Women leadership in the open source and tech sectors

By Karina Brijlal

The open source community believes that the best ideas come from a diversity of perspectives, which allows organisations to respond better to the needs of more users, creates a healthier work environment, and increases innovation. Today, over 90% of IT leaders benefit from the vast contributions made to enterprise open source software, and yet, despite the ubiquity of open source, only 3% of respondents to a 2017 GitHub survey of open source contributors were women.

The lack of female representation is not unique to the open source community but underpinned by a wider imbalance across the tech industry. A report in 2020 showed that the overall representation of women technologists was only 28.8%, but on the brighter side, there has also been a consistent growth rate of 4.96% per year. At this rate, it would take an estimated 12 years to achieve equal representation in the industry. Improving accessibility and support to allow women to find and excel in roles in the ICT sector is crucial to accelerating this transformation towards gender equality. So, how can we foster women leadership in the open source and wider tech industry?

Interest at a young age

Some of the common arguments for why there aren’t as many women in tech are that, at a young age, girls aren’t as exposed to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts, or decide against pursuing STEM-careers because of societal stereotypes or the lack of relevant role models. STEM-careers tend to be viewed as masculine, which often discourages young girls from exploring their interests in those fields.

It is important that girls are enabled at a young age. In a Red Hat Summit session on the topic of women leadership in open source, Jessica Forrester, a Senior Principal Software Engineer, highlighted this by sharing some of her childhood memories of spending time with her dad and replacing parts of a computer. She also had her first taste of programming while working with her dad on robotics kits where she started to love the puzzle-solving side of programming. This early exposure to technology is what led her to a successful career in the industry today, but not all girls have access to these experiences at an early age.

Education and access to technology are improving, but we still have a long way to go to make it more inclusive. Many organisations and outreach programmes give young women the guidance and mentorship they may not have had, and these programmes are especially important in underserved communities where access to technology is limited. Other opportunities, like Scratch, a free programming language designed for children aged between 8 and 16 years, are also giving young minds access to the essential programming skills that they could use to carve out their future careers in technology.

The importance of mentorship

In a male-dominated work environment, it can be easy for women to experience imposter syndrome because they represent a minority. Jessica Forrester explains that whenever she felt alone or out of her depth, she made sure to reach out and get the support she needed to break through that feeling. A sense of community is one of the most remarkable aspects of open source culture as it strives to make everyone feel supported and welcome to participate. Contributors are valued by their merit, and everyone is able to access the support and mentorship they need to accelerate their career.

Because of the current gender imbalance within the ICT sector and the open source community, male mentorship is not only extremely valuable, but critical in empowering more women leaders to lead the industry on the path to transformation. A study by Harvard Business Review also found that “gender inclusiveness means involving both men and women in advancing women’s leadership” and that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to outperform those in the bottom quartile.

Unlocking innovation through diversity

The world of open source boasts many exceptional women leaders, but we need more. Increasing the gender diversity of open source communities, and the tech industry at large, will drive growth, innovation, and equality. We can achieve this by enabling girls to pursue STEM-related careers at an early age, identifying and addressing gender bias and stereotypes within the workplace as well as broader society, and providing more women with the guidance and support they need to thrive within the tech industry. The strength of open source lies in collaboration and diversity, and if we can improve that, we could achieve many more great things.

(Karina Brijlal is the Senior Marketing Manager at Red Hat sub-Saharan Africa).


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