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By Nisha Kumar

I recently gave a talk at the 2018 All Things Open conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. I will write about the talk next time. But first I want share my takeaways from an inclusion event held the day before the conference.

This was the first time the organizers had programmed such an event and I was really glad to see it happening – both as a woman  and person of color, but also as a project maintainer. I was also glad to see lots of older, white, male faces in the crowd. This wasn’t one of those diversity events attended only by the people who least need to think about the issue.

It took the form of a half day filled with talks, a panel, and then breakout sessions, all with a focus on inclusion of underrepresented groups in technology in general and in open source in particular.

I found three talks especially interesting. The first was from Jessica Reeder of Toptal who spoke about whether open source can really be thought of as open to women. To find out, she used a tool called genderize.io to find out what percentage of a random sample of GitHub profiles were female. Reeder then used that information to measure how many contributions users of each type made to GitHub repositories. You can find a blog post about her findings here.

She found that only 5.4% of GitHub profiles with more than 10 contributions were female. Reeder acknowledged that women could be using male or neutral names as a form of self-protection, and that 25% of the names from the sample data couldn’t be classified as male or female with confidence, so this number may be somewhat inaccurate. Still, the number is not good news for a community that calls itself “open”. This low number came as a shock to me, but It also jives with my experience as the maintainer of an open source project – most of the people that are involved in my project have male names.

All Things Open

Another talk that interested me was by Dr. Rochelle Newton, a senior information technology manager at Duke University School of Law. Dr. Newton does a lot of work to expand STEM opportunities for underrepresented populations and her presentation was a call to action to have more open discussions about race and IT. Too many of us, she said, are reluctant to talk about why people of color are overlooked during hiring or advancement and that needs to change.

My big takeaway here was that as open source project maintainers, we can’t stay hidden behind our terminals and expect to attract diverse contributors. We need to actively reach out to them, ask the questions on what is keeping them from contributing, and do the work to lower those barriers.

The last talk I want to mention was by the youngest person speaking at this year’s conference. Anna Lorberblatt, who is only 17 but already has over nine years of Linux programming experience, spoke about the roadblocks she has faced as a young girl trying to get other girls involved in technology. One of the biggest impediments for these girls, Anna said, are their own parents. They don’t really believe that their girls can be technically competent.

This was hard for me to hear because it was something that I experienced myself. As a child, most of my forays into anything technical were looked on, at best, with humor or condescension. My interests just weren’t something that my parents or anyone around me thought I could make a career out of. I come from India and thought that my experience reflected the particular culture I grew up in. But Anna’s story helped me see that, sadly, that’s not the case. Anna is trying to start a group that teaches girls how to build computers, which is really exciting. You can take a look at her presentation here.

During the breakout sessions, I joined a very interesting discussion about how to include underrepresented people as an open source maintainer. There were quite a few other maintainers there, mostly white men. I was glad to see them there and to be able to offer them a sense of roadblocks that they’d otherwise not be aware of.

We talked first about how to harness the power of a “contributor swarm” – these are new contributors who are so enthusiastic about your project that they ignore your contributor guidelines and just go for it, sometimes at the cost of discouraging other potential contributors from joining in. People agreed that automating simple checks as early as possible in the project’s development and putting in as much documentation about the project as possible provide dividends down the road in fielding enthusiastic contributors.

That led me to bring gender into the mix. How do we balance shy contributors with the enthusiastic ones, since the shy ones tend to be women? People wondered how I can tell whether my shy contributors are really women. I agreed that it was hard, but pointed to Jessica Reeder’s talk and noted both that my own “shy” contributors have female names and my experience as a woman informs me that women exercise more caution before interacting with anyone they are not familiar with, especially on the internet. Also most of my pull requests are submitted by contributors with names like ‘John’ or ‘Greg’ or have Indian male first names, which I know as I am Indian myself.

In the end, we agreed, a good way to bring cautious contributors on board is to just assign them issues. Many of us already do that – we ask our friends to contribute. But when pushed to think about the gender mix in their open source friend groups, several maintainers admitted that their friend groups were almost exclusively male. I certainly think that personal contacts are important for women too. Precisely because they need to be more cautious in putting themselves in the public eye, they appreciate a personal assurance that a project or person is one they can feel safe working with.

This tells me is that our strategies for getting women to contribute to open source projects still need to evolve – and that’s extra work for the maintainers. But we do need reach out to women in person and show them that we’re friendly and trustworthy before expecting them to contribute online. It’s something I’m already trying to do. But inspired by my conversations at All Things Open this year, I’ll be trying even harder from now on.