Friday, July 24, 2009

Want more women in open source? Try paying them.

Originally written for my personal blog regarding a "birds of a feather" session I ran at the 2009 Linux Symposium.

I think my talk on attracting women to open source went well enough. The room started out looking pretty sleepy and passive, but I'd managed to seed the crowd with some talkative friends, and once a couple of them got the ball rolling people got down to discussion in a good way.

I think the most interesting point made was that if we want more women in open source, we should really make an effort to pay them to do it. As someone who loves doing this as a volunteer, I want to protest, but think about it for a minute: What challenges do women face in open source? Feeling like they don't belong? Paying them is a pretty strong "we want you" signal, both to the woman herself and to others who might challenge her. Not having enough time because of other life-work commitments? Making it your paid gig makes this the "work" part of that equation, rather than some part that just doesn't quite fit. Fewer opportunities for mentoring? Again, having the structure of a company behind you can make it a lot easier to ask for help within a known structure rather than trying to guess the social norms of an open source project. There aren't many women? Well, hiring a few is a great way to get the ball rolling, hopefully making it easier for future women.

Paying women to do open source work isn't going to solve all our problems, but it cuts through a lot of the gordian knot that's there, which is awfully nice.

Of course, then the related problem is "how do we find women to hire?" There's a whole body of work around hiring diversely (which I thought was linked from the geek feminism wiki, but I don't actually see those links at a glance -- anyone want to add them or send me a pointer?), but one of the things I started with talking about was extending an invitation. I don't want to say that women need an invitation, but the benefits of specifically advertising to women are a bit more subtle than that. The big thing is that your message is more likely to get out to more women: If someone tells me they're looking for people, I'll pass around the job to a few friends who might be interested. If someone tells me they're looking for women, I'm more likely to mention it to the larger women's communities I'm involved with. And those women are then more likely to pass it on to their communities... But beyond the exposure, the fact that you're specifically looking for women tells me that at least someone in your company cares about the problem, and is working to solve it. Way to make you sound like a more attractive employer at a glance. Do women need an invitation? Maybe not. But can a female-specifc invitation help your organization attract women? Definitely.

Most of the rest of the discussion was stuff I've heard before, although perhaps new to the assembled folk who may not get bombarded with this stuff regularly.

Unfortunately, I realised halfway through the discussion that I really, honestly, am sick of talking about this. Thankfully, by the time I hit that point the discussion was well away on its own and I had little to do other than point at people. I talk about feminism and geek issues all the time with my CUWISE women, but standing up at a conference where the totals were maybe two hundred folk and maybe less than 10 other women? I won't lie -- it was really disheartening.

I had a great time otherwise, though. Despite being the only girl in a gaggle of guys nearly every day, I never feel out of place with those people. It has always been my fellow open source folk that make the linux symposium worthwhile.


Jennifer said...

So, let me understand your premise here: guys do fine in joining the open source movement but to get more girls to join, one will have to shell out some cash?


Terri Oda said...

Sorry, missed your comment earlier. But no, that's not quite how I'd interpret the suggestion (which came from a woman in the audience). I'd break it down more like this:

1. A fast way to get anyone involved in the open source movement is to pay them for it.

2. Targeting specific groups who are underrepresented by offering them jobs could be a very effective way to raise those numbers.

There's lots of other techniques to get women to join open source projects, this is just one that's particularly compelling because it's a bit of a shortcut, cutting through the common reasons women cite for not getting involved (time, money, too intimidated to jump in).

For other techniques, you might want to take a look at Kirrily Robert’s OSCON Keynote. Or for the really short version: be polite, be helpful. (Those are the linuxchix rules, but can be applied to any project.) A friendly community can go a long when when it comes to recruitment and retention of minority volunteers.