Women in Technology

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To Sir, with Love: How To Get More Women Involved in Open Source

by Selena Deckelmann
09/28/2007

Selena Deckelmann bikes herself to work everyday at Chris King Precision Components, a bicycle parts manufacturer in Portland, OR, where she is Information Systems Manager.

I was an 18-year-old chemistry major working at Dunkin' Donuts when I got my first help desk job. Over a weekend, I went from deep-frying old fashioned donuts to fixing whatever computer a student brought in off the street. And I spent months in the computing center with guys who told stories. I learned about 14-year olds writing hotel management software for their parents, the insane phone bills for long-distance BBS connections, and all-nighters to unlock the secrets of some new feature on a motherboard. I met the guys who worked with PDP-11s in college and now were running NFS fileservers for corporations.

I also knew the UNIX admins at the university who laughed out loud about writing a Towers of Hanoi program in a sendmail config. I knew the geeks who were loving the university's gigabit network—mainly for finding porn and cracked software. I went with the guys to DefCon and was horrified, but also fascinated, when they announced that someone had poured concrete in the toilets.

To me, each one of these stories was a thrilling mystery or a madcap adventure. The chemical reactions needed to make carbon chains just didn't compare to the drama of "kill -9". And soon, I chose to spend all my spare time with my coworkers, rather than my classmates. Organic chemistry was the last class I took before changing majors. I switched to computer science because I had found my community.

My coworkers helped me build my first computer, taught me C, and some became my boyfriends. Because I was a girl who wanted to learn how a computer worked, as well as hang out and gossip until 2:00 a.m. with the boys, I thought there was something special about me. They did, too. Thirteen years later, I'm a sysadmin and a programmer. I still pull all-nighters tweaking Perl scripts or helping a friend move their blog to a new ISP. And I still mostly work with men.

Despite the best efforts of a moderator, a Birds of a Feather talk about women in Open Source seemed to end in confusion. There were certainly individuals with opinions, but, as a group, we couldn't seem to identify what we wanted, or what to do about this situation. We know that Open Source communities want more women. But invitations to participate aren't enough. Women should be contributing to projects openly and equally with men. But what can we do to get there? Here are some things that I think we can do right now:

We can learn and use the names of women who contribute to Open Source projects. In the Perl community, Allison Randal and Audrey Tang come to mind. There are many other prominent and talented women in other groups. We can recognize and encourage contributions to Open Source projects that aren't code. The FLOSSPOLS study on gender issues pointed out that women are more likely to engage in areas not considered technical by the community—documentation, design, mailing-list moderation and advocacy. What if projects gave the equivalent of commit access to graphic designers and conference speakers?

We can talk to women who come to user group meetings and invite them to speak. By being friendly and asking women directly to speak up, we open the door for participation. If we insist on equal participation, the structure of our organizations will change. The first time I spoke up in a user group was terrifying, but I did so because a peer politely, but repeatedly, asked me to speak.

We can learn from research about increasing diversity. I'm sure smart people have summarized, put together lists of bullet points, and made handbooks to show how to do it. Certainly, organizations dedicated to fixing inequalities will be touchstones for change. But we need more than leadership to change our culture. We each can take steps now to make women feel like there is a place for them in our communities.

I found my place in the computing center. My coworkers listened to me when I was frustrated, and encouraged me not to give up whenever I felt stupid or overwhelmed. We bonded over makefiles, rootkits and long, tedious troubleshooting. They were my mentors, friends, adversaries, and peers. I think we IT folks share a passion for fixing things. We solve problems other people find impossible every day. Just a small amount of that energy directed toward encouraging women to join in openly would go a long way.


Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Open Source Women's Groups: http://www.linuxchix.org/other-groups-women-free-software.html and submit papers on your experience as a woman in open source for the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE).

The Women in Technology book is coming soon; buy it from the O'Reilly Store!


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