August 8, 2005

Getting in touch with the feminine side of open source

Author: Jay Lyman

The OSCON Open Source Convention wrapped up Friday with a feminine touch as some of the community's most prominent women discussed the possibilities, problems, and parenthood aspects of open source software participation.

Although the panelists recognized that women stand to benefit from the newness of open source, they also discussed some negative aspects for the open source community's women, who reportedly have higher representation in the proprietary software world, according to Cambridge University researcher and panelist Bernard Krieger. Panelists also noted that the more technical the role, the less likely a woman will be involved. However, women in attendance were encouraged by the turnout for the session and the attention around the issues of women in open source.

"It's possible the open source community tends not to have the business paraphernalia other businesses do," said Katrina Bassett, a developer for Catalyst IT who added the women involved in open source tend to be older than their male counterparts. These men can sometimes be intimidated by women who studies show are older, more educated, and even paid more than men in open source.

A woman's place

One key theme of the discussion was the fact that women in open source tend to be involved in management, marketing, and leadership roles, but they do not tend to excel in the more technical aspects of software development, with some notable exceptions, including Allison Randal, a key Perl developer and president of the Perl Foundation.

"There are not women in the core programming aspects of Mozilla," said co-panelist Mitchell Baker, an OSCON speaker who now serves as troubleshooter, spokesperson, and policy arbitrator for Mozilla. "Certainly there are some of us that are involved," she added, indicating the reason for less technical female roles in the community might be attributed to the code as the only holdover from traditional industry and its gender roles.

"Everything but the code is new in open source," she said, referring to marketing and other aspects of development and business.

Randal, however, indicated she had not experienced a technical ceiling in the community, stressing that her leadership position and status were earned through code development. "For me, I got into leadership by doing stuff," she said.

Baker responded with the story of her movement to a technical position, and her direct question to Mozilla technical head Brendan Eich about whether the project's technical leadership would accept her. "He thought, yes, I know what I'm doing," she said. "It was pretty damn direct and on the line, and if he was going to say no, that would have been the time."

Women are different, but not divisive

Session facilitator Danese Cooper -- a former Sun programmer and executive, and current OSI board member -- started by saying the response to talks and other programs covering women in open source had been overwhelming. She pointed several times to Debian Women as an example of a positive, productive inclusion of females in FOSS. However, Cooper indicated a proposal for a similar segment of the Apache Software Foundation was met with "pushback" and concerns that starting a women's group within a project would be divisive.

But Cooper, who highlighted male involvement in Debian Women, said although the group gets nasty correspondence telling them to get out of open source and into the kitchen, the women's group within Debian helps bridge the eternal gap between the sexes and how they communicate.

"It's the classic, 'Are we going to talk about the relationship again?'" Cooper said in response to an audience question, prompting laughter and applause. "That's what Debian Women is about -- can we figure out a way to talk?"

While she credited Apache representatives with good intentions and a good attitude toward women's involvement in the project, Cooper said the fears of division were unwarranted. "The intent is a focal point, not to be exclusive. And people are realizing women take a lot of harassment when they pop up [in a project]."

For FOSS and for family

The session also touched on the societal barriers to women's open source involvement, and the difficulty of balancing career and family that has always presented challenges for women and increasingly for men, too.

Zaheda Bhorat, a developer and former manager who now works as an open source manager at Google, told the story of growing up and her rebellion against assigned gender roles.

Sun OpenSolaris Senior Manager Claire Giordano told a different story, indicating her technology-focused father saw her interest in technical things early on and fostered it. "I think it was very helpful to get that encouragement from home," she said, adding she still faced chauvinism while a freshman at Brown University.

Perl's Randal concurred on parental support and told of her programming career that began at age 8, prompting more applause from the audience. "For me, at least, the open source world was wide open," she said. "I never even thought about it. It was, 'This is something cool that I can do.' The hardest part is just doing things and not being afraid of what people might think -- just doing what interests you. That's how open source works."

After a question from the audience, which included one open source woman's son drawing pictures on the floor of the conference room, regarding family and the conflicts that can be created with work, the women highlighted the balance between full involvement in open source and the loss of other aspects of life.

Baker said even though she was employed and felt secure about her job, it was difficult to be away from her son. She credited her husband, who might be considered their son's primary caregiver, with allowing her the freedom to push higher in open source.

Bhorat summed up the challenge by expressing her own difficulty with avoiding consumption by code. "For me, I didn't have a family, but it got to the point where I didn't have a life outside of work."

Session attendee Julie Goldberg, a software engineer with CarDomain, said in an interview after the session that it could have gone on much longer, given both the issues involved and the interest in women working in the open source community. Goldberg said many of the issues revolve around the inherent differences between men and women, indicating women take a more philosophical approach to their interests, while men tend to be more focused on technical aspects.

"Women are more interested in working for a purpose," she said. "And guys are more into the newest, latest technology."

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