OSCON: Standing Out in the Crowd

Kirrily Robert gave the first keynote speech this morning, entitled “Standing Out in the Crowd.” She spoke about the gender imbalance in open source and shared her experiences working on open source projects that have a higher-than-average percentage of women participants. She laid out statistics about the current gender balance of various projects, looked at trends in open source, and closed with a number of tips on how open source projects can get — and keep — more women contributors.

First off, Kirrily quantified the gender imbalance problem for us: women make up only 1.5% of contributors to open source projects overall. They’re 5% of the perl community and 10% of Drupal. The IT industry has 20% – 30% women; clearly it’s a sad state of affairs that open source lags so dramatically. At least part of the problem can be traced to the culture of open source communities. Unfortunately, many open source communities share sexist jokes, and even here at the conference Kirrily saw sexist images in presentations. (Over lunch I even heard of an OSCON party last night where faux strippers were “dancing” for the party attendees. If that is true, it is indeed a sad state of affairs.)

Turning to more cheerful topics, Kirrily shared some success stories. The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) is a “nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms.” The OTW project boasts 60 thousand lines of Ruby code and 20+ coders who are all female!

She also talked about Dreamwidth, which forked the LiveJournal codebase to modernize, update, and streamline the project. Dreamwidth has 210,000 lines of Perl and JavaScript code with 40+ coders, about 75% of them female. These projects show that women are indeed interested in participating in open source.

So, why do so few women actually participate? Existing open source projects simply do not present an inviting atmosphere to women. When asked about not participating in open source projects, women replied: “I didn’t feel like I was wanted,” or “I never got the feeling that outsiders were welcomed…”.

Kirrily gave us a number of tips for how to get more women involved in our projects. First, recruit for diversity. The early project members set the tone of the project, so reach out to women from the beginning to make sure they help create the project’s culture. Next, set up a Code of Conduct that lays down proper and respectful behavior for the project — say it and then mean it. Then use tools to make it easier for beginners to contribute from day one — make newcomers feel welcome in your project. Transparency is also very important — show newcomers what your project is like on the inside and show them what it would be like to participate in the project. Value everyone’s contribution: code, docs, bugs. It’s all important — successful projects need more than just code. When someone contributes to your project, be sure to thank them and appreciate their efforts.

One tip that seems obvious, yet needs to be stated: don’t stare. Staring at people makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Also, call people on their crap: “If there is a naked lady on someone’s screen, then they are being an asshole.” Don’t be assholes!

Finally, pay attention! Most guys simply aren’t aware of sexism around them, so it may take conscious effort to spot things that can make people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. Please watch out for sexist behavior and address it when it happens.

Kirrily closed with this thought: Any steps you take to include women in your project will only increase the total pool of hackers who can work on it! Well said. I’ve been keenly observing the gender imbalance at conferences for a number of years now and I find it enlightening to have Kirrily lay down the issues as she sees them.

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