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How to Bring More Women to Free and Open Source Software

As an undergraduate engineering student Karen Sandler was used to being the only woman in a class. At the time she didn't want to talk about why there weren't more women in technology, though, believing the attention would only make things worse. That attitude has changed over time, however, as she experienced sexism more directly. At tech conferences, for example, her male colleagues would sometimes ask her whose spouse she was, not knowing that she was actually a speaker at the event.

Karen Sandler, GNOME Foundation Executive DirectorNow as a FOSS attorney and the executive director of the GNOME Foundation, Sandler  is taking a different approach by addressing sexism head-on. 

"In our space it's a real problem. We don't have that many women," Sandler said in her presentation Wednesday at The Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit in San Francisco. "People who haven't experienced it directly aren't aware of how bad it can get. There's a lot of subtle sexism."

Programs for Women

The software industry needs a culture change that can best come about by bringing more women to the profession, she said, especially into the free and open source software community. Currently 25 percent of all software developers are women, but only 3 percent work in free and open source software.  

"It's an amazing gulf," Sandler said.

The good news is that attracting women to open source can be accomplished through intentional outreach. GNOME's Outreach Program for Women (OPW), an internship designed to welcome and mentor women to the community, has already helped increase diversity for the GNOME project as well as the 10 other open source projects involved. 

Women at Karen Sandler's presentationSince OPW began a few years ago, the number of women applying accepted to work with GNOME in the Google Summer of Code program, for example, has risen from one in 2006, to seven in 2011, and five in 2012. And women attending the GNOME conference GUADEC increased to 17 percent in 2012, from 4 percent in 2009.  

The key to the program's success, Sandler said, was to think about exactly why women weren't participating and address each concern systematically.  

"When we specifically target women, they're much more likely to apply," Sandler said. "Many have told me they never thought they could have an internship like this" and wouldn't have applied without an invitation.

Here are Sandler's 5 tips for bringing women into a project. She also offered more advice on what to include in an internship and how to follow up with mentors and alumni afterward. For more, watch the video of her presentation, below. 

5 tips for Bringing More Women into Open Source

1. Address women directly.

2.  Accept non-students and non-coders. 

3.  Connect women with mentors. "There's a feeling that women are less likely to ask for help, and find a mailing list intimidating... Mentors respond to newcomers and make them feel welcome," Sandler said.

4. Require a contribution as part of the application. It can be small like fixing a minor bug or rewording a pagraph of documentation. It gives people a head start for joining the community and also gives program administrators a better idea of who is applying and whether they're good.

5. Make sure women don't feel pressure to propose really ambitious projects.

Interested in a FOSS internship for women? May 1 is the application deadline for the next OPW.






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  • ShaunGeorge Said:

    Interesting article: I did think the open source community was outside that sexism rubbish....

  • John Kim Said:

    Yes, we do need more women in the world of open source. Good idea for aspiring Linux user groups out there.

  • Tibor Said:

    I really don't get this: if women would be more interested in open source, they would do it more. What is the more favorable statistics here - and why? It's just statistics, why does it get so much attention? I see in open source nothing what would be somehow gender specific. What counts are the results, the code. It doesn't matter what gender the author is. Important are the personalities, how the community consider the efforts and work of single persons. If you go through many repositories on github, there is nothing particular what would point to the gender of the author - and I see this as evidence, that open source is indifferent to gender. Is this man-woman topic so much popular in the United States? I don't feel such tendency in Europe, these discussions come mostly from government bodies, which means it has to do more with propaganda than with real issues or goals to be met.

  • Rob Said:

    Why must we have more women in open source? If they want to be here ... they are welcome. Why make women who are not interested in it ... involved. It's not sexist if there is a 10% women to 90% men ratio in developers for open source. It just shows a lack of interest on their part. If they were discouraged purposely one could argue sexism. Women don't have to be in every single sector by force / coercion. Women should go where they want to go, do what they want to do.

  • Billy Burrows Said:

    Another non issue to bother about, nice one

  • Nome Surnome Said:

    Yes, I agree, another feminist bullsh*t being spread by israeli/usa governments agendas. Women are coming to contribute on FOSS only if they are being given concrete reason to do it ($$$), they're not willing to contribute profit-less like most of the men have done until now during the past years, lead by love for the topic and passion. Now, at Gnome, the project even hypocritically dares to talk about "meritocracy", pfff. They are *hiring* ($$$) females just because they're females, where maybe there were loads of much more skilled&interested males but they exclude them right because they're males!!! Filthy israeli/usa subtle parasites!!!

  • Aumaar Said:

    Rob: How on earth did you get the notion that any single person would apply to these kind of programs because of being coerced/manipulated into it? People contribute to open source projects because they are genuinely interested, not because someone pointed the proverbial gun at them and told them to do it. Believe it or not, there are a lot of women (and young girls) out there who take a strong interest in computing and/or coding, but are being coerced (there you have it) by their parents, peers, friends or co-workers to let this interest drop – because women are not supposed to love technology, or some stupid *** like that. Not every female with that kind of experience has the guts to go against the sexist stereotypes society enforces on both genders (yes, men/boys become victims of sexism, too – they, too, experience substantial pressure to behave according to stereotypes and take on "manly" hobbies and jobs, even if those go against their interests). Most people still believe that there is some kind of hard-wired difference between women and men (aside from the obvious biological ones), and those beliefs are enforced even in the youngest children, who then grow up to think that they better not act against the stereotypical gender roles, lest they be mocked or shunned by their peers. Even though today more people still carry on to go their own way and pursue their "unusual" interests through school into college and their jobs then a decade ago, still many more do not have the guts or the strength to sit as the only woman/men in a class full of members of the other gender – a setup which screams once again: "You do not belong here, get the hell out." So, for women in this kind of situation, programs like the one described in this article are a great thing, offering an opportunity for them to get to grips with the open source world without having to cope with subtle (or not so subtle) sexistic FUD. At least I agree with you in one thing: Yes, women should go where they want to go, do what they want to do. So should men. But you make it look like you know exactly where they want to go and what they want to do. Quite obviously, you do not, but like most people strongly believe in socially enforced gender stereotypes, and that is exactly the kind of attitude that keeps people from doing what they want, go where they want to go: What others might think of them, how others might respond to their actions.

  • Istimsak Abdulbasir Said:

    It is good to have internship for more women to join open sources sectors. Do they get jobs after this?

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