenched imbalances worse. According to the survey, about half of respondents said that their open source contributions were an important part of landing their current jobs. If women and people of color aren’t contributing to open source, these already under-represented groups could find themselves frozen out of the high-tech job market.
Open source’s diversity problem has long been obvious to anyone who’s ever been to an open source software related conference or meetup. But Github’s braod ranging survey–which isn’t limited to just GitHub users–doesn’t just quantify the problem—it points to some of its causes and potential solutions. In appropriate open source fashion, the company has released its data under an open license so other researchers can mine it for insights.
Frannie Zlotnick, the GitHub data scientist who lead this research project, says one important thing companies can do to ensure more diversity in open source is to make sure that all of their employees have a chance to contribute to open source on the job. About 70 percent of the survey respondents were employed full or part time. Of these, 65 percent contribute to open source in some way as part of their job.
‘Open source has a reputation for being aggressive. We collected, finally, some hard data on that.’
There’s also plenty that the managers of open source projects can do. One thing many respondents said drives them away from open source projects are negative interactions such as rudeness, name-calling, stereotyping, and—at the more extreme end of the spectrum—stalking and outright harassment.
“Open source has a reputation for being aggressive,” Zlotnick says. “We collected, finally, some hard data on that.”
About 18 percent of respondents had experienced negative interactions with other open source users. Zlotnick says that’s similar to what you’d expect to see in other communities. But these interactions don’t just affect the people involved in them. Around 50 percent of respondents had witnessed bad behavior in open source, and they said that’s often enough to keep them away from a particular project or community.
Creating clear guidelines for behavior, such as a code of conduct, is one important way to address this issue. Women in particular were more likely to contribute to projects that have such codes, the survey found. Nadia Eghbal, who works for GitHub’s open source team, says that community leaders should make it a point to call out bad behavior when they see it, to let people know that’s not normal or acceptable behavior. Giving people the tools to block or hide problem users instead of having to wait for moderators to step in also helps.
Open source teams can work too on fostering more positive interactions—one of open source’s true strengths: Eghbal points out that nearly half respondents had given or received help from a stranger.