Breaking down the gender divide in open source and open culture

The tipping point for Linux kernel developer Valerie Aurora was when one of her friends was groped for the third time in a single year at a conference. "As I heard about it I knew I'd remember all the times I'd been groped as well, and insulted and harassed #8212; and that was just too much," Aurora says.

Aurora waited a month then emailed Mary Gardiner, who she knew from LinuxChix and The result was the Ada Initiative: A non-profit organisation the two formed that aims to break down barriers women face when it comes to participation in open source, open technology and open culture more broadly.

"I think part of what happens in some of these fields [like open source is that] you have a really extreme minority of women and you get the outsider status that's associated with being an extreme minority," Gardiner says. "People at have started it calling it being a unicorn. I think someone last year actually had their camera and would take pictures of women [when they spotted some]."

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According to Aurora, women's participation in open source development is an order of magnitude worse than in the proprietary software world. In a 2009 keynote at OSCON (O'Reilly Open Source Convention) Alex Bayley cited a 2006 EU survey that found only 1.5 per cent of contributors to open source are women.

Almost two thirds of female participants in the EU study, conducted by the University of Maastricht, believed that it was easier for men to get acknowledgement for their contribution to open source projects.

An online survey for a study published in Journal of Information Technology Management, Volume XXI, Number 4, 2010 on the open source community found that 50 per cent of the women who participated had experienced online or offline harassment

When it comes to other aspects of open culture, things aren't that much better. For example only 15 per cent of contributors to Wikipedia, probably the most widely known product of open culture, are women, according to a 2010 study (PDF).

One of the reasons for the Ada Initiative's focus on open source/tech is that "it's such a powerful a lever to move world culture with," Aurora says. "It comes down to first 'wow it's so much worse' [in the open source world] and then at the same time [open source] is so incredibly powerful."

"We believe that open technology and culture has a higher leverage affect on society as a whole," Aurora says. "So it's like we can say 'Oh well what we really need to do is fix sexism in society overall', and then we can say 'Well look if we're writing Wikipedia, if we're writing the software that everybody uses, if we're creating what's on the internet and setting the culture on the internet, which spreads to everybody, then we are changing sexism in society at large'."

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"In the new tech boom a great number of start-up founders are coming out the open source culture," Gardiner says. "That's one of the main pipelines for start-ups at the moment so if at the start of the pipe line you're only starting with a group that's 98 per cent men, it funnels through to having this hugely male dominated founder culture and not even just male dominated, but white male dominated."

"There's a wide range of opinion among women and open source and women in open stuff in general about what we should do and what approach we should take," Aurora says. "Whether we should just hide ourselves and pretend nothing's wrong, or never, never talk about the gender gap problem."

The aim of the organisation, which was formed in early 2011, isn't intended to replace some of the existing open source women's networks, Gardiner says: "We are definitely not aiming to replace LinuxChix or replace the Haecksen mini conf with an Ada Initiative mini conf or anything like that." Instead, the Ada Initiative intends to "do some of the harder stuff that costs money and time, that people haven't had money and time for."

"There's not the one mind that's 'women and open stuff'', which people often think there is," Aurora adds. "Our guideline is that you believe women should have equal rights and that participating in technology is important other than that we have a lot of different people with different opinions."

The Ada Initiative has five projects it will be focussing on initially: First Patch Week, Ada's Advice, Ada's Careers, research, and organising AdaCamp conferences.

First Patch Week

First Patch Week is inspired by Canonical's PatchPilot scheme and recognises that writing a patch is not the end of the story when contributing to an open source project, and that the process of actually getting it applied can be fraught for first timers: "The whole process is that you download the code, learn the build system, learn the testing system, fix the bug, find someone on the mailing list or the IRC channel who can review your patch, maybe find someone else who can actually apply it," Gardiner says.

"We thought of doing something similar [to the PatchPilot scheme] with women as an audience #8212; so okay you want to write a patch for an open source project, and we'll likely work with a corporate partner for a specific project, well this is the full set of things that you'll need to go through and so it ends up being both technical and social training… There are a lot of social norms associated with getting anything done [in different open source projects] that aren't documented."

The organisation needs a partner for First Patch Week. "We need someone to bring us a project… we're hoping people will donate their employees' time [to First Patch Week]."

"That's what makes it different than saying, 'Hey everybody lets be nice to each other and why don't you mentor someone in your spare time'," Aurora says. "A lot of companies say that you should be helping people get their patches through but when it comes to review time it's not on the list. So the idea is to say, 'This is what the companies are donating #8212; engineering time #8212; and that's incredible valuable.'"

Ada's Advice

Ada's Advice is intended to be a compendium that draws together different resources about the issues women face when working in open technology. "There's a lot of documentation of problems and we want to gather solutions suggested by people into one resource. Then you have a single one stop shop; so okay I'm an employer looking to hire more women, what do I need to do; or I'm a boss and my team now has a woman on it what do I do," Gardiner says.

Ada's Careers

Ada's Careers will be a resource to help women get into open source/technology/culture jobs. "One of our basic philosophies is that a great way to get more women into 'open stuff' is to get women jobs in open stuff, and wherever possible switch women from jobs that aren't a good fit for them," Aurora says.

"We see a lot of women who are in jobs that are way too easy for them, who could be doing something much more difficult, but they don't think it exists for whatever reasons or the job description puts them off #8212; that's a real common mistake employers make. They're looking for a rock star; they write in the job description that they're looking for a rock star, but women are socialised to be much more modest so no women apply."

Ada's Careers "is a career development website for women at all stages of their careers, not just when they're looking for a new job. Employers are allowed to post job advertisements, but they basically pay for it by also posting advice on things like 'here's how you get a raise'."

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According to Gardiner and Aurora there's a deficit of research about women working in open source, let alone broader open technology/open culture roles. "In terms of something that's methodology rigorous and had statisticians go over the data and so forth there's probably only one," Gardiner says.

The Ada Initiative wants to conduct research that's rigorous enough to give an accurate picture of the current status of women in open source as well as discover changes over time. "Doing methodologically rigorous research is expensive, so that's getting towards the more ambitions end because we're only a two person non profit at the moment."

The organisation will be seeking a partner for a survey. "For starters we don't have the right kind of research expertise between the two of us," Gardiner says.


The fifth project of the organisation is also its first major undertaking: Organising 'AdaCamp' conferences for women involved in open technology and open culture. Forty three people registered to attend the inaugural AdaCamp in Melbourne on 14 January. The second AdaCamp is likely to be staged on the east coast of the US, Gardiner says, and be held around about the time of the Wikimedia Foundation's Wikimania conference, which will be in Washington DC in mid-July. "We won't settle on final dates and final venue until the books are closed on the current AdaCamp."


The Ada Initiative is seeking donations to help fund its operations. Donations can be made online.

Follow Rohan Pearce on Twitter: @rohan_p

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @techworld_au


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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