August 21, 2006

GNOME and Google reach out to women

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

GNOME's Women's Summer Outreach Program (WSOP) is underway, with twice the number of projects originally scheduled, thanks to Google's generosity. The program has not only brought a few more women into the GNOME fold, but it seems to have jump-started efforts to actively recruit female developers within other open source projects as well.

The outreach program kicked off in June after the GNOME project received 181 applications for the Google Summer of Code (SoC) program -- and none of the applicants were women. GNOME's Chris Ball and Hanna Wallach decided that wasn't acceptable and proposed that the GNOME Foundation use some of the Google SoC money to fund a project specifically to get women involved with GNOME.

Originally, the proposal was for three women, but after the GNOME Foundation gave thumbs up, Google doubled the funding so that six women could participate. The projects that were accepted are Cecilia Gonzalez Alvarez's work on optimizing Evolution components; Clare So's work to edit MathML expressions in GtkMathView; Fernanda Foertter's gJournaler, a tool for create a virtual library of PDFs; Maria Soler Climent's work to synchronize Tomboy notes; Monia Ghobadi's proposal to integrate GNU Screen with gnome-terminal; and Umran Kamar's project to create an Evince plugin for Mozilla.

A healthy response

One might have worried that since the call for SoC proposals drew no applications from women, the response to the call for WSOP applications would be anemic as well. According to Wallach, that turned out not to be the case. Wallach says that the program received more than 100 applications, as well as more than 200 email messages from women voicing support for the program and from women who "didn't yet have the relevant coding skills, but wanted to contribute to GNOME in some way."

So why didn't the initial call for applications draw the same kind of attention? Wallach says that some of the applicants hadn't heard of the Summer of Code program, but the call for WSOP proposals managed to reach women in other computing groups, at universities and online. Several of the applicants that replied to the call for WSOP projects noted that they had not heard about the SoC, or they would have applied to that as well.

Wallach says that another issue is confidence. "Many of the women who contacted us expressed concern about their coding skills, yet were extremely well-qualified. Google's 'prove you're the best person for the job' attitude may be off-putting to people who aren't entirely confident in their skills." In addition, she says that the emphasis on mentoring with the WSOP was "very appealing" to some of the women who applied.

Soler says she was interested in participating in the SoC program, but that she applied with a friend under his name. She also says that she has already been contributing to GNOME by translating applications, and that she's working with the Free Software Chair of Polytechnical University of Catalonia at the suggestion of one of her computer science teachers.

Like a number of others, So had not heard about the SoC program, but heard about WSOP through her university. So says she would have applied to the SoC, if she had been aware of it.

Special treatment?

Wallach says that "women constitute the majority of the the global population. We're therefore concentrating our initial efforts where the biggest gain is possible." She also says that "if there are barriers to joining GNOME for minorities, then this is something we should be striving to address."

As is typical of any online discussion, Wallach says there were some "negative and trolling comments" regarding the WSOP on NewsForge.com, Slashdot, Linux Weekly News, and other sites, but "the emails we received were all extremely positive." She also says that some GNOME developers were skeptical, and had expressed concern that the WSOP may not receive enough good applications, but that fear was quickly dispelled.

"However, once it became clear that many women were interested in the program and the program was clearly a success, many of those who had originally been skeptical admitted that they were wrong in their earlier judgments. One developer who had initially expressed doubts about WSOP promoted the program in his college, causing one of his fellow students to apply."

So, the student in question, had her proposal accepted, and she's now working on the GTK widget to render MathML.

The more the merrier

Of course, the Women's Summer Outreach Program alone is not going to level the playing field. In June, Wallach noted that she wanted GNOME to "set a precedent for other free software projects. We'd like for the program to be seen as a clear demonstration that there are things that can be done to encourage women's participation even when there's such a striking imbalance."

It appears that the outreach program has been successful in that regard already. The WSOP seems to have inspired the Fedora Women project, and has generated a great deal of publicity outside of GNOME as well. Efforts are also underway to recruit women to projects such as Gentoo, Ubuntu, KDE, and others. Other groups, such as Debian Women and LinuxChix, predate the WSOP by many years, but the attention from the WSOP may be helping them as well. Wallach says that WSOP helps "create awareness and get people thinking about the problem."

The future for WSOP

So far, the participants have expressed satisfaction with the WSOP. Ghobadi says that her project is going well, and that her mentors "are amazingly available, and very helpful." So says that it's been "a very positive experience," and that it's likely that she will continue to work on GtkMathView even after the WSOP is finished.

Gonzalez says that she hadn't participated in open source projects before due to lack of time and because she "didn't feel qualified to participate in known projects, much less to develop my own project." However, she says that the WSOP "helped me to introduce myself to the open source community, and I'm not going to lose this opportunity."

Does this mean we'll be seeing another WSOP next year? Ideally, no, says Wallach. "We hope that by running WSOP this year, more women will apply for GNOME development projects in next year's Summer of Code program. To facilitate this, we plan to take note of the lessons learnt from WSOP, for example by making sure GNOME's SoC projects are advertised in a way that is welcoming to people who are not already part of the GNOME community or aren't especially confident in their coding skills."

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