Get everyone who works on open-source software together and put them in a little room in your brain. Now take a look around at what you just created. They’re smart. They come from all different countries and educational backgrounds, but it’s a stag party in there. They’re almost all men.
“It’s like going to a party where you know no one. That’s not a party you want to be at,” says Maírín Duffy, a blogger and senior interaction designer at Red Hat in Boston. Duffy is one of the few women who have shrugged off intimidation and walked right into the open-source community. Not many others have followed.
Fortunately, open-source project leaders are beginning to realize that if they want women to participate, they will have to fling the doors wide open. And there are now more ways than ever for women to get involved and to find community support.
A 2002 survey found that women comprised a paltry 1.2 percent of all open-source programmers. Considering that involvement with proprietary software is much higher—around 28 percent are women—it’s clear that many who possess the skills needed to work on open-source projects simply aren’t doing so.
And it may be hurting their careers.
Working on open-source projects is a clear indication to software developers that you write code because you love it, and nearly half of employers say that it benefits a job candidate to have some experience, according to a 2005 survey.
For a while, people assumed that if women weren’t joining in, it’s because they just didn’t want to.
GNOME, a project that develops Linux-compatible desktop applications, was one of the first groups to test this theory. In 2006, they participated in the Google Summer of Code, which connects student developers with open-source projects and then funds the work.
GNOME called for applications and got back 181, none of which were from a woman. They quickly threw together a second outreach effort, baiting the hook specifically for women.
“This was a trailblazing thing,” says Marina Zhurakhinskaya, another Red Hat engineer, who now directs outreach for GNOME. “They said if we just reach out to women, we will get interest in working on the GNOME desktop.”
In the end, 100 women applied and six were accepted.
“Because women did not see others around them doing it, they just thought, well this is just too intimidating. This is a guy’s thing,” Zhurakhinskaya says. “But when they see that women are welcomed on a project, they are excited about it and think it’s a great community to be a part of.”
In the years that followed, GNOME pulled back on the effort and the numbers of participating women plummeted again. The trend has convinced Zhurakhinskaya that efforts to attract females will have to continue.
Under her guidance, GNOME has put together a mentoring program in which a newcomer—the service is now available to men, too—can get assigned to an established woman in the community who will look at her or his code before presenting it to the group. Mentors also offer general support.
Some of those who went through the program are now mentors themselves. The hope is that, as women enter the community, word-of-mouth will take the place of active recruiting, and more women will be drawn up the ranks through a kind of capillary action.
After all, the whole point of going open source is to break down the barriers that impede innovation and, at least in theory, more diversity means a wider range of ideas swirling around.
“The more chaos you throw into the mix, the more chance you’re going to hit on an awesome idea and run with it,” says blogger and Red Hat designer Duffy.
Perhaps this is why other projects have taken the GNOME model and run with it. The Debian Project now has its own mentoring program, and Ubuntu has put together a mailing list, a forum and a blog specifically for female initiates.
If you’re a woman looking to get into open-source programming and you’ve been hanging just outside the door, know this: it’s still mostly men at the party, but now you don’t have to go it alone.