Why There Aren't More Women Working in Open Source Software
Less than 10% of open source contributors are female, but numbers are slowly growing and that is starting to change.
During this year's Red Hat Summit in Boston, Mass., FOSS advocate Stormy Peters spoke to the annual Womens' Leadership Luncheon on creating effective change in our projects so that we can all help save the world.
"I had a manager a long time ago who got really frustrated with me," she began. "He said, 'You can't save the world.' I said, 'Yes, I can.' We're all here to save the world. We're in this industry to make a difference."
"I've been in open source software for a long time now," she continued, "and there was a time I didn't think we'd fill up a room like this," explaining that when she went to her first open source conference in 2001 in Copenhagen, the woman working the registration table looked up at her and exclaimed, "You're a girl!" Ever since then, she's worked to talk to the other women at conferences, thinking of that woman who didn't have others like her at that event.
Depending on the source, the percentage of open source contributors who are women is somewhere between 3-9%. There's also a significant energy around the subject of women in the industry right now. "Now is our moment to take that number and make it bigger," Peters said. She gave three reasons why it's important to do so:
- Because of the women who don't know about the amazing careers they could be having in open source software — fun, exciting, problem-solving careers. They may be stuck in careers they're not nearly as passionate about with no idea that there's something better.
- Because half the people who could be participating in our projects are missing. If a 10-person project has 10% women contributors, that project could have 8 more people contributing. It should be an 18-person project, which means we're missing out on a resource to help us save the world.
- Because we'll create better solutions if we have more diverse outlooks. We can make better products that solve problems for more people if we have more viewpoints represented.
Peters gave the success story of Outreachy as an example. Outreachy started as the GNOME Outreach Program for Women. It began when no women applied for a round of the Google Summer of Code for GNOME. So they set aside funding for six women (three summer and three winter interns) the first year, and the program has since grown. The May-August 2015 round of Outreachy will support 30 interns.
In the most recent Who Writes Linux report from the Linux Foundation, the Outreach Program for Women kernel interns ranked #13 on the top 20 list of contributors/sponsors of development work. They contributed 1% of the kernel patches for the year.
Peters went on to say that while we absolutely need to continue to bring more women in, there is an extent to which we already have, and now we have a change management situation. Imagine your project had 10 people and you brought in eight more women. No matter how you feel about that, your program is going to be different. As you bring in those eight people, how are you going to introduce them? What's the culture change going to look like? You need to transition the old people to the new, larger culture.
Growing a project means eventually having to change a culture, and making a culture where people are already happy change is a challenge. Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter has developed a set of eight steps for change and transforming an organization with it. Peters recommended a subset of these for growth of open source projects:
- A sense of urgency. There has to be a reason to change, or people will resist. "I think every one of you can be that urgency by bringing your passion for the project," Peters said.
- Have allies. If you want to make change, the first thing you should do is talk to everyone who will be affected. "At some point in my career, I was surprised that everybody in a meeting had already heard what was supposed to happen," Peters said. "Then I realized that the people who were most effective at getting their ideas done were the ones who had given everyone a chance to hear the idea and give feedback before the meeting. When they got there, they had a room full of allies."
- Have a vision. Know what you want to accomplish. Peters told the story of how she started a non-profit with friends to take donated equipment and set it up for kids who have no access to tech. It all started with someone at IBM who said, "We have this old equipment, and we need something to do with it. We could send it to India and give it to kids." A simple vision, but one that Peters initially rejected as a bad idea.
- Communicate your vision. Nevertheless, by retelling this vision, Peters found others willing to help. Her parents had just taken jobs in rural Mexico, which led them to a school that was not only in need, but excited. They built a building for the lab and held a celebration. The computers were donated by a boy doing an Eagle Scout project, and FedEx provided a shipping grant. "Tell as many people as possible in many different ways," Peters said. "Many people don't realize how little they talk about their project."
- Start with a small win. Find something small you can succeed at first. If your vision is big, like providing access to technology to every child in the world, what's something small you could achieve in the next week or month to begin to reach that goal? Create lots of small wins. If something doesn't work, it's not a big deal, because you only spent maybe a week on it. If it does work out, you can build on it. Then don't forget to communicate your wins. People like to help where there is already success.
- Make that process part of the culture. Make sure that whatever changes you've made aren't one-time differences but are part of your project's culture.
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