June 2009

"Be polite. Be helpful."

LinuxChix motto

When attending conferences, working with various open source teams, and generally interacting with people in the open source world, we see women as a small representative minority. The disparity leaves us wondering: "How do we better activate 50% of the population?".

The question, "How do we include more women?" has been asked many times and answered in many ways. Cathy Malmrose, CEO of ZaReason, a Linux hardware company, stated, "possibly the most immediately effective solution is to showcase women internationally and their contributions. Simply talking about what women are doing all over the world creates an atmosphere of acceptance, encouraging more women to try contributing, no matter where they are located or what their situation is. Our goal is to normalize the experience of having women on open source projects". This issue of OSBR is a powerful effort to do just that.

This article provides a glance at women in open source internationally. It is by no means comprehensive and is based solely on a random sampling of women who are currently contributing. The goal of this article is to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of women contributing to open source.

Examples of Successful Contributors

Anyone can contribute to an open source project regardless of age, gender, or skill. One character trait common in successful contributors is how well they can bridge cultural gaps. One woman who crosses continents particularly well is Donna Benjamin of Melbourne, Australia. She spoke recently at The Open Road (An International Perspective) conference and currently is Executive Director of Creative Contingencies. When the author contacted Donna for leads to other women in open source internationally, Donna sent seven solid leads, providing more than ample assistance for writing the article. Donna's response was typical of many open source contributors: answer the question and answer it thoroughly.

Some women contribute by writing code. Valerie Aurora, currently on the west coast of the US, is one of the best-known female Linux kernel hackers. She has been contributing to the Linux code base for 14 years. Mackenzie Morgan, currently on the east coast of the US, fixes bugs and facilitates other contributions to Ubuntu Linux. Mackenzie works on the Ubuntu 5-a-day challenge, an initiative that encourages people to work on five bugs every day.

Lydia Pintscher of Germany contributes to KDE and Kubuntu while fulfilling her position as the community manager for Amarok, an open source music player. The success of Amarok is in part due to her ability to negotiate well with the many people who are implementing changes to the software.

A Systems Analyst currently in Arizona, US, Lisa Kachold has worked in many countries including America, Germany, England, Sweden, India, and Persia. Her favorite aspects of open source are: i) creative solutions; ii) open ended opportunities to flex one's ability; and iii) group process development. Unfortunately, the ratio of men to women in her experience has been 5 to 1. Lisa notes that "a great deal would have to change to make a friendly environment for all but the very thick skinned, uber geek women".

The women who contribute to open source may be spread across continents, but they cover a wide variety of interests and types of contributions. Many contributors talk about their work as if it was play. Miriam Ruiz of Spain, a Debian team member, enjoys contributing to games as well as playing on them. Not surprisingly, she works on the Debian Games Team.

Andreia Gaita of Portugal is a Mono and Moonlight developer. One look at her World of Coding blog shows that she loves her work. A common thread throughout the population of women in open source is that there are many ways to enjoy contributing to open source projects.

Some women in open source are highly visible like Stormy Peters, the Executive Director of the GNOME foundation. Stormy lives in Colorado and presents at many major open source conferences internationally. Her presentation, Would You Do it Again for Free? is a classic in sparking thought for how we manage and motivate open source projects and the people behind them.

Women like Vidya Ayer of India provide strong voices. Vidya volunteers across a broad base of open source groups and offers to speak at conferences through geekspeakr.

Some women in open source add both spunk and personality to the field. Carla Schroder's Linux Networking Cookbook is an official statement of her computing prowess, but it is her short, pithy articles that will live on for many years, being referenced by others. Her unique talent is seeing new insights and phrasing them in a way that is memorable and motivating for contributors.

Belinda Lopez

For a more thorough look at the opinions of individual women, we interviewed Belinda Lopez of the US, Brenda Wallace of New Zealand, and Andreia Gaita of Portugal.

First, Belinda Lopez, now a Training Project Manager for Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.

Q. What would list as your most enjoyable contribution to open source?

A. Putting together groups or individuals that are unknowingly working on the same type of contributions. I often see myself as an enabler of others, so when I find two different groups with the same goals, often working on the exact same thing in parallel, I try to introduce them so they can work together and work smarter, not harder.

Q. Would you describe your work as crossing borders beyond your company and your local user group? What countries have you interacted with significantly?

A. I've had the good fortune to travel to France, Switzerland, Canada, England and Spain all through free/libre open source software (F/LOSS) work. Meeting folks from other parts of the world certainly changes your perspective and gives a nice window into their needs and challenges. I find the European and UK user groups to be much more enthusiastic than those in the US. The US groups, at least in Ubuntu, are often business oriented whereas European groups are often more into F/LOSS because it is F/LOSS.

Q. In your day-to-day work what is the percentage of male to female? Would you prefer it to be different?

A. Company wise, the mix is about 90% male to 10% female. About 7% of those females are in administrative type positions and the percentage of truly technical females is probably about 2 - 3%. I would prefer it to a bit more balanced.

Q. You probably have many ideas for how to encourage more women to join open source projects, but which do you feel would be most effective to implement now?

A. There are many types of contributors to open source and I often feel the ones we need most are the most undervalued. The F/LOSS and Linux communities do a great job of talking to themselves and promoting within but we say we want to reach everyone. In order to reach those new people, we need to encourage those currently not as technical to become involved and we need their feedback. I was at an event with female open source leaders and someone said they only wanted to talk to "real kernel hackers" and not human resource (HR) type people, who they felt were really not in the same category as coders. I found it really sad that one, this person did not recognize the value of the feedback provided by "HR types", and two, they felt no desire to help those HR types become contributors.

So, in other words, encourage EVERYONE, not just coders or hackers. Let everyone know that we need and welcome their feedback and contributions.

Q. As you grew in the open source world, did you rely on mentors, personal motivation, colleagues, or others?

A. Personal motivation played a great part. Now that so many are searching for jobs, they often ask me about jobs in open source--they are looking for a short cut. I spent years teaching myself everything I could about F/LOSS and Ubuntu in order to position myself for my current job. There are no shortcuts, you have to be willing to put in the time to learn and not just expect someone to hand you a great position. Many F/LOSS communities are built on the contributions of volunteers, so you have to be willing to be a volunteer before moving into paid positions.

Q. Do you see any road blocks to open source growing internationally?

A. I see it easier to grow internationally than in the US. So many US companies are too invested in the proprietary models, but countries like India, Brazil and China seem to have easier paths to adopt more open source than in the US. In the US, the first questions I am asked are related to security. If it's open, it can't be secure. Fighting that perception is a huge obstacle in the US.

Brenda Wallace

A well-known blogger from New Zealand, Brenda Wallace writes that her most enjoyable aspect of working in open source is, "seeing it used all over the place--especially by those strange companies that officially don't touch open source and yet don't realise their core business runs on it.

Brenda was asked the following questions:

Q. In your day-to-day work, what is the percentage of male to female? Would you prefer it to be different?

A. In my workplace, it's 10% female but only 4% are technical as the rest are accountants, receptionists, etc. I'd like it to increase, but this can't be rushed through blatant positive discrimination.

Q. You probably have many ideas for how to encourage more women to join open source projects, but which do you feel would be most effective to implement now?

A. Mentors work best, in my opinion. Women geeks can pair up with young women who turn up at any hackfest, especially if they look nervous. It can be hard to obtain credibility when you're new and also somehow demographically different to everyone else in the room. Safety in numbers is also true.

Q. As you grew in the open source world, did you rely on mentors, personal motivation, colleagues, or others?

A. I turned up at the right projects at the right time, and suddenly I was filing a patch a day. I had previously attempted to contribute to the wrong projects, and with a nick (username) that was clearly female. Choosing a gender neutral nick and then contributing well got my foot in the door on the first project I really contributed to. Then my reputation, and confidence, grew from there.

Q. Generally, what improvement would you most like to see in open source?

A. Less tolerance of anonymity. This is the cloak behind which the worst discrimination is found. When someone knows their actions are on record, and are tied to their own name, they will behave differently. Remind the community that before their next job interview, they'll be checked out via a quick Google search. I'd like for some of the worst comments...to be indexable against the [person] that said it.

Q. What are your favourite aspects of the open source field?

A. Low barrier to entry. A 14 year old enthusiast, a 30 year career veteran, and a chainsmoking ex-bus driver living in a one room hut in the rainforest all have the same opportunity to modify the code. The documents are free, the code is free, and you are free to do as you wish within the very open licenses.

To highlight this point, the author spoke with Valerie Aurora. Valerie's first experience writing code was when she was six years old and changed the screen color in BASIC. Valerie looked at the Linux kernel for the first time for a class project when she was 20 years old.

Valerie notes that plenty of contributors are "people who didn't come to computers until they were adults. I know several people like this who are now kernel programmers and I don't want people to think that they can't get into the field."

The author concurs that in open source, traditional age barriers expand in both directions. The Linux User Group meeting she attends most regularly, BALUG, is sometimes attended by women who are well out of their 20s and 30s. At the same time, the author is able to bring her daughter to most Linux conferences. Her daughter attended her first conference, Ubuntu Live, at 5 years old and continues to attend conferences alongside her mother.

The author notes the following: "at this year's SCALE there were more females in attendance than at any other Linux event I have attended. Admittedly, many of them were skipping school to attend, but it was wonderful to see them exploring the show floor and doodling on sketch pads during the keynotes. Having a higher than usual percentage of girls gave me a glimpse that my daughter may have it easier than I did. I am thrilled to see people contributing at any age. The other day a granny came up to me and asked about my blog. She said, 'Could you be a dear and help me set up Ubuntu? My computer is really old and I think it will run better with Ubuntu on it." I was thrilled to hear this request. I am similarly thrilled when young ones are allowed and even encouraged to join in the fun".

Andreia Gaita

Across the ocean, Andreia Gaita in Lisbon, Portugal is working on a cross-platform browser embedding library with Gecko for the Mono project. Andreia gave the following insights:

Q. What are your three favourite aspects of the open source field?

A. People actually have fun with their work which makes for a much more relaxed and friendly working environment. The freedom to pursue other interests and switch projects when you're bored. The challenge of working with the best and brightest, amazingly smart and competent people that really push the limits.

Q. In your day-to-day work what is the percentage of male to female? Would you prefer it to be different?

A. Percentages can be misleading. Only counting the core contributors, percentage-wise, females are 3.3% in the whole group, and roughly 10% in my team, specifically. Of course, we're 32 on the Mono project and in the Moonlight team we're 12, so those numbers mean I'm the only female in the entire project. I'm only counting the internal team, not the entire community, and we do have a fairly large community. In general, though, you can count the number of women with your fingers, so let's just say the percentages are really low.

I don't care much about the gender of the people I work with; I care about working with great people, bright and motivated. The more the merrier.

Q. Generally, what improvement would you most like to see in open source?

A. Open source evolves according to the needs of the people developing it, and it often happens that those needs don't necessarily reflect the needs of users. There's always been a rift between users and developers in open source, and while there is an ongoing effort to address this problem, it's still not enough. Companies that use open source in their businesses need to realize that they have to contribute back to the effort if they want to have the best software. Nobody else can know as well as they do what they need, because they are the users, and they have skillsets that can be sorely lacking in open source projects, such as QA (quality assurance), management, documentation, and testing. We need better tools to facilitate user contributions--we can't rely on the same mechanisms that developers use, those are clearly not enough.


The general consensus is that open source would be better served by expanding our contributor base to include a more balanced population of women. If we could activate the "other 50%" of the population internationally, perhaps open source could become the norm rather than the option that savvy businesses, governments and institutions use.

Recommended Resources

Women in Technology

The Ada Lovelace Day Collection




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