How to get more women in open source

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This article was contributed by Samantha Wang, product manager at InfluxData

Now, more than ever, representation matters. This idea rings just as true in the realm of software development as anywhere else. Technology consumers include people of all generations, genders, and ethnicities. So, it stands to reason that when individuals from those same groups contribute to the development of technology, they have the opportunity to include concepts and perspectives that might otherwise get overlooked.

This reality is one reason why it’s so vexing that the technology sector struggles to attract and retain women. Lately, we’ve seen a major surge in the adoption and use of open source software across geographic borders and industrial verticals. Yet, the disparity between men and women contributors within the open source community is significant. According to a 2017 survey by GitHub of its community, a mere 3% of the respondents identified as women. 

Contributing deterrents for women in open source

It’s important to recognize that although a gap exists between the number of men and women open source contributors, it’s not a function of the desire to improve open source code. In fact, 68% of women open source developers say they are interested in making open-source contributions, compared with 73% of men. This begs the question as to why women are less likely to actually do so, around 45% vs. 61% of men. One investigation found that among GitHub users with at least ten contributions, a mere 6% were women.

The reasons GitHub contributors gave are a reflection of the sexism problems women face elsewhere in tech:

  • 25% encountered language or content that made them feel unwelcome (compared with 15% for men),
  • 12% encountered stereotyping (vs. 2%), and
  • 6% received unsolicited sexual advances (vs. 3%) 

The prevalence of harassment at work for women in tech is a major contributor to the mass migration of women out of tech by the mid-point of their careers. Over half of these women experience harassment at work, compared with 16% of men. Compensation is another contributing factor to the exodus of women from tech, as woman engineers earn $0.83 for every dollar a man in the same position makes. Female engineers also point to a lack of support from management or an acceptable work/life balance as factors pushing them out of tech.

Strategies for improvement

Despite the challenges that these figures highlight, women who elect to stay in tech tend to have a positive impact on those that come after them. These veteran engineers often become role models who can foster a peer group of female tech workers and help steer career development opportunities.

A long-term study of mentorship by researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that woman engineering leaders who had women mentors reported increased levels of motivation, self-assurance, and lower anxiety levels than those with a male mentor, or no mentor at all. The study followed the subjects for a year before and a year after graduation, and found the women with mentors that were also women were less likely to drop out and more likely to look for engineering jobs after graduation.

As with mentorship, success inspires success. Therefore, having women in leadership roles in tech exposes career possibilities that may not be obvious to more junior women employees. These women leaders end up in a position that gives them greater agency and power to address the negative behaviors that deter women from staying in tech. Of course, women are not the only ones who can keep companies accountable for diversity and inclusivity, but it’s critical for women leaders to participate in those efforts to lend their perspective and experiences so that companies can grow and corporate cultures can evolve.

The very reality of women occupying leadership roles demonstrates to other women that pathways for advancement exist. It also provides evidence to emerging leaders that women can thrive in tech. A recent study on women in technology, conducted by Accenture and Girls Who Code, recommended that companies set and publicize targets for the number of women in their leadership teams. Furthermore, for greater accountability, companies should align their leaders’ ability to meet these targets to KPIs tied to compensation.

Putting accountability into action

As a leading open source company, InfluxData hopes to encourage more women to contribute to open source projects. There are several ways in which we’re doing this. For instance, we maintain a community Slack channel and encourage all our developers to answer questions, provide feedback, and offer insight into various open source projects. We encourage our women engineers to actively engage with the community because we understand women, in general, appreciate collaborating with other women in tech spaces.

We strive to have our Slack channel and our community forums as safe venues for women developers to discuss their open source projects. Our women developers are often featured speakers at conferences and lead workshops and webinars on various aspects of our open source tech stack. We recognize that open source can be an entry point for a whole range of STEM-related careers and is a great way for developers of any level to practice programming. By providing this level of visibility for developers, we hope to create the kind of inclusive environment that inspires women to share their open source work and highlight what they’re doing.

Women in open source: The bottom line

There is no magical cure for the scarcity of women in tech, and, by extension, open source. Addressing this issue requires sustained attention and commitment from leaders within the tech space to create diverse and inclusive work environments that are free from harassment. Companies also need accountability in promoting women, especially to leadership positions, so that these individuals can mentor and inspire the next wave of women in tech. The sooner that companies commit to these kinds of initiatives, the sooner the tech world becomes a better place for everyone.

Samantha Wang is a product manager at InfluxData

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