Getting More Women Coders Into Open Source

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Diversity remains an issue in tech firms across the nation, with executives and project managers publicly upset over a lack of women in engineering and programming roles. Multiple explanations for the gender gap persist; some point accusing fingers at the country’s educational pipeline, while others say that the culture within tech companies discourages women from participating more fully.

Sujatha Kashyap, vice president of products for Robin Systems, which builds tools for enterprise data storage and optimization, believes that the culture of coding, particularly open-source, attracts “a certain demographic” that might keep some women coders away.

Specifically, Kashyap thinks many open-source communities may be more geared to the way men communicate, especially in an online context. That makes it more difficult for women interested in code to make their presence known.

A Look Inward

Critical mass is another issue: There simply haven’t been enough women coders and developers on corporate project teams, suggests Anandhi Bharadwaj, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

While there are women actively involved in open source right now, offering contributions on forums such as GitHub, there are many more still learning the craft, experiencing what Bharadwaj termed “a learning curve as they develop their confidence and competence.”

For some women coders, the demands of ordinary life prevent them from devoting time to open-source communities, said Emily Ratliff, senior director of infrastructure security at The Linux Foundation: ”I have seen some excellent developers’ careers stagnate because they just did their job and did their job well… No one will boost you, unless you reach out first and advocate for yourself.”

Boosting Your Skills

Whatever their background, every programmer needs to “be an active part of the tech ecosystem,” Kashyap said. That’s because employers use open-source communities to scout talent.

Such communities are also great places to flex your programming muscles. “With open source, you are free to innovate in ways that might not be financially lucrative, but which are creatively rewarding,” Ratliff added. “It is a great way to sharpen your skills and receive immediate and direct input on your work.”

Women coders should learn how to showcase their skills and build a reputation for deep expertise in certain areas, Bharadwaj said: “Over time, the individual’s reputation grows and key members are recognized with high status in these communities.”

Where to Start

Ratliff suggests focusing on a project that interests you personally. “If you’re interested in security, have a look at the CII Census, and pick an interesting, high scoring project, and try to fuzz test it or write an automated test suite for it,” she said. “Read the code.” OpenHatch Easy Bugs has a list of projects, which tag certain bugs for new contributors to tackle.

She also recommends conventions and online groups that concentrate on women in open source. For example, one of the highlights of the LinuxCon and CloudOpen annual event is a “women in open source” luncheon, a closed-door event that gives attendees a chance to network and share their own experiences as professionals in the Linux community and tech industry in general.

OpenStack also has an active Women of OpenStack group that can help get women coders started on projects.

Another great place to start is Outreachy, an offshoot of the Gnome Foundation. It connects open-source newbies with people working in open source software, and guides them through their first contribution. Outreachy is geared to people from groups underrepresented in free and open source software, and offers focused internship opportunities.

7 Responses to “Getting More Women Coders Into Open Source”

  1. No one has locked and bolted the door against women in any part of IT. This is another feminist attempt to put men down and dominate a field that was never closed to women. This more organic fertilizer of bovine origin. I taught myself to code as did every worthwhile coder out there. You want respect, jobs and part of the IT field; earn it!

  2. Blimey Urlonz, what are you so scared of? Women and men are equally good at programming, but men have slowly come to dominate the field. Only conclusion you can come to is that something is preventing women from wanting to be involved. This article is far from putting down men – so again what are you so scared of?

  3. Why can’t we just focus on ‘WHAT’ we do and quit cryin about ‘WHO’ is doing it? Affirmative Action has placed more unqualified employees into positions than any scammer could hope to achieve. If a person(human) wants to learn to fly, don’t look at their ethnicity or gender, just let them learn. If they don’t want to learn how to write code, DONT FORCE THEM!

  4. How much time, effort, and resources should be diverted from pursuing the project – design, code, and test – and into trying to entice people to grudgingly join the project and the additional training and constant input of motivation that usually requires? By all means market products so more passionate and internally motivated people willingly join, but why try to force the uninterested? Happily, I’ve gotten to work with women and men from all over the world, with great results from motivated pursuit of our team’s goals. I’ve also worked on less motivated teams where people didn’t really want to be there – a very bad experience not solved by “diversity”.

    It’s hard not to see ulterior motives in these calls for diversity (always about race, nationality, skin color, and sex; never about diversity of, say, IQ, political and religious affiliation, or height – aren’t those equally valuable diverse perspectives?), but that may just be my experience talking.

    Here are three possible negative motives, but there are certainly more:
    * “Nice community you’ve built from scratch there; we want to move in and run the place rather than doing the hard work of building our own – but we disagree with your rules that make the community work.”

    * Lonely male geeks want access to women so want to recruit them: i.e. bring the females to us, we don’t want to go to them.

    * But probably someone is just blindly applying ‘diversity’ theories they were taught in school without thinking through real world application. This is much like giving control of a company to a freshly graduated MBA – it’ll be run into the ground because all the MBA has is theory, not useful experience applying and testing the theories.

  5. I am not scared. The two things you must have to be a programmer are talent and 2am. Most people cannot code because they lack the talent which is what you are born with. No one can teach you to think logically. The 2am part is where you stay up until 2am hacking through the problem until you get the code right. I taught myself to code. The only classes I found useful were the ones that assigned projects that challenged me to find tough solutions.
    There is no study that proves one way or another that women and men generally are equally good at coding and if there was I would find whatever result suspect. There are good women coders. The problem with numbers of women in programming is to do with lack of desire on the part of women to go through the pure hell of learning how to code.
    If you have programs that exclude men and are dumbed down to attract talentless women you will have lost both the best of coders women and men.

  6. “culture of coding, particularly open-source, attracts ‘a certain demographic’ that might keep some women coders away” – just like nursing and teaching keeps men away. There are differences between genders you know.

    “develop their confidence and competence” – person issue of the person, lack of self respect, etc.

    “many open-source communities may be more geared to the way men communicate, especially in an online context” – what does this even mean?

    “the demands of ordinary life prevent them from devoting time to open-source communities” – personal issue – work half time or something.

    “conventions and online groups that concentrate on women in open source” – no one cares about your sex, the last section implies that being a woman is a disability. It is not.

    Also this comment code doesn’t work well – this is like the 5th time I a trying to post a response here. I am guessing it may be a the dot in my email address or the use of the shorter word for ‘gender’ – either way, fix your comment system please.

  7. Gary Wade

    Speaking on the getting into open source aspect, many companies have it written into their employment contracts that their employees are not allowed to work on software projects even on their own time, so unless you quit, you’re not legally allowed to improve yourself in this manner.