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March 28, 2017

Open source software is for everyone – so where are the women?

Red Hat's Marina Zhurakhinskaya talks to CBR's Ellie Burns about the diversity problem in open source.

By Ellie Burns

We all know that there is a diversity problem in tech. The depressing stats from numerous reports and studies all point to stereotypes and bias hitting young girls’ perceptions of STEM negatively, with this sitting alongside poor retention figures and a lack of women at the board level.

However, one particular branch of tech may be struggling in more when it comes to diversity and inclusion – the one branch, in fact, which has inclusiveness at the very core of its ethos.

marina open source

Red Hat’s Marina Zhurakhinskaya

I am, of course, talking about the open source community, which, according to a blogpost by Total founder Breanden Beneschott, counts a paltry 6% of women among 20,000 GiHub profiles.

Trying to understand the root of this bias, as well as the initiatives working to introduce more diversity, CBR’s Ellie Burns spoke to Marina Zhurakhinskaya –  Red Hat’s first senior outreach specialist who is working to make open source communities more accessible to women and minorities.

EB: Why do you think open source is so male-dominated?

MZ: First, it’s important to acknowledge that there has been a significant shift in open source in the last seven or so years. More women are joining open source communities with the help of programs like Outreachy and Google Summer of Code, and organizations like PyLadies and Write/Speak/Code. For example, Google Summer of Code, which supported 1,206 students working on open source projects in 2016, had 12% women participants that year , compared to 7.1% women in 2011, with a gradual increase over the years. Additionally, many women are recognized as leaders in open source with the help of awards like the Women in Open Source Award sponsored by Red Hat and the O’Reilly Open Source Awards, which had four women among five recipients in 2016.

We are seeing more and more open source communities encouraging contributors from diverse backgrounds to participate by adopting codes of conduct, providing travel scholarships to conferences, hosting networking and learning events, seeking out speakers from diverse backgrounds, and offering paid opportunities to get involved through programs like Outreachy. Recent articles “Open source diversity efforts gain momentum in 2016” and “How is your community promoting diversity?” discuss many great examples from various open source communities, such as the Python and OpenStack communities.

Still, we have a long way to go. Historically, the pathways for getting involved in open source projects have not been clearly defined and it was not clear what communities would be respectful of women and other participants from diverse backgrounds. This is changing for the better with many efforts across the board. I look forward to seeing open source continue to become more diverse and grow!

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EB: What are the main barriers facing women in open source?

MZ: There are millions of open source projects out there, with different levels of maturity with respect to embracing diversity and inclusion. Therefore, women and any prospective contributors who are looking for projects with a positive environment where their talents will be welcomed typically need to look closely at each project they are interested in, to see whether that community is making efforts to be diverse and inclusive. Projects that embrace diversity and inclusion usually have good resources for getting involved, offer mentorship, and maintain high standards for interaction among contributors, all of which helps ensure people have a good experience becoming a part of the project and growing as a contributor.

Open source software diversity

EB: In the past it has been noted that women use gender-neutral or male profile names so that contributions are taken seriously – is the bias in the open source community really that bad?

MZ: I believe you’re referring to the discussion that happened after the release of a recent study “Gender differences and bias in open source: Pull request acceptance of women versus men,” which showed that women who were project “outsiders,” i.e. not established project contributors, were less likely to have their pull requests accepted if they had an identifiably female profile, compared to a gender-neutral profile. This particular finding suggests that there is some bias against women who are new contributors across projects on GitHub on average. The study found no difference for pull request acceptance for women with identifiably female and gender-neutral profiles if they were project “insiders,” i.e. established contributors.

To me, this finding suggests that it’s important that newcomers to open source, and particularly women, look for communities that have good resources and mentorship for newcomers and that explicitly welcome newcomers from diverse backgrounds. It also suggests that members of open source communities, while idealizing meritocracy, struggle with the same biases as we see in tech companies and the world at large. I was encouraged by the reaction I saw to this study among many open source contributors, which was essentially, “That’s not okay,” and “How can we fix this?” GitHub recently added a new feature, which might help communities treat all new contributors in an expressly more welcoming and equal fashion. It now adds a “First-time contributor” badge to an author’s first pull request to a project.


EB: As a longtime software engineer, has that bias got worse, better or stayed very much the same in recent times?

MZ: I think the bias has decreased as more resources became available on how to create a welcoming environment and be an ally for women in open source, and as more women have joined the open source community. Biases have their roots in stereotypes, and the more our stereotypes are challenged and broken down – particularly by the experience of working alongside people who are traditionally underrepresented – the less power those biases have to impact our decisions.


EB: How can open source benefit from more diversity & inclusion?

MZ: The ethos of open source is that anyone can participate, so first and foremost, ensuring inclusion and striving for greater diversity means living up to the promise of the movement. Second, it means having a greater number of contributors and a broader variety of perspectives, which will allow existing projects to grow faster and new projects to spring up. One of the greatest challenges any open source project faces is contributor burnout, and having processes in place for more people to join and to progress to leadership positions makes project development more sustainable as well.


How can women become leaders in open source software? Marina has some excellent advice on the next page


EB: Tell me about Outreachy and how it is working to improve diversity in open source?

MZ: Outreachy is a project of the Software Freedom Conservancy non-profit. Outreachy offers remote, paid, mentored internships with a variety of free and open source projects to people from underrepresented groups. Currently, the internships are open internationally to women (cis and trans), trans men, and genderqueer people. Additionally, they are open to people of color from groups underrepresented in technology in the United States.

Outreachy has a collaborative application process, during which mentors from open source projects like Linux kernel, OpenStack and Mozilla help applicants make their first contribution to the project. It then offers the selected participants a focused opportunity to gain open source experience while being financially supported. Since 2010, 368 people participated in Outreachy internships and many more made their first contribution to open source as applicants.

EB: How successful has Outreachy been – what impact has it had on the open source community?Open source software diversity

MZ: Many Outreachy alums continue participating in the open source community, and go on to speak at conferences, find employment with sponsors of the program, take on leadership positions, and receive recognition and awards. For example, Victoria Martínez de la Cruz participated in the January 2013 round of Outreachy internships. She later joined Red Hat as a software engineer, mentored for Outreachy, became a coordinator for OpenStack’s participation in Outreachy, and received OpenStack mentor of mentors award in April 2016. Victoria keynoted PyCon Argentina 2016 and spoke at four OpenStack Summits and at EuroPython 2016.

Outreachy coordinators know of 66 alums who went on to do talks on open source topics at conferences and of 52 alums who found employment or contract positions with sponsors Many more alums found employment at other organizations in the technology industry working on open source and proprietary software.


EB: What role can companies play in programmes like Outreachy?

MZ: Companies can sponsor Outreachy and contribute their employee time towards being mentors and coordinators for the program. For example, 26 Mozilla employees and 20 Red Hat employees acted as mentors or coordinators in the last two rounds of Outreachy internships. Sponsors of each round are recognized on the main program page and can request occasional promotion of open source jobs and events and other opportunities they sponsor to the more than 3,000 followers of Outreachy on Twitter . People interested in getting their companies and open source communities involved in Outreachy are invited to review program’s information for organizations and companies and contact the program coordinators.


EB: Why are you so passionate about diversity in open source?

MZ: Working in open source, I get to work with passionate and talented people from around the world on building a shared technology foundation. I find it rewarding to direct my efforts to something that can be reused and built upon. Also, I’m helping build technology that is respectful of the user by allowing the user to examine the code and make modifications to it.

I would like more people to have the opportunity to work in this exciting global community on technologies that are shaping our world. I think it’s critical that we enable more people from diverse backgrounds to become contributors so that open source technology develops faster and solves more types of problems.

Open source software diversity

EB: What advice would you give a woman wanting to break the open source glass ceiling?

MZ: To seek inspiration for becoming a leader in open source, I would advise following the career progression and insights of senior women leaders at Red Hat, including Denise Dumas, Katrinka McCallum, and Margaret Dawson, and also of the community finalists for the Women in Open Source Award. Denise and Katrinka shared their advice in a joint interview for an article. They advised focusing on helping customers solve problems, taking on opportunities as they arise, and building strong relationships with a mentor and with colleagues. Margaret Dawson has presented a talk “Snorting Out Loud and Letting Your True Light Shine” at numerous events. In it, she encourages women to be free to be who they are.

My mentor and co-coordinator of Outreachy, Karen Sandler, is among the finalists for the Women in Open Source Award. Karen is the Executive Director of Software Freedom Conservancy, the nonprofit home of over 40 free and open source software projects, and she is a frequent keynote speaker on complex legal and social issues facing free and open source software. Her advice is to connect to other women in the field to build a support network.

I would recommend that women find projects that have a welcoming environment, grow in their skills as contributors to these projects, speak about their work at conferences, and step up to leadership positions. It’s helpful to understand that because of internalized stereotypes, women are prone to the impostor syndrome, which might lead them to doubt their potential, especially when faced with any biased commentary or with being the only woman on the team. Learning how to impostor syndrome-proof yourself and your community and building a support network of people who can help you reach your potential will help you confidently take on new challenges and become a leader.


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