Tuesday, August 4, 2009

putting the "our" in "open source"

on the dearth of women in the open source programming movement

In case you haven't seen it yet, I wanted to link you to Kirrily Robert's keynote at this year's O'Reilly Open Source Convention. Robert's keynote, "Standing Out in the Crowd," focused on the dearth of female developers in the open source movement. She offers this image from the 2008 Linux Kernel Summit:

Image credit: Jonathan Corbet, lwn.net

Robert writes:
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?

While women are a minority in most tech communities, Robert explains, the gender disparity in open source development is more pronounced than in other technology disciplines. While women make up between 10-30% of the tech community in general, they comprise about 5% of Perl developers, about 10% of Drupal developers, and (according to an EU-funded survey of open source usage and development, called FLOSSPOLS) about 1.5% of open source contributors in general.

Robert surveyed female developers to find out why women seem to be so reluctant to contribute to open source projects; the most common reason was some variation of "I didn't feel welcome." She points to a pair of innovative projects whose members have actively worked to recruit women. One is the Organization for Transformative Works' (OTW) Archive of Our Own (or AO3); the other is Dreamwidth, a blogging and community platform forked from the LiveJournal codebase. Both projects focused on recruiting women, not to be inclusive but because they felt it was essential for the success of the projects.

The entire talk is worth a read-through or a listen, but I want to highlight one key point from the set of strategies she offers for recruiting diverse candidates: Find potential users of the application and teach them programming, instead of recruiting good programmers and teaching them about the value of the application. She says:

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.

I've been thinking about this very aspect of the open education movement since the Sakai 2009 Conference I attended last month. Sakai offers an open source collaborative learning environment for secondary and higher education institutions, emphasizing openness of knowledge, content, and technology. This embrace of openness was evident in every aspect of the conference, except for one: The notable lack of educators in the panels and audience.

If you want a good open education resource, you need to start by recruiting open source-friendly educators. Otherwise, you run the risk of developing a highly robust, highly functional tool that's limited only in its ability to offer the features educators actually want.


  1. Bravo! As a Sakai user and supporter of teaching, I have always been baffled by the lack of faculty at the conferences. I have since learned that the community source model used for Sakai development is based on communities producing middle ware, where the developers are also the users of the product. While developers use parts of Sakai (notably project sites), they are not the primary users of the product. To be fair, this shortcoming is being recognized and addressed, but the evolution to a more user-centered development process seems agonizingly slow sometimes.

  2. Excellent issues to raise. Perhaps my following points will be just exceptions to prove the rule, but I hope they indicate the evolving nature of Sakai and its open source community -- Joshua Baron, just recently announced as the new chair of the Sakai Foundation Board is Director of Academic Technology and eLearning at Marist College and has called for teaching and learning folks in the Sakai community to do functional visioning for the future of the Sakai collaboration and learning system. Michael Korcuska, Sakai Foundation Executive Director, has also challenged the Sakai community to collect five core needs/vision statements each from twenty faculty at twenty institutions. I was also at the Sakai conference and am a person who heads up support for faculty using Sakai at our institution. We sent a dozen folks who focus on teaching and learning, had at least five more there from our institution with faculty status... In addition, among those attending from our institution was the woman assoc. dean for learning technologies, the woman director of enterprise academic systems, the woman manager of learning management systems development, the woman Sakai development team project manager, the woman Sakai designer, and a couple women programmers. No doubt Sakai has room for improvement, but I believe it is at a pivot point right now regarding both its renewed focus on teaching and learning and its key contributions and leadership from women within its ranks.

  3. Though I didn't write about this in the post, I was astonished by the number of women representing Indiana University at Sakai09--this was even more notable given the relative lack of women from many other universities. I did note that IU had a larger faculty / practitioner contingent than other institutions, too. I wonder what IU's doing differently and what other institutions can learn from this.

    Now I'm intrigued. I'd love to find out more, if anyone can point me to resources, people or print, that explore this.