What works? Getting more women involved in open source.

Taking a break while digging a ditch

Taking a break while digging a ditch

When you have a community, and you notice that there’s an imperfect distribution in participation, what do you do?

How do you increase participation of a particular minority group? What should your goal be?

For example, if you have an open source project, and you need more programmers to contribute — what do you do? What I’ve observed is that the project advertises explicitly – they say, “Hey, we’d like more developers – interested?”

The leaders of the project call up their good friends, and ask those people to help out. Then they present at conferences, saying “Hey, look at our cool project. Want to join us?” They talk to individuals, they talk to groups. They say the same thing, “We’d really like you to join us. So, why don’t you download our code, ask me some questions, and contribute!”

Bottom line: they network, and they find the people that they are looking for.

So, I think this model works equally well for getting more women involved in open source projects. You say to your group of friends, “Hey, I’d like more women contributing to my open source project. Do you know any?” You go to conferences, and you say explicitly, “Hey you – would you like to participate in my project? What are you interested in? Can I help you find a project that is of interest to you?” You go to user groups, and you talk to the women who show up and find ways to keep them engaged in the group, and in the code.

All the hand-wringing over this problem that starts with “I don’t know what to do” can be solved by simply asking people to be involved. Politely, insistently and like you’re bringing them the best party you’ve thrown all year.

Invite them explicitly, rather than falling back on a “if we build it, they will come” mind-set. Sure, a laid-back approach works when you have a popular project, or the choice to contribute is easy. But otherwise, we need to ask for greater participation.

Take a moment, ask yourself — how many women do you know that write code? How many women do you know that contribute to open source in other ways? What can you do to expand your open source circle so that you invite at least one woman into our community? More than one? Maybe half a dozen?

Change yourself, and the whole community will change with you.

Fact is, open source software contribution is still kind of difficult. There are so many barriers to entry that community managers from huge corporations and extremely large open source projects are willing to meet with a group of five people at a 2000-person conference to explain the culture, the potential pitfalls, and the tremendous benefits of getting involved. And those same people are so convinced of the importance of this one-at-a-time contact, that they tell potential contributors, “If you have any questions, email me directly, and I will help you.”

We love our communities and the ideas that drive free and open source software so much that we want to talk to anyone who is interested. We think that it is worth it to convince people, one at a time, to contribute.

The same logic applies to getting women involved. The change won’t happen in a day. We convince people, one at a time, that what we work on – what we believe so much in – is worth contributing to.

And then, one person at a time, we will make it so that women are 50% of open source community.

(image courtesy of diamondmountain via Creative Commons license)

11 thoughts on What works? Getting more women involved in open source.

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  1. I don’t know if I agree with the “personal invitation” idea as being the
    best way to get anyone involved, male or female. The best way I know how
    to get new contributors to a FLOSS project is by patching it to integrate
    with other FLOSS projects and/or patching those to integrate with yours.
    (I learned this from Keith Packard, BTW.) Mere exposure and
    interoperability is the strongest attractor.

    As for encouraging women to join FLOSS communities, that starts way
    earlier than FLOSS. We have to get women involved in computing at child
    age so that the numbers of women in computing are 50%. FLOSS is “our
    thing” but it’s ultimately just a subset of the computing world. That’s
    why I called Nat Torkington’s talk at OSCON last year the most feminist
    talk, because he focused on getting a young woman at a local school
    excited about software hacking.

  2. Hey Bradley –

    I need to send you an email on another topic :) But while you’re here…

    So, how do you patch a male dominated community to make it interoperate better with the communities that have women? :)

    I’m not kidding.

    My idea of a community patch is networking at a grassroots level. Leadership and telling people what to do only goes so far. Individuals need to take action, or nothing is going to change.

    I agree with you about starting early, I just don’t want to wait a generation to see the change when we could be doing something now.

  3. I have seen quite a few blogs with similar themes of late. As the father of three immensely bright young ladies, I am keen to avoid the tendency to think of engineering or technical careers as “man’s domain”.

    I think the explosion of less stereotypical personalities in the technical fields over the last decade has proven a great boon to the quality of work being produced. So I, too seek greater involvement from any group that was previously excluded.

    Gail Carmichael’s blog has proven quite inspirational in this regard. She works tirelessly to generate interest in CompSci among women:
    http://compscigail.blogspot.com/

  4. It seems to me that some of the hand wringing about how to think about the paucity of women and what to do about it, comes from the dual nature of free software development. It pretty squarely straddles “work” and “community organizing” — two spheres which usually have different solutions and expected behaviors.

    Bradley’s point that we need to get women involved in CS earlier is a great solution for a workplace diversity problem. Whereas, talking to each person, making them needed, included and invited is a solution pulled from classic community organizing. Selena could’ve titled this “What would Cesar Chavez do?” because she’s described (IMHO) just what he would do.

    I think we probably need to employ both strategies if we are committed to more representation.

  5. The thing about explicitly inviting women is, that I’ve gotten a bloody nose with that on two occasions.

    Several years ago (I think it was 2004) I was looking for people to help me out with writing a software for media management. Since the /user base/ of this application has about 60-70% women, I figured it’d be prudent to have at least /some/ women participate on the developer side, too. So I asked a semi-local mailing list which is intended to be a meeting/networking/discussion forum for women in OSS if there were any interested individuals. I sent my mail to the list moderator, asking if it was okay. When I came back to my mail account eight hours later, my mail had been posted to the list by the moderator and I was looking at about a dozen mails that called me sexist, insensitive and a host of other things, since I clearly was just looking for “decorating materials” to make my product more credible with the female users. Yay.

    The second time, I tried to step more lightly and asked if it was okay to ask if it was okay to ask if it was okay …. (you get the idea). The result of that was being scolded for /daring/ to imply that women might not be able (while I had wondered half-aloud if they were /willing/) to help.

    Bottom line: I just advertise when I’m actively seeking people who want to help out and I welcome any worthwhile contribution. And I stopped giving a flying freep in a rolling donut about the gender of the person who sent me the actual bits. I try to be pleasant and courteous, but I won’t cater to any gender, nationality or what-have-you specifically. I also find it interesting that I can’t remember anyone ever being praised for doing the right thing in this whole area. If I sound tired of this whole topic, it’s because I am.

  6. @Bird:

    I’m really sorry that happened to you.

    Women aren’t perfect at treating outsiders who want to help either. I think it’s fair what you’ve decided to do based on your experience.

    There are certainly a lot of blog posts yet to be written about *how* exactly we invite contribution. Having a programmers group that says on it’s face “we are about women” helps get through the initial blow back about being sexist “because we mention gender at all” (I put that in quotes, because I think that claim is bullshit), but it doesn’t eliminate it entirely.

    We faced similar criticism in starting the group. Gabrielle Roth started and has been running it for the last year, and people have said things to her, to me and to others to the effect that we are sexist for wanting to have a programming group dedicated to women.

    I can tell you that the men who attend our meetings do not feel targeted (at least as far as they’ve told us – and I’ve asked), and that we’ve simply been direct with them and said “hey, this meeting isn’t about you, so please be respectful and stay on the sidelines so that the women step up and participate directly.”

    We’re engaging in social engineering that can be extremely uncomfortable, and at times confrontational. But ultimately, what *I* got out of it were three speakers for the conference that I co-chair, Open Source Bridge.

    And to further clarify *how* I contact people, I rarely put out a “call for women” on public mailing lists.

    The last time I did it, I polled a mailing list about sizes for women-specific tshirts (turns out, women’s bodies *are* generally different in size and shape than men’s, and many women feel more comfortable in a shirt that is tailored to that shape). I received more than one email from a man telling me that I was sexist for suggesting that men and women needed different tshirts. The crazies are out there, and I talk to them nearly every day :)

  7. About the “hows”.

    There are a few things that are repeated every now and then when the question is asked. The obvious stuff (don’t be condescending, don’t reduce to gender etc etc). One thing about those is: they’re true for everyone – that is, I don’t like to be treated condescendingly or reduced to my gender (both has happened).

    What I miss a bit in those discussions is a dose of “Dos” as opposed to the plethora of “Don’ts”. I mean, yes, there are reams of thinsg you can do wrong, but maybe telling people what would be right or what they actually did right would be nice. Encouraging good behaviour makes more friends than criticizing bad ones. Note that I’m not saying one should let slip them.

    So, what would “the women” (ha! because they’re all the same, right :) ) have the geeks out there do?

  8. @Bird:

    Keep an eye out for opportunities to mentor women, and to encourage them to contribute to projects. I’m talking about open source specifically… I don’t think guys should blindly encourage women to join groups that aren’t suited for them.

    But small opportunities arise all the time – you just have to watch for them, and be ready with a suggestion and some encouragement to see it through.

    Making a point of getting to know women in your existing communities – in socially appropriate ways – is an excellent first step. Over the internet, this is always hard. But, for example, I’ve had people directly ask me to contribute to projects and submit patches for particular features. The request was provoked by my own feature request or just a passing remark I made about some software. Being quick to ask someone for help goes a long way toward making someone feel useful and needed in a community.

    There are lots of other ways – be creative, and a human being. The stuff that works in your work and social life will probably work pretty well in open source communities too.

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