Panel: Open-source needs more women developers

Barriers include chauvinism and an 'old boys network'

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Only about 2% of the thousands of developers working on open-source software projects are women, a number that women already involved in the open-source movement want to see increased.

That issue was the topic of a panel discussion here on Friday, the last day of the seventh annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention, as the panel discussed ways to reverse that pattern. The 2% figure was gleaned from several university and private studies, according to panel members, and is much smaller than in the proprietary software industry, where some 25% of all developers are women.

The barriers to women in open-source development include chauvinism from some male developers who post or verbalize nasty comments as well as an "old boys network" that discourages them from taking part in open-source projects, said panel members.

One idea being considered is the creation of women-focused groups in some open-source communities, said Danese Cooper, a board member of the Open Source Institute and an open-source advocate at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. At least one such group, called Debian Women, has been created within the Debian community; So far, four women have joined the project because of that group. Creation of a similar group is being discussed within the Apache open-source community, she said.

For Mitchell Baker, president of the open-source Mozilla Foundation, getting involved in that project meant being persistent and gaining a reputation for good work.

One problem, she said, has been that women with families can't always spend as much time on open-source projects as other developers. Baker said she couldn't have worked as much on the Mozilla project had she not gotten help from her husband raising their 7-year-old son. "It matters when you have kids, it really does," she said.

Panelist Zaheda Bhorat, manager of open-source projects at Google Inc., agreed that time demands can be great. "It does require evenings and weekends," she said. "[Open-source] communities are global" and work around the clock.

Allison Randal, president of the Perl Foundation and an editor for Hillsboro, Ore.-based IT book publishers O'Reilly Media Inc., said she has been able to get involved in open-source projects by being assertive and just working hard. "I think maybe the hardest part of that is just doing things" and not being afraid of reactions from male developers, she said. "That seems to be the way the open-source world works."

One important step women can take is to encourage other women to get involved, said Claire Giordano, a senior marketing manager for OpenSolaris at Sun Microsystems Inc. In college at Brown University, some male students told her she "couldn't cut it" as she studied math and computer science.

"I didn't listen," she said, noting that her father -- an engineer -- nurtured her love of math and encouraged her to follow her heart.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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