How volunteer work in F/LOSS exacerbates pre-existing lines of oppression, and what that has to do with low diversity

This is a post I wrote in June 2022, but did not publish back then. After first publishing it in December 2023, a perfectionist insecure part of me unpublished it again. After receiving positive feedback, i slightly amended and republish it now.

In this post, I talk about unpaid work in F/LOSS, taking on the example of hackathons, and why, in my opinion, the expectation of volunteer work is hurting diversity.

Disclaimer: I don’t have all the answers, only some ideas and questions.

Previous findings

In 2006, the Flosspols survey searched to explain the “role of gender in free/libre/open source software (F/LOSS) communities because an earlier [study] revealed a significant discrepancy in the proportion of men to women. It showed that just about 1.5% of F/LOSS community members were female at that time, compared with 28% in proprietary software” (which is also a low number).

Their key findings were, to name just a few:

  • that “F/LOSS rewards the producing code rather than the producing software. It thereby puts most emphasis on a particular skill set. Other activities such as interface design or documentation are understood as less ‘technical’ and therefore less prestigious.”
  • “The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.”

We also know from the 2016 Debian survey, published in 2021, that a majority of Debian contributors are employed, rather than being contractors, and rather than being students. Also, 95.5% of respondents to that study were men between the ages of 30 and 49, highly educated, with the largest groups coming from Germany, France, USA, and the UK. The study found that only 20% of the respondents were being paid to work on Debian. Half of these 20% estimate that the amount of work on Debian they are being paid for corresponds to less than 20% of the work they do there. On the other side, there are 14% of those who are being paid for Debian work who declared that 80-100% of the work they do in Debian is remunerated.

So, if a majority of people is not paid, why do they work on F/LOSS? Or: What are the incentives of free software?

In 2021, Louis-Philippe Véronneau aka Pollo, who is not only a Debian Developer but also an economist, published his thesis What are the incentive structures of free software (The actual thesis was written in French).

One very interesting finding Pollo pointed out is this one:

Indeed, while we have proven that there is a strong and significative correlation between the income and the participation in a free/libre software project, it is not possible for us to pronounce ourselves about the causality of this link.

In the French original text:

En effet, si nous avons prouvé qu’il existe une corrélation forte et significative entre le salaire et la participation à un projet libre, il ne nous est pas possible de nous prononcer sur la causalité de ce lien.

Said differently, it is certain that there is a relationship between income and F/LOSS contribution, but it’s unclear whether working on free/libre software ultimately helps finding a well paid job, or if having a well paid job is the cause enabling work on free/libre software.

I would like to scratch this question a bit further, mostly relying on my own observations, experiences, and discussions with F/LOSS contributors.

Volunteer work is unpaid work

We often hear of hackathons, hack weeks, or hackfests. I’ve been at some such events myself, Tails organized one, the IETF regularly organizes hackathons, and last week (June 2022!) I saw an invitation for a hack week with the Torproject. This type of event generally last several days. While the people who organize these events are being paid by the organizations they work for, participants on the other hand are generally joining on a volunteer basis.

Who can we expect to show up at this type of event under these circumstances as participants?

To answer this question, I collected some ideas:

  • people who have an employer sponsoring their work
  • people who have a funder/grant sponsoring their work
  • people who have a high income and can take time off easily (in that regard, remember the Gender Pay Gap, women often earn less for the same work than men)
  • people who rely on family wealth (living off an inheritance, living on rights payments from a famous grandparent - I’m not making these situations up, there are actual people in such financially favorable situations…)
  • people who “don’t need much money” because they don’t have to pay rent or pay low rent (besides house owners that category includes people who live in squats or have social welfare paying for their rent, people who live with parents or caretakers)
  • people who don’t need to do care work (for children, elderly family members, pets. Remember that most care work is still done by women.)
  • students who have financial support or are in a situation in which they do not yet need to generate a lot of income
  • people who otherwise have free time at their disposal

So, who, in your opinion, fits these unwritten requirements?

Looking at this list, it’s pretty clear to me why we’d mostly find white men from the Global North, generally with higher education in hackathons and F/LOSS development. (“Great, they’re a culture fit!”)

Yes, there will also always be some people of marginalized groups who will attend such events—because they expect to network, to find an internship, to find a better job in the future, or to add their participation to their curriculum. To me, this rings a bunch of alarm bells.

Low diversity in F/LOSS projects—a mirror of the distribution of wealth

I believe that the lack of diversity in F/LOSS is first of all a mirror of the distribution of wealth on a larger level. And by “wealth” I’m referring to financial wealth as much as to social wealth in the sense of Bourdieu: Families of highly educated parents socially reproducing privilege by allowing their kids to attend better schools, supporting and guiding them in their choices of study and work, providing them with relations to internships acting as springboards into well paid jobs and so on.

That said, we should ask ourselves as well:

Do F/LOSS projects exacerbate existing lines of oppression by relying on unpaid work?

Let’s look again at the causality question of Pollo’s research (in my words):

It is unclear whether working on free/libre software ultimately helps finding a well paid job, or if having a well paid job is the cause enabling work on free/libre software.

Maybe we need to imagine this cause-effect relationship over time: as a student, without children and lots of free time, hopefully some money from the state or the family, people can spend time on F/LOSS, collect experience, earn recognition - and later find a well-paid job and make unpaid F/LOSS contributions into a hobby, cementing their status in the community, while at the same time generating a sense of well-being from working on the common good.

This is a quite common scenario. As the Flosspols study revealed however, boys often get their own computer at the age of 14, while girls get one only at the age of 20. (These numbers might be slightly different now, and possibly many people don’t own an actual laptop or desktop computer anymore, instead they own mobile devices which are not exactly inciting them to look behind the surface, take apart, learn, appropriate technology.) In any case, the above scenario does not allow for people who join F/LOSS later in life, eg. changing careers, to find their place.

I believe that F/LOSS projects cannot expect to have more women, people of color, people from working class backgrounds, people from outside of Germany, France, USA, UK, Australia, and Canada on board as long as volunteer work is the status quo and waged labour an earned privilege.

Wait, are you criticizing all these wonderful people who sacrifice their free time to work towards common good?

No, that’s definitely not my intention, I’m glad that F/LOSS exists, and the F/LOSS ecosystem has always represented a small utopia to me that is worth cherishing and nurturing. However, I think we still need to talk more about the lack of diversity, and investigate it further.

Lots of projects, even Outreachy and GSoC, require one contribution to F/LOSS to be made prior to be able to apply for a paid internship. I do well understand the incentive of this, but it’s quite a high entry barrier.

In 2014/2015 I was able to have 3 months of work on Debian paid for via an Outreachy internship. I was extremely grateful for that opportunity because without this paid internship I would never have found the time to engage with the Debian and F/LOSS ecosystem in depth simply because I would have had to work on my usual day job; I have rent to pay, and a health insurance which is really not cheap. These programs are key because they help counter existing lines of oppression at a strategic point: they buy someone’s time by providing them a small income. Back then, the internship was paid 5,500USD gross for 3 months, meaning after taxes and paying social/health insurance, I was left with roughly 1100€ per month, really not much money for living decently in Western Europe, but enough to get started.

By the way, to my knowledge, 4 women who did an Outreachy internship subsequently became Debian Developers. 3 other female Debian Developers are or were part of Outreachy on the organizer side. I think this shows that this program is a success that we don’t celebrate enough!

Some types of work are never being paid

Besides free work at hacking events, let me also underline that a lot of work in F/LOSS is not considered “payable work” (yes, that’s an oxymoron!). Which F/LOSS project for example, has ever paid translators a decent fee? Which project has ever considered that doing the social glue work, often done by women in the projects, is work that should be paid for? Which F/LOSS projects pay the people who do their Debian packaging rather than relying on yet another already well-paid white man who can afford doing this work for free all the while holding up how great the F/LOSS ecosystem is? And how many people on opensourcedesign jobs are looking to get their logo or website done for free? (Isn’t that heart icon appealing to your altruistic empathy?)

In my experience even F/LOSS projects which are trying to “do the right thing” by paying everyone the same amount of money per hour run into issues — when it turns out that not all hours are equal and that some types of work do not qualify for remuneration at all or that the rules for the clocking of work are not universally applied in the same way by everyone.

Not every interaction should have a monetary value, but…

Some of you want to keep working without being paid, because that feels a bit like communism within capitalism, it makes you feel good to contribute to the greater good while not having the system determine your value over money. I hear you. I’ve been there (and sometimes still am). But as long as we live in this system, even though we didn’t choose to and maybe even despise it - communism is not about working for free, it’s about getting paid equally and adequately.

We may not think about it while under the age of 40 or 45, but working without adequate financial compensation, even half of the time, will ultimately result in not being able to care for oneself when sick, when old. And while this may not be an issue for people who inherit wealth, or have an otherwise safe economical background, eg. an academic salary, it is a huge problem and barrier for many people coming out of the working or service classes.

(Oh and please, don’t repeat the neoliberal lie that everyone can achieve whatever they aim for, if they just tried hard enough. French research shows that (in France) one has only 30% chance to become a “class defector”, and change social class upwards. “But I managed to get out and move up, so everyone can!” - well, if you believe that I’m afraid you might be experiencing survivor bias.)

Not all bodies are equally able

We should also be aware that not all of us can work with the same amount of energy either. There is yet another category of people who are excluded by the expectation of volunteer work, either because the waged labour they do already eats all of their energy, or because their bodies are not disposed to do that much work, for example because of mental health issues - such as depression-, or because of physical disabilities.

When organizing events relying on volunteer work…

…please think about these things. Yes, you can tell people that they should ask their employer to pay them for attending a hackathon - but, as I’ve hopefully shown, that would not do it for many people, especially newcomers. Instead, you could propose a fund to make it possible that people who would not normally attend can attend. DebConf is a good example for having done this for many years.


I would like to urge free software projects that have a budget and directly pay some people from it to map where they rely on volunteer work and how this hurts diversity in their project. How do you or your project exacerbate pre-existing lines of oppression by granting or not granting monetary value to certain types of work? What is it that you take for granted?

As always, I’m curious about your feedback!

Worth a read

These ideas are far from being new. Ashe Dryden’s well-researched post The ethics of unpaid labor and the OSS community dates back to 2013 and is as important as it was ten years ago.