Women in Open Source – the canary in the coal mine

The other month I had the pleasure watching Angie Byron give the keynote lecture at Open Web Vancouver on Women in Open Source. The synopsis from Open Web Vancouver:

The open source world is rich with opportunities: Working with people of all cultures from all over the world; Collaborating with some of the biggest and brightest minds on the ultimate solutions to complicated problems; Changing the world by providing free tools for organizations such as non-profits, educational institutions, and governments; Building up marketable skills and practical knowledge.

But yet, so many women are missing out. Why is that? And what can we do to change it? This talk will endeavour to answer these questions, as well as provide tips and strategies for women who want to dip their toe into the waters.

I wish I could embed the video on my blog but alas, it is not possible, so I encourage you to wander over to Angie’s blog and watch the video there.

The important lesson about Angie’s talk is that it isn’t just about women. The power and capacity of an open source community is determined by the quantity and quality of its social capital. If a community fails to invest in either – if it turns off or away qualified people because its culture (however unintentionally) discriminates against a gender, race or group – then it limits its growth and potential. The same is true of a community culture that doesn’t allow certain groups to improve their social capital. These may seem like large, intangible questions, but they are not. I’m sure every open source community turns some people off. Sometimes the reasons are good – the fit might not be right. But sometimes, I’m certain the reasons are not good. And the community may never get the feedback it needs because the moderate, productive person who walks away doesn’t create a scene, they may just quietly disappear (or worse they never showed up to begin with).

So Angie matters not just because women are missing out (although this is true, important and urgent). Angie’s talk matters because women are just the canary in the coal mine. Millions of people are missing out – people with ideas and the ability to make contributions get turned away because of a bad experience, because a community’s culture is off putting, too aggressive, not welcoming or not supportive.

For me its opened up a whole new way of thinking about my writing on open source communities. After Angie’s talk I sought her out as I felt we’d been talking about the same things. I’m interested in developing norms, skills and tools within an open source community that allows more people to participate and collaborate more effective, in short how do we think about community management. Angie is talking about developing open source communities that support and engage women. Working towards solving one helps us solve the other. So if you wake up today and notice there are no (other) women on the IRC channel with you… maybe we should both individually and collectively as a community engage in a little introspection and think about what we could change. Doing so won’t only make the community more inclusive, it will make it more productive and effective as well.

20 thoughts on “Women in Open Source – the canary in the coal mine

  1. Pingback: Women in Open Source – the canary in the coal mine | eaves.ca | Open Hacking

  2. Pundits' Guide

    You forget, many women are still also doing double duty. Many won't have time to participate fully in extracurricular activities until later in life, and even there may have to take more responsibility for their elders. Programming needs periods of uninterrupted time. Mum = the Windows Registry of the household (“mum where did you put this”, “mom, where is the such and such”, “dear, do we have any XX in the house”) and rarely gets that kind of time as a result. In my case, if it weren't for golf very little of this deep thinking work would occur.

  3. david_a_eaves

    Two quick follow ups here, thoughts courtesy of a good friend.First, I know the title to this post is far from perfect. The exclusion of women from Open Source is not an existential threat to open source – it will not collapse or fail if more women are not included (the broader IT industry seems to continue, for better for worse despite a poor male to female ratio). The point is that growth and success will, however, be limited.Second, nothing in this post is supposed to lead open source participants to believe (or feel accused of) explicitly excluding women. But we've got to separate impact versus intent. We may not be trying to exclude women or other groups (intent) But for whatever reasons they may still feel excluded (impact). The key is for a community to acknowledge and accept that it can be having an impact without that intent – and the solution is to get really intentional about the skills, tools and culture of the community to change the impact.It is just important to me that women read this post and it resonate with them AND that men involved in open source read this post without feeling accused of being sexist or part of a sexist community. The goal is to generate discussion on how we can change impact since, given most of the people I know in OS, the intent is already there.

  4. Rebecca Blake

    Great post David! Really like that you point out it's not just about women. I, personally, would like to see equal oppertunity to contribute for all (not necessarily evidence of all contributing, but all interested parties having the chance to do so).RE: “If a community fails to invest in either – if it turns off or away qualified people because its culture (however unintentionally) discriminates against a gender, race or group – then it limits its growth and potential.” I find myself re-imaginging this quote to fit with organizational communities as well: If [an organization] fails to invest in [social capital]- if it turns off or away qualified people because its culture (however unintentionally) discriminates against a gender, race, [age] or group – then it limits its growth and potential.RE: “Millions of people are missing out – people with ideas and the ability to make contributions get turned away because of a bad experience, because a community's culture is off putting, too aggressive, not welcoming or not supportive.” I sincerely respect that you're bringing this to light. The struggle to stay engaged despite these negativities is something I fear far too many feel on an ongoing basis. Any inspirational words from you or your readers are warmly welcomed ;)@rebecca_blake

  5. Majken "Lucy" Connor

    Software development has been a safe haven for people with poor social skills and even moreso, it seems that the more gifted a developer the greater their social disorder. I really don't think it's a matter of male vs female, but very specifically one of culture. Women are more social, and are less likely than men to have some sort of social disorder. We need to be careful in that changing the culture to include people who currently wouldn't choose this environment will mean alienating at least some of the biggest contributors.I think the real problem is that when we talk about open source we almost exclusively talk about development. I *could* code, but I choose not to. It's not what interests me. However, there are many areas where open source needs help that I do enjoy (and other, more social creatures would, too): marketing and user support are the big two for me. Design would be another.I don't think changing culture would make me interested in coding. It's just the nature of the task that doesn't appeal, and I'm very happy to leave it to my friends who do genuinely love it, most of whom happen to be male. They also happen to not be interested in dealing with users, and don't particularly care about marketing. Probably why so many open source projects just never catch on.I agree, it's the canary in the coal mine, but not necessarily that groups are specifically being excluded, but that aspects of the project (that would in turn include those groups) are being neglected.

  6. Julie Martin

    David–Interesting post. I too am interested in engaging a broader community. In particular, I'm looking at engaging lawyers. If you have any discussions, meetings, brown bags, etc. on issues regarding inclusion and reaching out to a larger community base, please include me. And I do hope you will keep this discussion going.

  7. Penny McKinlay

    I particularly appreciated Majken “Lucy” Connor's comments. I agree that we need to change the culture as well as the gender mix. I am not a programmer, but I am very interested in open source because of the impact it can have on making government decisions more transparent and in both providing more information and soliciting more effective feedback from citizens and the public. I think it's really important to not be writing programs and finding cool new uses for statistics without determining whether they will actually meet a need. What does the public want? What do people need? How can citizens have a greater voice in government decision-making? And, once we've developed a tool to meet the public's need, how do we communicate effectively so that they know it's available? Open source needs to include public policy and communications experts in order to be effective.

  8. david_a_eaves

    Majken – I'm in complete agreement with the 2-4 paragraphs of your comment – Angie's presentation is, in part, about how there are more roles than just coding in Open Source communities (something I'm going to touch on tomorrow or Wednesday). However, I'm not sure I completely agree with the first paragraph. I agree in part with your diagnosis – we have to ensure that any change in culture doesn't alienate big contributors but even here we should check in. But even here we need to note, having big contributors is great – but if they are so socially disruptive so as to alienate lots of other contributors (who collectively might outproduce them) then the opportunity cost of a culture that gives them preference is too great. It not only alienates women – it limits the community's productivity. This is why I believe effective community management is so important. I believe it is possible to create an environment and culture where even allegedly “anti-social” coders can contribute and be part of the community along with other users. I've been meaning to blog about some of the work I've been doing with Mozilla Messaging on this front where simply some different approaches to communication have, I believe, slight nudged the community to be less aggressive. It is in your prescription where I diverge though (if I'm reading you correctly – I may have misread). If this challenge gets framed as a choice between a culture that is open (particularly women) vs. one that favours big contributors, then I fear we'll grossly limit the potential growth and appeal of open source communities – in a manner that will limit their productivity, but also their broader appeal.

  9. Delphine Lebédel

    Thanks for this article, great post! I totally agree with your point of view.I'm working right now on a project in Mozilla, dedicated to improve women's visibility and involvement in Open Source. I blogged about this recently here:http://blog.lebedel.net/index.php?post/2009/07/…(and less recently here: http://blog.lebedel.net/index.php?post/2009/05/…)A wiki and IRC channel for the project will come out very soon. We hope this can be a step in helping things evolve. Again, thanks for talking about this really important subject.

  10. Majken "Lucy" Connor

    Hmm, how to better frame this.To someone who is socially adept, blatant rudeness isn't the only thing that creates an unwelcoming feeling. Not making eye contact, not making small talk, only pointing out the flaws in someone's patch, making a strange joke, not noticing when someone was hurt by a comment, these are all things that are “offensive” in the broader social dance. Someone accustomed to that dance will take them as signs to move on. This is what I'm saying we shouldn't change, and quite frankly in people with social disorders like AS, we can't change. They're not dancers, as weird and alienating as they can be to us the dance is just as (and moreso?) to them.To continue the analogy, let's frame these people as the composers. Composers don't need to be dancers, and dancers might very well find composers quite odd. It also doesn't make sense to say that because more dancers aren't writing music, that music isn't accessible enough. Composers don't need to change, and dancers don't need to start composing, what's really needed are musicians. The surly incomprehensible geek that replied to your bug report would probably rather not have replied in the first place. He's probably just as confused by your question as you are, and just as offended by it as you are by his response. This is where “musicians” come in. Facilitators that can get to the bottom of the question and guide the interaction. Back to plain speaking – I've noticed myself that I have a lot of good friends who are “composers” and I think it's because I'm a very social person myself, but I just don't get offended. From my participation in past discussions along this vein, everyone talks about needing to make these communities more socially friendly, but most of the discussion I see is how to get the socially challenged to accommodate the socially adept. This is folly. Now that isn't to say that the “composers” can't, and shouldn't improve their skills. You provided a good example of how people can learn, but how would it have happened without guidance from someone like you? I think as you get more women involved most won't get involved in development, they'll get involved in other roles, and because of interest, not because of environment. So to me this is another reason why we need to seriously consider the cost of alienating the gifted contributors. Does either side really need to change to be a productive member of the community? On the surface the answer seems like a yes, because we're looking at two different groups and trying to put them together into one. The truth is, though, successful projects have several different groups that transition into and interact with each other in different ways, but don't fully overlap.I think the real reason there aren't more “dancers” is because there aren't enough “musicians” playing. I think that's partly because we keep asking the question “why don't more dancers compose” rather than asking “why don't we hire more musicians?” This is what I mean. I think if we can change the culture of OS to value user support and marketing along-side development (or at least to see the immense value they provide to improving development) we'll change the environment without having to ask one particular group to change or leave to accommodate another.

  11. Pingback: Women in Open Source and Florida’s Bohemian Index | eaves.ca

  12. pramsey

    To get all corporate, what's the “action item” here? What can an open source community *do*, concretely? There's no top-down control, we can't “hire more women”. And at least in the communities I am in it doesn't feel like we are seeing a lot of women dipping their toes in and leaving due to culture conflict. Of course there aren't a lot of women building model trains or flying remote control airplanes either. And there's a serious underrepresentation of men in cooking classes. I think it would be *good* and *healthy* to have a higher proportion of women in the community, but that seems to require much larger raw numbers of interested women who just don't exist. Do they? (That is, this issue seems much, much, much larger than “open source communities”.)

  13. Pundits' Guide

    I think Paul's right. It's like any group or workplace: you've got to make sure you're not excluding people by being rude, ignorant or thoughtless, and that you're offering inclusion to the widest possible audience in the way you promote something.But people's interests, available time and commitment are going to naturally draw them to one place or another. It's my impression that participation in an open source software development community requires a big time commitment amongst other things. So I personally doubt that community is going to attract many mothers given all the competing time demands. Unless there is a full-time co-parent at home of course, and one very quiet home office.However, it shouldn't exclude them and should probably make sure that nothing it's doing is doing so inadvertantly.

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  15. Pingback: A follow up to Woman in OS « Mitigated Frenzy

  16. lenbullard

    “This is where “musicians” come in. Facilitators that can get to the bottom of the question and guide the interaction.”N of 1 but I am a musician employed in the software industry and as I look back on my career, that is almost precisely what I was usually employed to do: debug the humans. Try catch.We noticed the paucity of women even in the SGML days. I thought perhaps it was because software as a social activity was fairly boring. What I noted first about the first email communities was the tolerance of extreme rudeness that wouldn't be tolerated in F2F speech. Then I traveled to some conferences and realized I was being provincial. It was tolerated in some.It is about global manners. Bands that hide in their buses suck. In diplomacy, management, entertainment, pick any, the main objective is to keep the conversation going forward. In open source where you are collaborating with people from every corner and every culture, you have to learn how to do that.Global manners matter. This is the first time in our memory that the entire globe had to learn that at the same time. Unique times.

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