June 16, 2006

GNOME needs women

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The GNOME Foundation received 181 applications for the Google Summer of Code (SoC) program, but not a single application was from a female developer. The lack of women participating in GNOME, and free software in general, has spurred the GNOME foundation to start a summer program to reach out to female developers.

The Women's Summer Outreach Program (WSOP) will accept three developers, and pay a stipend of $3,000 to each developer for a project to be completed by September. Like Google's SoC, the program is geared to students.

The projects do not need to be directly tied to GNOME -- projects focusing on software related to GNOME, such as AbiWord and GStreamer, would also be accepted. The GNOME project has a list of potential projects, but developers are not limited to those ideas.

Hanna Wallach, a GNOME and Debian developer who helped get the WSOP off the ground, says that the GNOME Foundation would consider non-code projects "on a case-by-case basis," but that "we'd prefer the projects be linked to development.

"There's a common perception that women are better suited to tasks related to communication and writing -- we'd like for this program to show that this is not necessarily the case -- women can be kick-ass developers too!"

Interested developers can find more information on the WSOP Web site, and the site also includes poster images for distribution to gather interest. Applications are due by July 1.

Barriers to women in free software projects

The realization that few women are involved in free and open source software is not a new one, of course. The Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) Survey and Study from 2002, and the Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support (FLOSS-POLS) report released this past March, address the gender disparity in FOSS projects.

Socialization plays into the problem. Wallach points out an "overwhelming perception in free software" that people choose interests based on "internal motivations." However, Wallach argues that "peers and teachers have a significant impact on people's choices and paths in life" and cites the FLOSSPOLS results that show males typically have their own computer at age 15, while women typically receive their first computer at 19. Four years can make a difference when one is defining one's interests.

Apparently, though, the problem is more pronounced with free and open source software projects. If there's one area where proprietary software edges out free software, it's in the ratio of women to men. Wallach says the study in 2002 found that about 25% of proprietary software developers were female, while only 1.5% of free software developers were female.

That means that FOSS projects are potentially losing valuable contributors to proprietary software. According to GNOME Foundation board member Vincent Untz, "If we ignore this, then we lose a lot of potential contributors. Those contributors would also bring us more diversity, which is good since it will help us accomplish even more. This is not an issue that is specific to GNOME, and we want to highlight it, make people think about it, and get them to work on this."

Do free and open source software projects actively discourage female developers? Wallach says that women "aren't being actively discouraged from participating, however they are often put off by the fact that many free software projects are almost exclusively male and often embody the assumption that developers will be male."

Untz agrees, saying that "I don't know of any project hostile to women.... However there are some behaviors that just don't help women. It's not surprising since there are so many men and so few women right now, but we should stop this. Often, those behaviors are just some comments that can sound insulting for women."

For example, Untz suggests that the practice of flaming between developers might put off any potential contributors, including women. "Flaming is also something that makes it difficult for new contributors (and not just women) to start working with us: when you're not confident in your abilities, it can be hard to argue with well-known contributors."

Untz also suggests mentoring newcomers and helping them understand "how the community works, and how to work with it.... When you think about it, a lot of the things that could be improved would not only help women, but all newcomers."

Chris Ball, who helped start the project with Wallach, says that it's not enough to avoid being "actively sexist" but "we need to be working to encourage women as well as not actively discouraging them!"

Ball says that the sheer ratio of men to women is intimidating. "We can imagine a woman walking into a room with a hundred men in it, and how uncomfortable it would feel, to get an idea of how it's a discouragement."

While FOSS projects may be particularly intimidating to women, GNOME Foundation board member Jeff Waugh says that they can also play "a major role in fixing" the problem, "because we are so open and inclusive."

In an interesting twist, Waugh suggests that older women developers may also contribute to discourage young women from becoming involved in projects. "One thing that concerns me about younger women understanding gender issues and getting involved in computing is the perspective from older women, who had to fight the hard slog against sexism over the past few decades. Often they can be quite dispositive about this stuff. Younger women have greater exposure to computing than ever before, and are often very computer-savvy, but can sometimes be scared away by older women in IT -- who are apparently trying to help them!

"Girls need rocking, positive role models to show that they can do cool, world-changing things with computers if they want to. We in the Free Software community are changing the world for the better, so we need female role models that reflect our awesome, positive mission."

Looking beyond the summer

Of course, no matter how successful the outreach program is, it won't be enough to solve the problem completely. Wallach says that the most important thing the community could do is to "read the FLOSSPOLS report and recommendations."

Wallach also recommends that developers should consider that "lack of experience doesn't mean lack of ability.... Given time and encouragement, women can (and do!) become awesome developers." She also says that developers should talk to women about getting involved with projects, "make it clear that there are a multitude of ways to participate, including (but not limited to) coding, bug squashing, testing and bug reporting, documentation writing, and translation."

In addition, developers should avoid telling women "RTFM" and instead "give helpful and constructive advice," as well as treat women "as equal participants in the free software community."

What will constitute success? Waugh describes success as "three keen-bean hackers writing some cool code for GNOME, learning a lot about our platform and community ... and being paid for it! An overwhelming success would be to see three keen-bean hackers joining the GNOME community in the long term, encouraging other women to get involved, and in their own way, becoming role models for our community."

Untz says that it's not enough to send the message to women that they're able to contribute, but we also need to send the free software community the message that the current situation is unacceptable, and that "waiting is not a solution." According to Untz, "Completion of the projects and a good and wide reception of those messages will make this program a success."

Finally, Wallach says that the GNOME Foundation wants 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."

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