February 12, 2010

Does Computer Engineer Barbie Use Linux?

If you'd asked me at the beginning of the year what topics I'd be writing about for Linux.com, I'm pretty sure that Barbie wouldn't have made the list. But, with the announcement this week that computer engineer was a top choice for Barbie's next career after a loud campaign to push Barbie into computer science, I just had to wonder, "does Computer Engineer Barbie use Linux?" And if not, why not?

Assuming that the numbers from 2006 hold true, the level of participation by women in open source could use a lot of improvement. According to the Flosspols study, women make up less than 2 percent of the open source community. Proprietary software shows a not-great but much higher participation rate of nearly 30 percent. Obviously, we need to improve here, so I checked with Mattel to see what their thoughts were on open source as long as they were thinking tech.

Just as I don't spend much time writing about Barbie, the PR folks at Mattel probably don't have much call to field questions about open source. They gamely supplied me with the fact sheet they're sending out to announce the release, but didn't have anything to say specifically about whether or not Computer Engineer Barbie is also Open Source Contributor Barbie. But I like to think she is, or at least I like to think that more women will be contributing to open source in the near future, and maybe a Barbie that's a computer engineer will inspire at least one or two girls to become those contributors.

While Mattel didn't have a lot to say about women in open source, others did. Amber Graner, Ubuntu Women project leader and community advocate, says that several women within the Ubuntu Women Project encouraged others to help Barbie get involved with tech. "Barbie has reflected, good or bad, women's roles in society since her creation. Though the reflection is often one of controversy, so is society and the part women play in it."

The idea of a "computer engineer" Barbie seems to be in favor, but the actual accessorizing not so much. Graner says that the stereotypical pink accessories may not thrill all the participants, but "most are thrilled that the world of technology is no longer being seen as off limits to women." More importantly, Barbie's new career path will help spark discussion about getting young girls involved with computer science and free and open source software communities like Ubuntu.

Carla Schroder, managing editor of Linux Today, Linux Planet, co-coordinator of Linuxchix.org, says that neither Barbie or any other method is a one-size fits all method for attracting girls to the computer sciences. "A simple fact that seems to escape a lot of folks is girls and women are individuals, with differing tastes, talents, and preferences. If a Computer Science Barbie encourages more girls to pursue some kind of computer science path, good."

If you're not convinced that Barbie alone will recruit new FLOSS contributors, don't worry — there's plenty of work going on to interest new contributors. Graner says that the Ubuntu Women team is taking "a very active role within the Ubuntu community to increase visibility of women within the project.

"As a project we are looking at ways to recruit, support, encourage, as well as retain women in the Ubuntu Project through various initiatives that include mentoring at all technical levels, ensuring there are resources that address the various issues women face in technology and our society, providing space for women to share their experiences in an open dialogue in order to overcome the not only obstacles of sexism but any barrier into the community that would exclude women from participating and contributing to the Ubuntu Project and Community."

The GNOME Project has long been seeking more contributions from women. In 2006 the project hosted a Women's Summer Outreach Program, and paid for six women to work on open source. Last year the GNOME Project decided to follow up on WSOP and see how successful it'd been, and what should be done differently.

Based on the feedback received, the GNOME Project has decided to create an outreach program again, and is now seeking donations to support the stipends. Stormy Peters, executive director of the GNOME Foundation, says that the project has mentors and others willing to help women to get involved.

Some projects have succeeded very strongly in attracting women to contribute, and have identified areas where the typical OSS project structure can be improved to encourage a diverse community. For example, Schroder pointed out that the Dreamwidth open source networking, publishing, and content management platform. Dreamwidth is unusual in that the majority of contributors are women, possibly because the project has tried to structure itself differently than the average FLOSS project.

In the end, Computer Engineer Barbie might sound silly to a lot of Linux users and contributors, but the change might mean that a few more girls find a passion for computer science. In the meanwhile, there's plenty of effort within the community to ensure that Barbie isn't the only way potential contributors see women working with Linux and open source.

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