An Accepting Space for Women in Open Source

Women in Open Source

One of my daughters is in her 20s and still struggling to find a career. She asked me what programming language she should learn and I suggested Python. “In fact,” I said, “you should try to attend a Django Girls workshop.” Fortunately there was one coming up in Portland in about a month. She applied to attend, answering some questions about why she wanted to learn Python and what she would do with the information. We were both excited when she was admitted to the workshop, even though she felt anxiety about being “smart enough” to program. I’m proud to say that she made it through and learned a lot.

There is no question that open source projects have had a bad reputation for inclusiveness. This is particularly sad since the open source movement is all about removing the barriers which keep the smartest people from contributing code. 

Are there open source projects which truly make an effort to have greater participation for women? I’m probably the wrong person to address that question, since I am male. I do think it is good to see some projects trying, although we have a really long way to go.

Take Python as an example. At my first Python conference, the first keynote I heard was from Ola Sitarska and Ola Sendecka, the co-founders of Django Girls – a nonprofit group that “empowers and helps women to organize free, one-day programming workshops.” In their first year, Django Girls organized over 100 workshops all over the world, teaching women how to program in Python. Their keynote is online, and it’s amazing, I highly recommend giving it a watch.

There are other efforts to mentor women to be involved in the Python Community, particularly PyLadies. Python as a community does seem to be supportive of women to get involved. Where does the inspiration for this kind of effort come from?

It starts at the top.

The first time I heard a keynote from Guido van Rossum, who is Python’s founder and “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, he made his priorities quite clear. The keynote time was taken up with questions from the audience, and he insisted that the questioners would alternate between men and women. The next day, Guido was seen wearing a PyLadies T-shirt.

When we had a chance to talk later, I asked Guido if this was intentional on his part, to set the tone of the community to be inclusive of women. He said it definitely was a priority for him. 

What about other projects which are trying to make a difference? I would also nominate the Yocto Project* which is trying to be a friendly space for women. I spoke with Beth Flanagan, about this. Beth is very active in the project and an experienced presenter and author. She said that just as in the Python community, the tone is set by the leaders. Jeff Osier-Mixon, the community manager, makes an effort to ensure that Yocto Project conferences and developer days have participation of women on the panels and teaching the technical sessions. Beth said that the technical leader, Linux Foundation Fellow Richard Purdie, won’t stand for sexist behavior and language on the project mailing lists.

But there is still much work to do. Beth’s concern is that there are not very many women who actually contribute code to the Yocto Project.

There is a similar issue with Python. I spoke with Dr. Terri Oda, a Python Software Foundation Fellow about her perception of Python community inclusiveness. According to Terri, there are many female board members, prominent community members, speakers at conferences and support for groups like PyLadies. 

But there are not very many core developers of the Python language itself who are women. Terri calls this the “final frontier” for the community, and one she hopes they will cross soon. This is one of the reasons she sponsors efforts like Outreachy. This is a project providing internships to under-represented groups, including women. 

As a manager, I think I have a role to play as well. I’ve tried to hire women like Beth and Jessica Zhang, who is an engineering manager working on Yocto Project. I have also hired women to work on our Python and Node.js* projects. But there is always more to do, better efforts can be made, and we must.

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