February 9, 2007

Portrait: LinuxChix Brazil's Sulamita Garcia

Author: JT Smith

A lot of people have bemoaned the lack of women participating in open source communities, but Sulamita Garcia is one of the few who have stepped up to do something about it. A Slackware user from Florianopolis, Brazil, Garcia has been heading up LinuxChix Brazil for four years.

Garcia has been involved with Linux and open source software since 1999, when she was at university finishing a computer science degree and was tasked with testing asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) cards in a Linux system. "I had worked as sysadmin before that, so I already had a preference for Unix systems, and I thought [it was] awesome having one to use in my desktop. When I found out that in that system I could see the source code, I felt in love.... I just loved being able to open the code, change a message, or understand how they made it."

That led to more involvement with the FOSS community, and a job as a sysadmin with a small company that used Slackware. "I started to learn, I liked it a lot, and the community was much more friendly than average, so I stayed there. Then I had to build a high availability environment with two machines, and it was so hard because the documentation was very poor at that point. After a lot of work, mailing list questions, and help, I did it, and I was requested to create documentation of it."

Around the same time, Garcia says she became involved with LinuxChix Brazil, and was involved for about two years before stepping into the leadership role.

Sulamita Garcia - click to view

Garcia has been responsible for the Brazilian chapter of LinuxChix for four years now, and is the coordinator for the group's activities. "I give talks about gender issues. I was the main organizer of the four Linuxchix BR conferences. I try to encourage women I know to give talks and write documentation, I try to promote their work.... I help them to find a subject they like and present a talk. It is great when a girl talks in public for the first time in the Linuxchix conference. Sometimes they are so nervous and it doesn't go so well, but at least they did it, and next time they always do it better."

And Garcia is no stranger to public speaking either. She gave a talk at last month's Linux.conf.au entitled, "Is Free Software a Macho thing? Women and FOSS" to encourage women to become involved in the FOSS community. Garcia says that women "need to care about that more than men," and she gave several suggestions how women could help change the environment. Garcia says that women need to stop putting themselves down and underestimating their value. "I see a lot of women saying how unskilled they are and claiming they know nothing and so on, and this is putting all women down, not just themselves. One girl actually came to talk to me after that [talk] to say she will stop doing that."

She also suggests women can help interest other women by writing documentation and answering questions on mailing lists -- even if they feel inexperienced. "We have a lot of newbies everyday and they are going to face the exactly same problems, so any documentation is always helpful. And it helps to show how many women already are interested in FOSS.

"There is a very simple and effective way to interest more women: just show them another women participating. I always had the impression that the percentage of women in a conference is related to the number of the women talking in a conference."

That argument is hard to deny. This year's Linux.conf.au drew about 12% women, which was the highest percentage of women at the conference in its history. How did that happen? LCA had a LinuxChix miniconf and quite a few female speakers. "The Linuxchix miniconf covered a mix of technical and social issues, which was so great because we can talk about our problems and help each other, but also we can learn and contribute, which is the main objective."

She also says that the GNOME Women's Summer Outreach Program last year was a step toward making women feel welcome, but "we need to be careful of that, because instead helping maybe we put women on the spot. Women already involved just want to go to a place where they can be treated normal."

Garcia also suggests that women aren't quite as underrepresented as most people think. "I used to think that too, but after working with Linuxchix and getting in touch with so many more women that I ever thought would exist in FOSS communities, I strongly believe there are a lot more than we think. They just tend to be a lot less vocal than men. Like ... my talk in the Linuxchix miniconf at LCA, there were three times more women than men, but they [men] asked almost all the questions."

It's not just the attitude within open source projects that makes it difficult for women to contribute to open source projects. Garcia also says that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to contributing to open source projects due to roles outside of the projects. "A lot of women need to take care of the children and the house after work, so they don't have time for volunteer work. I know some guys who spend several hours after work doing open source related projects while their wives take care of the house and children. I don't know any -- and don't believe there are too many -- guys who do that."

When we spoke at Linux.conf.au, Garcia noted that she was ready to step down from the leadership role with LinuxChix Brazil, but it hasn't been easy to find someone to step up. "I know some projects where you see a dozen names, but you know just one or two are actually working hard, dedicating nights, weekends. As any group, I think. So you can find people to do one thing or another, but [to be] the big name to be pointed [at] if anything goes wrong, that's very different.

"But the LCA gave me a lot of new ideas. I realize people do not find information easily about how to get involved and how to contribute ... so I though maybe I could do it better. I wrote a to-do list, pointing where I do need help, because I manage the server, the lists, everything. Some people were suppose to support the Web site, the lists, or the Planet, but they were not doing it and I just took it to myself, and I should had asked for new people to do that."

After putting word on the streets after LCA, Garcia says she's had some success in finding help. "I sent the request through the mailing lists, some friends published it in their Linux news Web sites. And they are coming! I also created a "New Linuxchix" page, where they can find informations about how to create their blogs, how to connect on the server, who can they contact to ask different questions. Now I have a new Planet administrator, a new mailing list moderator, and two new translators help. And now I know any new women willing to help, they will feel welcome because in the main page it says 'we need and want you!'."

"Maybe I burned out because I didn't know how to ask and find help. Maybe this time I will find someone ... [who will become] more and more involved until they want to be the one responsible for it. Let's see."

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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