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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

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