Equality in volunteering and open source

Volunteering favours the socially privileged

Volunteering is “in”. Lots of companies – particularly tech companies, it seems – provide incentives to employees to volunteer for charities, NGOs abs other “not-for-profits”. These incentives range from donations matching to paid volunteer days to matching hours worked for a charity with a cash donation.

Then there’s other types of voluntary work: helping out at a local sports club, mowing a neighbour’s lawn or fetching their groceries, and, of course, a open source, which we’ll be looking at in some detail. There are almost countless thousands of projects which could benefit from your time.

Let’s step back first and look at the benefits of volunteering. The most obvious, if course, is the direct benefit to the organisation, group or individual of your time and/or expertise. Then there’s the benefits to the wider community. Having people volunteering their time to help out with various groups – particularly those with whom they would have little contact in other circumstances – helps social cohesion and encourages better understanding of differing points of view as you meet people, and not just opinions.

Then there’s the benefit to you. Helping others feels great, looks good on your CV[1], can give you more skills, and make you friends – quite apart from the benefit I mentioned above about helping you to understand differing points of view. On the issue of open source, it’s something that lots of companies – certainly the sorts of companies with which I’m generally involved – are interested in, or even expect to see on your CV. Your contributions to open source projects are visible – unlike whatever you’ve been doing in most other jobs – they can be looked over, they show a commitment and are also a way of gauging your enthusiasm, expertise and knowledge in particular areas. All this seems to make lots of sense, and until fairly recently, I was concerned when I was confronted with a CV which didn’t have any open source contributions that I could check.

The inequality of volunteering

And then I did some reading by a feminist open sourcer (I’m afraid that I can’t remember who it was[3]), and did a little more digging, and realised that it’s far from that simple. Volunteering is an activity which favours the socially privileged – whether that’s in terms of income, gender, language or any other number of indicator. That’s particularly true for software and open source volunteering.

Let me explain. We’ll start with the gender issue. On average, you’re much less likely to have spare time to be involved in an open source project if you’re a woman, because women, on average, have more responsibilities in the home, and less free time. They are also globally less likely to have access to computing resources with which to contribute. due to wage discrepancies. Even beyond that, they are less likely to be welcomed into communities and have their contributions valued, whilst being more likely to attract abuse.

If you are in a low income bracket, you are less likely to have time to volunteer, and again, to have access to the resources needed to contribute.

If your first language is not English, you are less likely to be able to find an accepting project, and more likely to receive abuse for not explaining what you are doing.

If your name reflects a particular ethnicity, you may not be made to feel welcome in some contexts online.

If you are not neurotypical (e.g. you have Aspergers or are on the autism spectrum, or if you are dyslexic), you may face problems in engaging in the social activities – online and offline – which are important to full participation in many projects.

The list goes on. There are, of course, many welcoming project and communities that attempt to address all of these issues, and we must encourage that. Some people who are disadvantaged in terms of some of the privilege-types that I’ve noted above may actually find that open source suits them very well, as their privilege can be hidden online in ways in which it could not be in other settings, and that some communities make a special effort to be welcoming and accepting.

However, if we just assume – that’s unconscious bias, folks – that volunteering, and specifically open source volunteering, is a sine qua non for “serious” candidates for roles, or a foundational required expertise for someone we are looking to employ, then we set a dangerous precedent, and run a very real danger of reinforcing privilege, rather than reducing it.

What can we do?

First, we can make our open source projects more welcoming, and be aware of the problems that those from less privileged groups may face. Second, we must be aware, and make our colleagues aware, that when we are interviewing and hiring, lack evidence of volunteering is not evidence that the person is not talented, enthusiastic or skilled. Third, and always, we should look for more ways to help those who are less privileged than us to overcome the barriers to accessing not only jobs but also volunteering opportunities which will benefit not only them, but our communities as a whole.


1 – Curriculum vitae[2].

2 – Oh, you wanted the Americanism? It’s “resume” or something similar, but with more accents on it.

3 – a friend reminded me that it might have been this: https://www.ashedryden.com/blog/the-ethics-of-unpaid-labor-and-the-oss-community

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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