June 2009

"I summoned the courage to submit a proposal to Open Source Bridge, and was accepted. A year ago, I don't think I would have imagined giving a talk at a conference."

Maria Webster, DotFiveOne.com

Conferences are one way that women can be drawn into the free/libre and open source software (F/LOSS) ecosystem. Many different approaches are needed to increase women's participation in F/LOSS, but face-to-face interaction has proven to be a critical part of the way the technology community in Portland, Oregon has thrived. This article describes the successes of this community, and suggests how other communities could benefit from Portland's experience.

Conferences Foster Community

The first conference I ever attended was USENIX's LISA in 1997. It was held in San Diego and I was working for the Computing Center at the University of Oregon at the time. Linus Torvalds was there. Mark Burgess was presenting the automated systems management tool cfengine for the first time. Marcus Ranum, developer of the TIS Internet Firewall Toolkit, dressed up as TCP Wrappers for the Halloween party. One of the first female IBM field service engineers wore a witch's pointed hat with a collection of punchcards tucked in the brim.

Many people knew each other, I was new. My friends showed me around, and made me feel welcome. I was hooked.

I thought to myself, "Conferences are amazing. I love this. These people are my people."

But, it wasn't the conference that hooked me. It was a small group of four or five people who made me feel welcome over the course of the week. They told me funny stories and gossiped about the good and the bad talks. They directed me to sessions I might be interested in, and encouraged me to talk to people who shared my interests. These friends were mentors, guides and party buddies all at the same time.

That first experience is what inspires me to create new conferences, rather than just attend existing ones. Open source citizenship involves not just contributing code back, but fostering community.

Because I am female and visibly involved in open source, people ask me what can be done to increase the number of women in our community. I have my answers ready: mentorship and inviting women individually.

I don't have a master plan, I only know what has worked for me. There are a set of circumstances that led to my involvement and Maria Webster's feeling of empowerment that she mentioned in the opening quote. We have both experienced involvement and belonging through a conference.

Through my work with user groups and conferences, I focus on what I can change about open source community when I'm offline. What we do when we're face to face is as important as what happens online.

Offline Communication

User groups are how I got started in contributing to open source. My first meeting was with the Perl Mongers. Seeing people in person helped me feel comfortable sending messages to the mailing list in order to ask and to offer help. Submitting patches to RRDTool and CPAN modules felt more natural. Even though exposing code to the world still felt terrifying, it seemed easier once I knew a few people who had done the same thing.

Eventually, I started a group of my own for the open source database PostgreSQL, incorporating both online and offline groups.

I live in Portland, Oregon where a vibrant, offline community has grown over the last few years. We have non-profits dedicated to maintaining our tech community, and individuals dedicating most of their personal time to organizing meetings. Legion of Tech was founded in 2008 by a group of 9 people, including me. Dawn Foster, Raven Zachary and Todd Kenefsky spearheaded the group to help continue the good work they'd been doing with BarCampPortland and IgnitePortland. FreeGeek is dedicated to reuse and recycling of tech equipment, and providing educational resources for the public related to computers and free software. Many user groups meet in their building, and FreeGeek has it's own semi-yearly events.

There is something different about our tech communities that visitors and locals comment on: there are lots of women. Not only are the women present, they lead. Women lead and organize events like BarCamp and Ignite. Women lead hacking groups and give talks in user groups. I am co-chair of a locally organized, all-volunteer run conference called Open Source Bridge. We don't keep statistics for attendees at events, but informal counts suggest that BarCampPortland and Ignite Portland events have about 30% women. Typical conference speaker numbers vary from 0% to at most 30% with few conferences releasing attendee gender counts. Drupal's recent conference in Washington, DC was reported to have about about 16% women participants.

How do we Manage our Groups?

There are three factors that I have identified that sustain the Portland groups:

  • personal invitations

  • feeling useful

  • having fun

The examples below focus on the things that tend to bring women into technical groups and what we as individuals can do to foster participation. These strategies can be used to increase a community's overall diversity.

Personal Invitations

My introduction to an open source community does not seem typical. Friends tell me their own stories of sending email to a mailing list and being flamed, submitting a patch that was never applied, or attending a user group meeting for over a year without being talked to. Others tell incredible success stories: sharing an idea that immediately becomes the architecture for important software, submitting a patch that is warmly welcomed, and receiving a helpful critique that leads to a longer term code commitment.

The first time a new person encounters a conference or a F/LOSS user group, we all have the opportunity to make a lasting, positive impression. A friend once attended a user group for an entire year before any member of the group talked to her. I'm amazed she bothered to keep showing up. If it takes a year to start forming social connections, most people won't bother.

Simply sending a short, individual email, or mentioning to someone that you're glad they are back establishes a relationship. You're telling someone that you noticed they were present, and want them back. That's often all the encouragement a person needs to keep attending.

For organizations and events, Portlanders rely a lot on word-of-mouth advertising, short blog posts, and email. And when we want more women to attend an event, we just ask.

Feeling Useful

Once a group has a regular set of attendees, leaders must share the work of organizing. This is not just to offload work, or even to ensure the longevity of an organization. Asking others to contribute builds trust and relationships between individuals.

The organization of the Open Source Bridge conference is distributed among nearly a dozen people. The first thing I did as an organizer was to ask friends to help create the conference. One by one, we created titles and job descriptions. Each person informally knew each other from events, but only two or three had really worked closely with one another before.

We haven't had a perfect track record with completing tasks. But when we don't delegate work, volunteers don't stay.

At Code-N-Splode, a women-focused programming group run by Gabrielle Roth, we ask everyone to participate and to present. Nearly every member of the group has presented, and we find those same women giving talks at other groups and conferences. Participation creates a community to sustain this particular group while fostering female ambassadors who present talks elsewhere.

Having Fun

Portland often feels like it buzzes with activity. Any night of the week, some freely available tech event is happening that everyone is welcome to attend. Few of these groups are highly structured. Most are small: from 3 to 30 people. Meetups are loosely organized, sometimes with a topic, other times not.

The most successful groups have a clearly planned social hour after the technical part of the meeting. Or the entire meeting is social, and designed for people to mingle, meet new folks and relax.

The Code-N-Splode group was designed to have presentation and socializing on equal footing. We wanted everyone to be able to participate and have the opportunity to speak. What's evolved is a fun after-party for every meeting at a local bar.

No Silver Bullet

There is no universal API for the social aspects of free software. The ways people start out in F/LOSS are as varied as the personalities behind the software. However, one important thing has fostered the development of the Portland tech community: we meet with each other, regularly, in-person.

I'm having a long conversation with a friend about what we all can do to encourage women in open source. In the past, he has focused efforts on educating and encouraging young people. Through that conversation, I'm reminded that it is a huge leap of faith to say that bringing women into the community one at a time will make a difference.

Asking women to join the free software movement is a lot like asking people to come to a new conference. There's a risk that they just won't come. But you have to take chances, and maybe even fail a few times. The recipe for success is to learn from mistakes, adjust, and try again.

We don't need more women involved in F/LOSS just to have more women. Diversity is what keeps any community healthy and strong. Strategies that increase the number of women involved will inevitably lead to increases in other kinds of diversity.

In order for F/LOSS to become the default choice in software, it needs to be not just a choice by many, but the best choice. We can't achieve this goal without bringing more women into our groups. The experience of Portland's technical community can act as inspiration for change in other open source communities.

Recommended Resources

Portland's Tech Event Calendar

Blog Dedicated to Portland's Tech Community

A Non-Profit Dedicated to Free, Fun Events


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