Can open source technology help to bridge the gender gap for women in tech?

8 March 2023 by Lya Gobetti

This year’s International Women’s Day invites us to #EmbraceEquity, and to join in on this very important day we want to celebrate and highlight some of the achievements of women in tech – more specifically, open source and all its benefits! 

In 1945, The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was completed. It’s considered today to have been the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer; it mainly solved mathematical problems to assist with the war and the programmers who worked on it were six remarkable women. Despite this, as years went on and computer technology began gaining traction, popularity and importance, the view around IT changed to become a “man’s career”. Although you can see several different numbers online that prove this point, I decided to look at more concrete, real-life experiences: I worked at an IT support job where I was the only woman on a 22 people team spread in different offices, and a Catalyst developer with nearly 15 years of experience in the field noted that he’s worked closely with about 100 developers throughout his career – and only two of them were women.

Jean Bartik (left) and Frances Spence operating the ENIAC’s main control panel.

As for the open source world, there are many reasons why women would benefit from it. A community where everyone can collaborate together is a fantastic idea in theory, but the reality is that women still don’t feel very welcome in these spaces. 

In 2016, a study was done with around 15k random GitHub-gendered users and only 6% of those users were women. And that may not even be the real number, as interviewees confirmed that they know women will occasionally sign up for GitHub with a male name so that their work isn’t scrutinised more harshly or picked apart with a fine comb in a way that is unlikely to happen to contributions created by men.

Percent Female Users by Number of Contributions

Catalyst aims to challenge this disparity by doing everything we can to attract amazing employees, women very much included, with amazing benefits like a Menopause Wellbeing Plan, Enhanced Maternity Package with a  return to work bonus and women-related health checks. Ella Tugwell, our Head of Internal Services, champions this inclusion by making sure to offer support to women in the workplace.

With so many health concerns that could arise, we are proud to have added specific women-related products to guarantee that our team is best positioned to continue their career and not feel like they have to put it ‘on hold’ to deal with life admin. We make sure they can effectively manage their work/life balance, seek help to withstand the side effects of menopause and rest assured that they can return to work after having a child. We want to ensure women feel welcome at Catalyst by openly discussing these issues to normalise them in the workplace and encourage our staff to feel comfortable enough to reach for help and either continue or return to work, knowing they are supported, from both a professional and personal standpoint and that they can still progress in their career.

We also celebrate our female employees and their accomplishments by publicly highlighting the amazing work that they do. One great example of this is Sarah Cotton, one of our software developers. She recently picked up a project that would allow UN Women to access Unicef’s Totara site, Agora, from a custom UN Women URL with a custom site theme, a project that had been left mainly untouched after its developer left. She carefully reviewed the existing code, mapped the data flows, synced user details from our Azure servers and did the QA testing to ensure everything was working as intended. It took her three to four months to finish the project, which was launched with flying colours in January 2022 and received immense praise from the Unicef team and the Catalyst dev team.

UNICEF UN Women Agora site

Jasmin Hodge, our Senior eLearning Consultant, and Sam Taylor, our Pedagogy and Community Practice Lead, have also shown excellence in their technical roles; their fantastic customer skills and flawless technical knowledge of the platforms we support translate into superb customer satisfaction. The two of them combined can retain our customers and bring in new customers through word-of-mouth from people who’ve had positive experiences when receiving training or watching demos that they deliver. Sam in particular noted how helpful Catalyst’s “family first” approach is to give her peace of mind in case a personal emergency comes up unexpectedly.

Especially for those of us who are the primary caregivers! Not having to worry about last-minute changes in childcare or other support we may need to give our families in an emergency is a reminder that I made the right choice in choosing Catalyst as my place to work.

Sam also played an important part in helping build Catalyst’s extensive competency framework, which is paired with a monthly check-in and appraisal structure so everyone within the company, regardless of gender, is supported, recognised and compensated equally. Jasmin, who’s just completed her second work anniversary, says…

I’m grateful to work within Catalyst, amongst many other talented women working within the technology industry, where we are always encouraged and supported to try new challenges and continue to further our skills.

So it’s not all gloom and doom. We still have a long way to go, and things can (and will!) be better. Catalyst is happy and more than willing to go above and beyond what it needs to do to level the playing field for women in the tech industry. Championing open source is a point of pride for our company because we know that when people come together as a community they can make a big difference for the best and accomplish amazing things that benefit not just one small group of people, but everyone equally. Furthermore, the ethos of open source is that anyone can contribute regardless of background or who they are, and I believe that we as women in tech should look into how to support more open-source projects and present them to others for what they are: the right way forward.

Moodle, our company’s flagship offering, is an incredible open-source platform we’re incredibly proud to partner with. They will be leading a webinar called “Could Moodle reduce gender inequities?” on March 15th on the Moodle Academy site; it should be an interesting discussion around the topic, just in time for International Women’s Day. We hope to see you there!