Drupal blog: The privilege of free time in Open Source

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This blog has been re-posted and edited with permission from Dries Buytaert’s blog.

Open Source communities often incorrectly believe that everyone can contribute. Unfortunately, not everyone has equal amounts of free time to contribute.

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In Open Source, there is a long-held belief in meritocracy, or the idea that the best work rises to the top, regardless of who contributes it. The problem is that a meritocracy assumes an equal distribution of time for everyone in a community.

Open Source is not a meritocracy

I incorrectly made this assumption myself, saying: The only real limitation [to Open Source contribution] is your willingness to learn.

Today, I’ve come to understand that inequality makes it difficult for underrepresented groups to have the “free time” it takes to contribute to Open Source.

For example, research shows that women still spend more than double the time as men doing unpaid domestic work, such as housework or childcare. I’ve heard from some of my colleagues that they need to optimize every minute of time they don’t spend working, which makes it more difficult to contribute to Open Source on an unpaid, volunteer basis.

Or, in other cases, many people’s economic conditions require them to work more hours or several jobs in order to support themselves or their families.

Systemic issues like racial and gender wage gaps continue to plague underrepresented groups, and it’s both unfair and impractical to assume that these groups of people have the same amount of free time to contribute to Open Source projects, if they have any at all.

What this means is that Open Source is not a meritocracy.

Only local images are allowed.

Free time is a mark of privilege, rather than an equal right. Instead of chasing an unrealistic concept of meritocracy, we should be striving for equity. Rather than thinking, “everyone can contribute to open source”, we should be thinking, “everyone deserves the opportunity to contribute”.

Time inequality contributes to a lack of diversity in Open Source

This fallacy of “free time” makes Open Source communities suffer from a lack of diversity. The demographics are even worse than the technology industry overall: while 22.6% of professional computer programmers in the workforce identify as women (Bureau of Labor Statistics), less than 5% of contributors do in Open Source (GitHub). And while 34% of programmers identify as ethnic or national minorities (Bureau of Labor Statistics), only 16% do in Open Source (GitHub).

Only local images are allowed.

It’s important to note that time isn’t the only factor; sometimes a hostile culture or unconscious bias play a part in limiting diversity. According to the same GitHub survey cited above, 21% of people who experienced negative behavior stopped contributing to Open Source projects altogether. Other recent research showed that women’s pull requests were more likely to get accepted if they had a gender-neutral username. Unfortunately, examples like these are common.

Taking action: giving time to underrepresented groups

While it’s impossible to fix decades of gender and racial inequality with any single action, we must do better. Those in a position to help have an obligation to improve the lives of others. We should not only invite underrepresented groups into our Open Source communities, but make sure that they are welcomed, supported and empowered. One way to help is with time:

  • As individuals, by making sure you are intentionally welcoming people from underrepresented groups, through both outreach and actions. If you’re in a community organizing position, encourage and make space for people from underrepresented groups to give talks or lead sprints about the work they’re interested in. Or if you’re asked to, mentor an underrepresented contributor.
  • As organizations in the Open Source ecosystem, by giving people more paid time to contribute.

Taking the extra effort to help onboard new members or provide added detail when reviewing code changes can be invaluable to community members who don’t have an abundance of free time. Overall, being kinder, more patient and more supportive to others could go a long way in welcoming more people to Open Source.

In addition, organizations within the Open Source ecosystem capable of giving back should consider financially sponsoring underrepresented groups to contribute to Open Source. Sponsorship can look like full or part-time employment, an internship or giving to organizations like Girls Who CodeCode2040Resilient Coders or one of the many others that support diversity in technology. Even a few hours of paid time during the workweek for underrepresented employees could help them contribute more to Open Source.

Applying the lessons to Drupal

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from different people’s perspectives. Learning out in the open is not always easy, but it’s been an important part of my personal journey.

Knowing that Drupal is one of the largest and most influential Open Source projects, I find it important that we lead by example.

I encourage individuals and organizations in the Drupal community to strongly consider giving time and opportunities to underrepresented groups. You can start in places like:

When we have more diverse people contributing to Drupal, it will not only inject a spark of energy, but it will also help us make better, more accessible, inclusive software for everyone in the world.

Each of us needs to decide if and how we can help to create equity for everyone in Drupal. Not only is it good for business, it’s good for people, and it’s the right thing to do.

Special thanks to the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion group for discussing this topic with me.

 April 10, 2019

 3 min read time