If you weren’t at OSCON this morning, here is what I spoke about in my keynote, Standing Out in the Crowd. I’m including most of the key visuals, so my apologies for the image-heavy post. I’ll also be uploading to slideshare.net (with voiceover I hope) and I’m told there will be video up at the OSCON blip.tv channel in due course. (ETA: it’s up.)
Anyway, on with the show.
They asked me to speak about women in open source, and most specifically about two recent open source projects that have a majority of women developers. But first, I need to give a bit of context.
Image credit: Jonathan Corbet, lwn.net
This is a normal sort of open source project. I’ll give you a minute to spot the women in the picture. Sorry, make that woman. She’s on the right. Can you see her?
This is normal for open source.
In 2006, the FLOSSPOLS survey (a broad survey of open source usage and development, funded by the EU) found that only 1.5% of open source contributors are women.
In 2007, my survey of the Perl community — both contributors to Perl and users of Perl — found about 5% women. The Drupal community is doing even better, around 10%. And in technical professions and in computer science in universities, reports vary: it can be anywhere from 10% to 30% depending on who you ask and how they’re slicing it. Let’s say 20%.
So in most technical communities, women are in a minority. But in open source communities, we’re in an even smaller minority — by a factor of about ten or more.
So what does it feel like to be a woman in open source? Jono Bacon, at the Community Leadership Summit on the weekend, said — addressing the guys in the room — that if you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in open source, go and get your nails done at a salon. He did this a week or so back, and when he walked into the salon he realised he was the only man there, and felt kind of out of place.
Another example someone suggested is walking into a sports bar on game night wearing the wrong team’s jersey. It can be the most friendly sports bar in the universe, but you’re still going to feel pretty awkward.
So as a woman in open source, it can be a bit like that. You walk into a space, and you feel like you stand out. And there’s enormous pressure to perform well, in case any mistake you make reflects on everyone of your gender.
And that’s just the subtle stuff. There’s also more blatant problems, like sexist jokes, pornographic presentations at conferences, harrassment, and even death threats against women in the open source community. I wish I was joking, but I’m not.
The FLOSSPOLS survey asked open source contributors whether they had witnessed sexism, harrassment, or discrimination in our community. Here’s what they found:
80% of women had noticed sexism in the open source community. 80% of men never noticed anything. That’s a pretty big gap.
Well, enough of this depressing stuff. Let’s talk about something more cheerful.
Majority-female open source projects
There are two new open source projects I’ve been involved with this last year, which are have a majority of women developers.
The first is the Organization for Transformative Works’ Archive Of Our Own (AO3 for short). The OTW supports creators of fan fiction, fan videos, and all other creative things that fans do, like this:
They’re lobbying against the DMCA, they have an academic journal called Transformative Works and Cultures, and they’re working on creating a fanfic archive, by fans and for fans, that won’t cave to over-enthusiastic takedown notices or pressure from nervous advertisers.
When the OTW decided to create the archive, they set up an open source project and they went out recruiting developers. But not necessarily experienced programmers — just anyone who was interested in taking part, and had a passion for making this project work. In fact, they made an effort to include non-programmers early on, and decided to choose a language based on what was easiest for non-programmers to learn.
You can see their process in this LiveJournal post. Basically they said flip a coin: heads is Ruby, tails is Python. Go learn that language to a basic level, install the development toolkit on your computer, and write a simple “Choose your own adventure” style program with a couple of conditional statements in it.
They got about 70 people to do this — all non-programmers, and almost all women from the fan community — and used their feedback to choose Ruby as their programming language of choice.
The second project I wanted to talk about is Dreamwidth, a fork of the LiveJournal codebase, which means it’s a blogging and community platform. It was founded by two ex-LJ employees, one male and one female. It’s currently in open beta and has about 40,000 users, 210,000 lines of Perl etc, and 40ish developers of whom 75% are female. You can check that same Google spreadsheet for more stats.
Like AO3, Dreamwidth makes a point of encouraging new developers, who they call “baby devs”. For instance, there is an IRC channel called #dw-kindergarten where they can go for non-judgemental help. Dreamwidth also provides hosted development environments called “Dreamhacks” for anyone who wants them.
From the very start, Dreamwidth has had a diversity statement that welcomes developers from every walk of life:
We welcome people of any gender identity or expression, race, ethnicity, size, nationality, sexual orientation, ability level, religion, culture, subculture, and political opinion.
Their disability/accessibility policy is also great, and has led to a high proportion of developers with disabilities:
We think accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority, not an afterthought. We think neurodiversity is a feature, not a bug.
The result is an open source developer community that looks like this:
Or, to be more exact, like this:
I surveyed women on the Dreamwidth and AO3 projects and asked them about their experiences. You can read a fuller report of their responses on my earlier blog post, Dispatches from the revolution.
One of the first things I asked them was whether they had previously been involved in open source projects. They gave answers like:
Iâ€™d never contributed to an open source project before, or even considered that I could.
I didnâ€™t feel like I was wanted.
I never got the impression that outsiders were welcome.
I considered getting involved in Debian, but the barriers to entry seemed high.
Those who got a little further along still found it hard to become productive on those projects:
Itâ€™s kind of like being handed a box full of random bicycle parts: it doesnâ€™t help when you donâ€™t know how they go together and just want to learn how to ride a bike.
People without a ton of experience get shunted off to side areas like docs and support, and those areas end up as the ladiesâ€™ auxiliary.
But on Dreamwidth and AO3…
What I like most is that there isnâ€™t any attitude of “stand aside and leave the code to the grown-ups”. If thereâ€™s something that Iâ€™m able to contribute, however small, then the contribution is welcome.
And this one, which is my favourite:
Deep down, I had always assumed coding required this kind of special aptitude, something that I just didnâ€™t have and never would. It lost its forbidding mystique when I learned that people I had assumed to be super-coders (surely born with keyboard attached!) had only started training a year ago. People without any prior experience! Women! Like me! Jesus! Itâ€™s like a barrier broke down in my mind.
So, what can we learn from this? Well, one thing I’ve learnt is that if anyone says, “Women just aren’t interested in technology” or “Women aren’t interested in open source,” it’s just not true. Women are interested, willing, able, and competent. They’re just not contributing to existing, dare I say “mainstream”, open source projects.
And this is great news! It’s great news for new projects. If you are starting up a new open source project, you have the opportunity to recruit these women.
Here are some tips based on what I’ve seen on Dreamwidth and AO3.
From the very earliest days of your project, recruit the diversity you want to see. The first two or three members of the project will set the tone for what follows. People will look at the project and think, “Is this somewhere I can see myself fitting in?”
If you’re working on a desktop app, recruit desktop users. If you’re writing a music sharing toolkit, recruit music lovers. Don’t worry about their programming skills. You can teach programming; you can’t teach passion or diversity.
Say it. Mean it.
Get yourself a Code of Conduct or a Diversity Statement, or possibly both. Use it to set expectations around how your community should treat each other. And don’t just mouth the words. Stand by your policy, and uphold it.
Tools. (Tools are easy.)
Put up a wiki and make sure it contains plenty of information for new developers. Set up your bug tracking system to flag easy tasks for beginners to do. You could even provide a hosted development environment like Dreamwidth’s Dreamhack system, with all the tools and libraries and configuration already in place, to get people hacking as quickly as possible.
Communicate. Not just to existing developers and users, but to newcomers and outsiders as well. Take the time to show what’s going on inside your project — teams, sub-projects, internal processes and communication — so that people who are interested can envision what it would be like to be a part of it.
Of course, all these things are easy to do when you’re starting a new project. It can be harder to implement them in an existing project, maybe one that’s been around two or five or ten years, because you have a lot of inertia in place. Which is not to say you shouldn’t try, but I recognise that it can be difficult and frustrating.
So here are some things that you can do as individuals, no matter what project you’re on.
If a woman joins your project, don’t stare. Just welcome her (politely but not effusively, because that can be creepy), give her any information she needs to get things done, and thank her for her contributions.
Value all contributions.
Large or small, code or docs or bug reports or organisational tasks. All are valuable to your project. Say “thank you”. You don’t have to be the project leader to do this; anyone can do it, and it makes a big difference.
Call people on their crap.
If someone’s being an asshole, call them on their crap. How do you tell if someone’s being an asshole? Well, if there’s a naked woman on the projector screen, that’s a good sign.
Let them know that their behaviour is making people feel unwelcome, and that you don’t like it.
Pay attention to your own behaviour and the behaviour of others. This is possibly the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. You’re not used to noticing this stuff. 80% of you haven’t noticed the sexism in our community.
As men, you are able to glide through life ignoring these things. If you are white, and straight, and speak English, and are university educated, there are a bunch of other things you’ve been able to ignore so far, too. I’m asking you to try not to ignore them. Keep your eyes and ears open and be aware of how things feel to people who don’t share your privilege.
So, those are a few tips I’ve picked up from Dreamwidth and the Archive Of Our Own. They’re only two projects, and they’re both still new, but I think it’s a start.
I’d like to leave you with a parting thought.
What do you think would happen to this picture if we got more women into the open source community?
Do you think some of those little blue figures will turn pink? Do you think there will be less of the blue?
That’s not how it works. Any step you take to improve the diversity of your project will work to increase the developer pool overall.
We’re not far enough along in our plans for world domination that we can afford to turn anyone away.
If you attended OSCON and saw my keynote, please take a moment to rate it. You might also be interested in this write-up by Robert Kaye on the O’Reilly Radar blog.
ETA: Both Mark Smith and Denise Paolucci (the two Dreamwidth founders) have posted about their experiences at OSCON and conversations they had there about Dreamwidth and its development processes and community: Denise’s post, Mark’s post. Very much worth reading. Check the comments too.
ETA2: Comments are moderated. Anonymous comments are not permitted. Anything excessively argumentative, vicious, or personal will not be posted. I don’t mind constructive criticism or differences of opinion, but I won’t take abuse. Thanks.