The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On November 13, 2013
  3. Tagged labor open source diversity tech

Disclaimer: This post is critical of open source software in the context of unpaid labor and the hiring requirements we've set up around it. It is not a criticism of open source software itself or the people who participate in it, both of which I and anyone who uses software benefits from. This is work that I - and many of us who do software for a living - also financially benefit from.

tl;dr: I want to see all people fairly compensated for their labor without feeling forced into it; I do not want to see free and open source software stopped.

This is a conversation that we've had a few times over the course of the past few weeks through twitter, blog posts, and in person, so I figured it'd help to pull the conversation all into one place and provide additional context for how unpaid OSS work creates inequalities.

It started a few weeks ago when @mislav pointed me to this tweet:

And continued this morning after @dhh posted a blog post:

I'd definitely recommend reading both the tweets and some of the conversations around them, as well as DHH's blog post so you get a better idea of what I'm refuting here. This'll give you an idea of what the general sentiment of OSS as unpaid labor is in the community.

How can requiring OSS contribution be a bad thing?

The demographics of open source contributors

Most Active Github Users

So that we're all on the same page, let's take a look at what the landscape of open source contribution looks like. Someone's made a handy gist of the most active GitHub users (from Nov 10, 2012 through Nov 10, 2013) (thanks to @jclermont for the link). A quick glance through the list shows that the overwhelming majority of these users are white men*.

We also know from research that approximately 1.5% of F/LOSS contributors are female as compared to 28% in proprietary software. I've so far been unable to locate similar research on statistics for other groups, including racial minorities.

Statistically, we expect that the demographic breakdown of people contributing to OSS would be about the same as the people who are participating in the OSS community, but we aren't seeing that. Ethnicity of computing and the US population breaks down what we would hope to see as far as ethnicity goes. As far as gender, women make up 24% of the industry, according to the same paper that gave us the 1.5% OSS contributor statistic.

A note on meritocracy

It's difficult to go much further without mentioning the undercurrent belief in meritocracy that is particularly pervasive in open source communities, especially around participation in GitHub.

Meritocracy is the belief that those with merit float to the top - that they should be given more opportunities and be paid higher. 

We prize the idea of meritocracy and weigh merit on contribution to OSS. Those who contribute the most, goes the general belief, have the most merit and are deemed the most deserving. Those who contribute less or who don't at all contribute to OSS are judged to be without merit, regardless of the fact that they have less access to opportunity, time, and money to allow them to freely contribute.

As the people who exist within this supposed meritocracy don't exist within a vacuum, we also have to realize how our actions affect others. Meritocracy creates a hierarchy amongst the people within it. Some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly. This creates an atmosphere where people who would otherwise be deemed meritorious within this system choose not to participate because of a hostile, unrewarding environment.

A lot of people hold the idea of meritocracy close. I believe they mean well, too, but they aren't necessarily seeing the whole picture. We all want a system where we feel we can be rewarded for what we contribute: that society's injustice toward certain groups of people - most specifically geeks, many of us who grew up feeling abused, persecuted, and ignored (blog post coming on this soon) - would be rendered irrelevant. In striving for that, our community has become a microcosm of society at large.

The idea of a meritocracy presumes that everyone starts off and continues through with the same level of access to opportunity, time, and money, which is unfortunately not the case. It's a romanticized ideal - a belief in which at best ignores and at worst outright dismisses the experiences of everyone outside the group with the most access to these things. A certain demographic of people have three or four steps above other people, so the playing field is not even.

Why do we see so little diversity here?

Time commitment, pay inequality, and lack of access to jobs that encourage OSS during business hours

OSS contribution takes time; I don't think anyone would contest that. Getting familiar with a project, finding out where you can fit into it, reading and responding to issues, testing and submitting patches, writing documentation. All of that requires a good deal of time.

Marginalized people in tech - women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others - have less free time for a few major reasons: dependent care, domestic work and errands, and pay inequity.

  • Women are far more likely to be a primary caregiver of not only children, but other ailing and aging relatives. 59-75% of caregivers are women.1
  • 52% of women caregivers with incomes at or below of the national median of $35k spend 20+ hours each week providing care. The largest racial demographics in this group are black and hispanic2.
  • Women perform more unpaid labor (most visible in domestics and child care) than men. On childcare alone, mothers spend more than twice as much time per day as fathers do.  On average, working fathers spend only 10min more per day on child care when they are not working, whereas working mothers spend nearly twice as much when not working3.
  • Due to additional pay inequity contributing to less access to paid childcare, women of color perform far more child care than white women.
  • Those with medical conditions requiring that they regularly visit medical facilities or perform other health-related activities such as getting additional sleep, regularly exercising, doing physical therapy, being away from backlit screens, not sitting in a chair for an extended period of time, resting their hands, etc are all affected by what becomes an extended workday.
  • Those with a longer commute have less free time. Those who make less money can't afford the same housing costs as those that make more and are able to live in a city, so they are negatively impacted here again.
  • Women earn 76-89% of men's wages. 6
  • Women of color earn as little as 55% of white men's wages. 7

Thankfully, we have a significant number of companies within the OSS community that encourage their employees to contribute to OSS during business hours as part of their day jobs. This should work to alleviate some of the above, but unfortunately the vast majority of programmers working in these companies fall within the white, male demographic. I'd rather not point out any specific ones here, but think of 5 or 10 large companies in the OSS space (who should have the most access to highly qualified candidates, able to compensate them the best, and give them opportunities to learn and contribute to OSS) and check out their "about" pages.

Harassment of women and PoC contributing to OSS

I know many women that either don't contribute to OSS because they've been dismissed for being women - being too pretty, not pretty enough, being forced to prove their competence more than their male counterparts because they're women. I've talked to women who use gender-ambiguous GitHub names and don't post a picture of themselves as their avatar because of how quickly this happens. In addition, the sexual harassment, slurs, and other derogatory language that are used directly or indirectly at these groups of people causes many to not want to participate at all.

Additionally, there are very public instances of assuming someone is male.

Because it's too many to embed, read through some of the replies to this tweet about why some people don't contribute to OSS for safety reasons.

"No one is forcing anyone to contribute to open source."

While that on the surface is true, the imposition is there. Many jobs require open source contributions to even consider a candidate. 

Further, deciding that someone is a good programmer based solely on their publicly available code excludes far more than marginalized people. It also excludes anyone who can't release their code publicly becase of licensing or security reasons. This also includes a large number of freelancers and contractors who are unable to publicly claim that they worked on a project for legal reasons (NDAs, for instance).

In an industry where we are struggling to find enough talent, why are we artificially limiting the talent pool?

"OSS is a labor of love" and "OSS is a form of play"

A lot of people contribute to OSS in their free time and do it because they generally enjoy it. I certainly don't want to take that away from them - all of us benefit from these "labors of love". Ask any open source project maintainer, though, and they will tell you about the reality of the amount of work that goes into managing a project. You have clients. You are fixing issues for them. You are creating new features. This becomes a real demand on your time. 

Paid or not, play or not, this is labor that is currently not being compensated.

Who benefits from unpaid and underpaid labor?

Take Ruby on Rails. More than 3,000 people have committed man-decades, maybe even man-centuries, of work for free. Buying all that effort at market rates would have been hundreds of millions of dollars. Who would have been able to afford funding that? - David Heinemeier Hansson, The Perils of Mixing Open Source and Money

All of us

I don't know that we can easily measure how much labor actually goes into creating the software that we use every day. Software that we not only benefit from by saving us time, but also makes us quite a lot of money. We work at  startups, consultancies, and large enterprises that pay our salaries thanks to the financial benefit of OSS and the mostly unpaid labor of those contributing to it.

Business Owners and Stakeholders

I'd argue that the people who benefit the most from the unpaid labor of OSS as well as the underpaid labor of marginalized people in technology are business owners and stakeholders in these companies. Having to pay additional hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for this labor would mean smaller profit margins. Technology is one of the most profitable industries in the US and certainly could support at least pay equality, especially considering how low our current participation is from marginalized people. 

People who are contributing their unpaid and underpaid labor are investing their time into companies that are profiting greatly and giving little back in terms of financial support. 

We've somehow been culturally talked into accepting this arrangement, not realizing how businesses are using it to further extract value from us. Businesses are choosing candidates based on their open source contributions, knowing that they are getting more value for less money out of them. These are candidates that will continue to work on things in their free time because it's something they care about and are passionate about. This is akin to not paying someone for overtime.

Open source originally broke us free from the shackles of proprietary software which forced us to "pay to play" and gave us little in the way of choices for customization. Without realizing it, we've ended up in a similar scenario where we are now paying for the development of software that large companies financially benefit from with little cost to them.

We are being judged on how much we contribute to the bottom lines of companies we don't work for and what's worse, we are policing this amongst each other as well.

What can be done about this?

We hired competent programmers before the SourceForge's and GitHub's came about. We have a model for this that works that is less biased and will provide us with a wider variety of applicants to choose from. As business owners, we can only benefit from this.

Ask for code samples

Because not all programmers own the rights to their code or are able to state publicly that they worked on a project, not everyone is able to release the code they worked on through places like GitHub. Ask them to provide a sample of things they've written, ask them why they made certain decisions, how they would refactor things now that they have benefit of some time away from the project.

Pair as an interview

This one is gaining more popularity lately. As part of the interview, have one of your developers who is familiar with the project and is a good teacher pair with the candidate on an actual issue. See how they reason through problems, become familiar with new codebases, and what questions they ask.

Keep in mind that many people have never paired before, so this can be intimidating - especially if the candidate has impostor syndrome.

Hire them as a contractor

This is my favorite way to find out someone's abilities. It puts a potential employee on a more even playing field with an employer.

Remember, though: not everyone can leave a job before they've found a new one, so many people may need to work on projects outside of normal business hours. Ask how much time they could commit a week, as not everyone has the same amount of free time either, and set the deadline for the project from there.

Bonus Points

The labor pool available to us is smaller than we believe it is - we have a 1.7M cloud computing related job deficit as of 2012. This means many businesses are running super lean, forcing people to be overworked and burn out more quickly. The idea of work/life balance inside many of our companies is a dream outside of our grasp because we are lacking so many skilled programmers. Many of our new employees are being pulled from other businesses versus an unemployed workforce, so we're swapping around the same set of people. 

The majority of the US workforce is created through an investment of an individual: education and other training being the most common examples. When we have such a huge deficit of labor that's negatively impacting our ability to do business at the level we want, it then behooves us to invest into the labor pool or be hindered further.

Provide apprenticeships and paid internships

Models for apprenticeships are available all over the internet as well as in numerous books, so I won't go deeply into the how.

Apprenticeships allow you to bring in promising individuals to train side-by-side your current staff. This provides a couple benefits:

  1. Individuals are trained to do things the way your company does them without a large amount of unlearning.
  2. You're more quickly able to recognize where knowledge gaps are so they can be filled, versus hiring someone with those same gaps and not learning about them until it's too late.
  3. Apprenticeships are a model of investing time, money, and education into your employees that can grow loyalty as well as create a healthier culture of question asking and knowledge transfer.

If you provide internships, ensure that they are paid. For one, the law in many states requires that businesses that are getting financial benefit from an intern versus just teaching an intern career skills require that they be compensated for their work. Also note that unpaid internships are far more likely to go to women - about 77% of all unpaid internships are held by women4. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities all have lower earning potentials than their male, white, straight and cisgender (as well as straight, cisgender passing), able counterparts and are therefore less able to afford unpaid internships5.

Not to mention that businesses highly benefit from internships: 89% of hired interns stay at their company after one year. An investment into an intern is a smart business decision.

Support programs that pay new people to contribute to open source

Rails Girls Summer of Code

Gnome Outreach Program for Women

Gittip (based in the US) allows you to sponsor a project or individual anonymously on a weekly basis for as little as $.25 to $100USD/week as long as they have a GitHub, Bitbucket, or Twitter account.

Flattr (based in Europe) has you set a budget for a month, then divides that money between the individuals or projects you choose.

Some open source projects provide other donation/support frameworks from the GitHub page. Otherwise, contact them and ask how you can give.

Make OSS part of your culture: contribute

If your business couldn't succeed without OSS and you love the ethos of OSS, consider giving your employees time to contribute during business hours. This could mean encouraging them to submit patches to projects your regularly use, participate in irc, read mailing lists, write documentation - however they feel most comfortable contributing.

Additional Resources

Responses to this post

More on Meritocracy

Other Resources


* I hesitate to break down actual percentages because attempting to discern someone's race or gender identity from their photo and name is dodgy business. [back up]

1 Arno, P. S. (2002, February). The economic value of informal caregiving, U.S., 2000.

2 The Commonwealth Fund. (1999, May). Informal caregiving (Fact Sheet). New York: Author.

3 Veerle, Mirana (2011, September). Cooking, Caring, and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around the World

4 Gardner, Phil (2009). The Debate Over Unpaid College Internships 

5 Greenman and Xie (2006). Double Jeopardy or Compensating Disadvantage? The Interaction Effect of Gender and Race on Earnings in the US

6 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers, by detailed occupation and sex, 2012 annual averages, http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2012.pdf

7 The Gender Pay Gap by Race and Ethnicity, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/ext/2013/06/07/65727/the-gender-p...

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