Strategies to Increase Women’s Participation in Open Source Projects

Strategies to Increase Women’s Participation in Open Source Projects

It's no secret that women are underrepresented in open source. But what are the reasons for this? And what can we do about it? This article presents the results of a recent survey of the literature on this topic.

Participation of women in Open Source Software (OSS) is very unbalanced, despite various efforts to improve diversity. This is concerning not only because women do not get the chance of career and skill developments afforded by OSS, but also because OSS projects suffer from a lack of diversity of thoughts because of a lack of diversity in their projects. Studies that characterize women’s participation and investigate how to attract and retain women are spread across multiple fields, including information systems, software engineering, and social science.

Trinkenreich, Bianca, et al. systematically collected, aggregated and synthesised the current state of research on women's participation in open source software in their paper "Women's Participation in Open Source Software: A Survey of the Literature". Here is a brief overview of the main findings.

The authors identified 51 articles (published between 2005 and 2021) that investigate women’s participation in Open Source. According to the literature, women represent about 9.8% of OSS contributors; most of them are recent contributors, 20-37 years old, devote less than 5h/week to OSS, and make both non-code and code contributions. Only 5% of projects have women as core developers, and women author less than 5% of pull-requests but have similar or even higher rates of merge acceptance than men.


Challenges faced by women when contributing to Open Source projects

Women mainly face social challenges when contributing to Open Source projects, which can also influence their decision to leave a project. Understanding the reasons behind the decisions to step out of a project can help create strategies to increase retention in Open Source projects.

  • Lack of Peer Parity - Women feel alienated, frustrated, invisible and less comfortable without other women around, specially in medium-size projects where all contributors.
  • Non-Inclusive Communication - The expletives often used in the mailing lists documentation and code reviews are insulting to women and can cause them to leave an OSS project.
  • Toxic Culture - Incidents of symbolic violence, harassment and sexism against women bring hostility and can hinder their access to the community, as they may already be hesitant about how they will be received.
  • Impostor Syndrome - Even being competent and knowing the importance of confidence, women face a lack of self-efficacy, are more restrained and reluctant to publicly display their work than men in general
  • Community Reception Issues - Finding a mentor is a hard task, as men consider as a dating opportunity, which leads many women to hide their gender and feel restrained when being repealed by communities for not being ready to provide contributions soon.
  • Stereotyping - Women are being boxed into specific roles, sometimes treated by men as if they were their mother for who they ask how to dress and behave.
  • Work-Life Balance - Issues Lack of time due to family responsibilities.


Strategies to increase women’s participation in OSS projects

Strategies include actionable mechanisms that Open Source communities can take and combine to create a more inclusive environment for women in Open Source.

  • Promote awareness of the presence of peers - Reduce the lack of peer parity by having more women involved and propagating their participation.
  • Promote women-specific groups and events - Awake technological vocations with schoolgirls’ OSS events and code development training, create forums and women-only spaces, and facilitate women’s registrations and participation in events.
  • Promote inclusive language - Avoid gender pronouns that assume that people are [all] the same gender.
  • De-stereotype the OSS contributor - Fix and do not stereotype activities on gender, as code development for men and community management for women.
  • Encourage and be welcoming to women - Have women encouraging other women to make code and also non-code contributions, increasing their confidence, while making the community friendly and supportive.
  • Promote women to leadership roles (empowerment) - Train women in leadership skills, promote them to senior, decision-making positions, and mediating roles.
  • De-bias tools - Use the Gendermag technique to find bias in tools, and use recommendations to adjust the software, making it more inclusive to the women’s cognitive style.
  • Recognize women’s achievement (visibility) - Showcase the success of women, celebrate their achievements, recognize their efforts and give credits when they deserve it, using either the communication channels and events in which they can be speakers.
  • Prepare Mentors to Guide Women - Train mentors to guide women, bring cultural proximity between mentors and mentees, making sure novices find the help and support they need.
  • Create and enforce a Code of Conduct - Develop a code of conduct as the collective norms on (un)acceptable behavior at all interactions, explicit the prohibition of harassment, and that violations have consequences, while having mechanisms to invigilate the use and to apply the punishments accordingly if necessary.


The following graphic outlines the strategies that were mentioned by primary studies to mitigate challenges faced by women in OSS (circles represent challenges and rectangles represent strategies):


Strategies to increase women’s participation in OSS projects



Trinkenreich, B., Wiese, I., Sarma, A., Gerosa, M. and Steinmacher, I., 2022. Women’s participation in open source software: a survey of the literature. ACM Transactions on Software Engineering and Methodology (TOSEM), 31(4), pp.1-37.