The Compound interest of free time
How open source widens wage and position gaps in tech and what companies can do about it.
Open source is largely built on engineers’ free time. And free time isn’t evenly distributed. People who work two shifts, who care for elders and children—care-giving is still predominantly done by women—or with long commutes due to housing cost, just don’t have the time to contribute. The gender imbalance in tech is already pretty bad: women only represent 12% to 24% of the workforce depending on who you ask. But it’s much worse in open source.
In 2017, GitHub surveyed 6,000 open source contributors, over 90% of which were randomly sampled from about 3,800 open source GitHub repositories (the rest came from a non-random sample of communities that work on other platforms). 95% of the survey respondents were men, against only 3% which were women, and 1%, non-binary. And the numbers are just as bad for other minorities.
Because open source provides experience, exposure, and a network to those privileged enough to participate, it contributes to widen the wage and position gap. Indeed, over half of the respondents to GitHub’s survey claimed open source was somewhat or very important in getting their current role. As respondents were mostly men, it’s easy to see who benefits.
This is why it is so important to professionalize open source.
There are multiple benefits for companies to invest in open source instead of only consuming it. Decreasing the wage and position gap is an additional one. Companies that really care about equal pay and diversity at all rungs of their engineering ladder must bake contributing to open source into their engineering culture. New projects must systematically be considered for release as open source. Bugs encountered in inbound open source, fixed and upstreamed. Documentation and tests improved, etc. And these efforts need to be measured, become part of how employees are evaluated, and be integral to engineering’s communications strategy.
Additionally, companies need to proactively help underrepresented minorities contribute to open source and reap the experience, exposure, and network benefits of doing so.
A well thought out and executed open source strategy can help a company improve and steer key projects it depends on, improve its engineering culture, reduce the diversity gap, do wonders for its image, and make it attractive to a much more diverse talent pool; all in one fell swoop.
It’s a wonder more companies haven’t figured this out yet.