Monday’s Haecksen and LinuxChix miniconf brought what was for me, the first great talk of LCA 2010: Liz Henry’s Code of our own. Because there were no abstracts, I guessed from the title she was going to talk about the Archive of our own (AOOO) project, but she was talking more generally about potential answers to questions like, what can we do to encourage more women in open source? How can we better support the ones that are here already?
The title (as well as that of AOOO) is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own, directly referencing the feminist ideas about the value of spaces specifically for women. In terms of coding, I definitely see the value myself in spaces to talk to other women about programming: I can ask questions and share my experiences without having the pressure of representing All Women Programmers Of All Time. Not to mention, I can actually just have a tech conversation with another woman without a man butting in.
So, Liz opened by saying that she wanted to apply “advanced feminist solidarity theory” to FLOSS, and was going to skip over some assumptions, like diversity is good, and universal design is a goal of FLOSS. (I am paraphrasing from memory and brief notes, so if you can correct my paraphrase please let me know.) I hadn’t heard the term “universal design” before but I guess in software it mostly is referred to as usability and/or accessibility.
- denial of agency — “someone else (a guy) must have written it”, but also, interestingly, seemingly complimentary statements like “women are just naturally good at design” (ie, she didn’t have to work so hard)
- pollution of agency — “she only hacked with her boyfriend”
- double standard of content — kernel hacking is important, blog software is not. Coding is important, documentation/design/support is not.
- false categorising — women defined as a relative/partner of a male hacker rather than in their own right. Maybe also related to above, “what she did isn’t REALLY hacking”.
And there are others.
Liz talked about her experiences at the BlogHer conferences, with some 1800 attendees, mostly women, who all write their own blogs and in some cases earn a living from it. Many of them may be on the verge of being able to hack. How could they be “converted”? What kind of things can be done to encourage women to contribute to FLOSS projects?
One thing often suggested is a mentoring programme. She mentioned she is not a big fan of these, because they typically have a very strong teacher/learner dichotomy, which can put a lot of pressure on the self-appointed “expert” teacher. Rather than this, maybe it is better to have a situation where two people are just learning and figuring out stuff together, rather than one having the responsibility to always have the answers.
Another barrier is that new developers often don’t have “old school skills” — ie the command line. This is often required (or virtually required) for contributing to FLOSS projects. I definitely notice this myself, even though I am comfortable with the command line. For example, a page describing how to access/commit to the code base of a project will have sample command-line SVN commands to run, even though there are great SVN GUIs that don’t require any command-line fu at all. They could have screenshot-based walk-throughs but they don’t. I mean that is one side, the other side is making sure women have a chance to learn command-line stuff. Lots of demystification is needed. Plus even if you did complete a CS degree, there is always a ton of command-line tricks you don’t happen to know about yet!
Liz also made the great point that the reaction “We need more women in FLOSS – let’s teach programming to girls!” is not very rational. Of course, teaching programming to girls is great. But it’s not like all the existing grown women in the world who don’t currently program are write-offs. :) Teach programming to WOMEN, too!
So when it comes to actually holding women-friendly or women-specific hacking events, she had the following advice:
- Treat tech support and debugging as feminist activism — demystify, reassure and empower
- Create a culture of figuring things out together
- Always do introductions! Do them faciliated – have people talk about their life briefly, or 5 keywords, or one thing they know about and one thing they want to learn, or have everyone put their picture on a sheet of butcher paper with a brief bio.
- “Show and tell” – what tools does everyone use? How do they go about doing a particular task?
- Have a “installathon” — install Wordpress on a webhost, just go through bits of code together. Admit that debugging (figuring out how code works) is hard!
- Create guest accounts for everyone on a server if need be
- Have a house party. It doesn’t have to be huge or super formal.
- Do lots of paired/one-on-one activities
- Borrow the practice from fanfic of having a beta reader – someone who looks over your work before you release it to the world. (AKA code review! I love this reframing)
Liz mentioned that she hates IRC and much prefers using instant messaging and Pastebin. Got to say I’m not much of a fan of IRC either — the attitude is just so often hostile or just apathetic, although it is a useful just to know how to use it because a lot of FLOSS projects don’t give you much other choice. Knowing how to connect to the LinuxChix server is a good skill to have too. :)
She also recommended to show the code! Blog about your code, even though it means exposing it along with all your potential mistakes. Although it is hard not to feel wary about this, after observing the reaction to Leah Culver doing a similar thing.
One of the audience questions was, “Where do I find these great geeky women?” One answer was Girl Geek Dinners (although I was discussing with another woman later, that the women I’ve met at these are often a distinctly different crowd to the women I know through FLOSS. But that’s no bad thing, we can recruit them :D). Liz also suggested running a class at a library on blogging.
Another audience comment was that this may not be a good approach for getting women into a particular project. This kind of approach, which is not integrated with the project’s community, may make it seem that when a woman does begin publicly contributing, she is “coming out of nowhere”. I have often observed that FLOSS projects don’t take too well to suggestions or criticisms that seemingly come from outsiders. (Of course, some don’t take to them too well from insiders, either. ;)) Making contributions inside a community is important for establishing reputation and trust. Personally I see the kind of approach Liz is suggesting as preceding any kind of project-specific recruitment, and just encouraging a “can-hack” attitude.
So that’s pretty much my take on the talk, but you should definitely get it straight from the horse’s mouth and watch the video. If this sounds interesting, you should probably also check out Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time about the Dreamwidth fork of Livejournal blog software. Liz Henry is also talking in the main conf on Friday about Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech.