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Women and free software: bridging the gap Featured

There are many in the FOSS community who pay lip service to the cause of women's involvement in technology. It is a nice soapbox from which to grandstand and gain prominence. Raising funds is also easy when one promotes such a cause.

But there is one programme which is doing a lot to actually increase the numbers of women in FOSS - and which hardly gets any recognition for the good work it does.

The GNOME Outreach Programme for Women has, this year, placed 25 women in internships with various companies. The money for the programme comes from the participating organisations and also Google, Red Hat, Rackspace and Elego.

As a result of this endeavour, which has been running since 2006 in one form or another, the percentage of women participants at the 2012 GNOME Users and Developers European Conference (GUADEC) was 17 percent. That's 41 women.

The changes are evident when looks back to the 2009 GUADEC where only six women were present - four percent of the total attendees.

Running the programme since 2009 is Marina Zhurakhinskaya, a senior software engineer from Red Hat, who has been with the company for seven years. Red Hat is the main contributor to the GNOME Desktop Project. Karen Sandler, the chief executive of the GNOME Foundation, is also involved.

"In 2009, I was one of the few women contributors to the GNOME project, and the GNOME Foundation asked me to organise the outreach initiative," Zhurakhinskaya (pictured above) told iTWire during an interview.

"I'm thrilled to see how many women were encouraged to gain experience as free software contributors thanks to this effort. Red Hat supports my work on it and sponsors some of the internships."

She says her experience with the Outreach Programme for Women informed some of the changes she introduced in the way GNOME reaches out to all new contributors.

"For example, the mentors list that we started for the Outreach Programme for Women with nine mentors is now a GNOME Love resource for all GNOME newcomers and has 46 mentors. We now use collaborative application process for GNOME's participation in Google Summer of Code.

"Also, we require both Outreach Programme for Women and Google Summer of Code interns to blog about their work every two weeks on Planet GNOME, which improves visibility of their work and encourages feedback from the community members."

iTWire: The programme began in 2006. Then it seems to have either stopped or been very low-key until 2010. Can you say what was the motivation for starting it in the first place? And why it did not pick up steam right away after 2006?

Marina Zhurakhinskaya: In 2006, GNOME received 181 applications for Google Summer of Code, none of which appeared to be from women. Chris Ball and Hanna Wallach put together a two-month Women's Summer Outreach Programme to prove that it is possible to get women interested in such a programme.

GNOME received about 100 applications from interested candidates and six women participated in the programme. The programme was trailblazing in showing that women are eager to get involved in free software development when they are invited.

There was interest to see if this would energise women's participation in GNOME. However, GNOME only had one female participant in Google Summer of Code in each 2007 and 2008 and there were six women out of about 160 GNOME contributors at the Desktop Summit 2009, so in August 2009 the GNOME Foundation asked me to organise a new outreach programme for women. This time, we decided that it will be an ongoing effort.

We started out by doing a round of introductions on the GNOME Women mailing list, putting together a page with mentors who can help women start contributing to GNOME, working with the Free Software Foundation on creating resources and recommendations for encouraging women to get involved in free software, creating an issue of the GNOME Journal with articles by women, discussing the 2006 Women's Summer Outreach programme with its organisers, following up with that programme's participants, and encouraging women to apply for Google Summer of Code and connecting them with mentors.

There were about 15 women in attendance at GUADEC 2010. However GNOME again only had one female participant in Google Summer of Code that year. At that point, we decided to create the dedicated internship opportunities for women which, thanks to the original programme, we knew would generate more interest.

Women at a 2012 GUADEC dinner.

iTWire: Do you approach companies for sponsorship of the candidates or do they offer to join of their own volition?

MZ: We approach companies that are known contributors to a particular organisation, such as companies on the GNOME Foundation's advisory board. We also have an invitation on the programme page for companies to contact us if they are interested in supporting the programme.

iTWire: Is there any objection to closed source companies also joining as sponsors, as the low number of women in technology is right across the board?

MZ: All software companies work on or benefit from some open source software, so any company interested in supporting free software development and increasing the number of women in the field is welcome to join as a sponsor.

The number of women is particularly low in free software development as compared to proprietary software. It's estimated to be about three percent in free software, whereas it is about 25 percent in proprietary software. So it is clear that there are women interested in technology who are staying out of free software, and whom the programme aims to attract.

iTWire: How do you select the people? What is the approximate ratio of applications to selection? And who does the picking?

MZ: The programme has a collaborative application process, during which we require applicants to complete a small contribution to the project they are applying to work on with the help of a mentor. This serves as an important selection criterion because it lets us know if the applicant is able to dive into the internship work. It also helps all applicants become contributors.

In addition to the contribution and mentor's experience with the applicant, we look at the applicant's previous involvement in free software as a user and a contributor, relevant academic, professional or hobbyist experience, and enthusiasm about technology as, for example, can be seen from blogging when making selection decisions. Co-ordinators from each participating organisation consult with mentors and do the applicant selection.

Because the application process requires a substantial effort in completing a contribution, we usually have a relatively low number of applications, though we have many more inquiries. In the last round, we accepted 25 out of 62 applicants who completed a contribution, which is about 40 percent. Because all applicants gain the experience of making a contribution and the ones not accepted are offered informal mentor's support in continuing to contribute, many apply again in another round.

For example, out of 72 participants the programme has had so far, nine were accepted after improving on their original application and applying a second time.

iTWire: Have you tried to get the idea to spread - in other words, have you spoken to other FOSS projects about adopting the idea?

MZ: The GNOME Foundation ran the internships on its own for the first three rounds, then the Software Freedom Conservancy joined with its Twisted project in the fourth round, and then nine other free software organisations joined in in the most recent fifth round. We are looking to further grow the programme and we invite free software organisations to join in by letting us know about their interest to participate in the June-September internships round by the end of February.

iTWire: Would you consider sending your selected candidates to other FOSS projects for the training that they get, or is this solely a GNOME initiative which aims to boost the ranks of developers?

MZ: Applicants select which organisations among the ones participating in the programme to apply for. We aim to improve the chances that the strongest applicants find an organisation that can accept them. If during the application process one organisation has more strong applicants than it is able to accept, its co-ordinators encourage some of the applicants to also apply to a different organisation.

Throughout the application period, the programme page has an up-to-date list of organisations that are looking for more applicants. The goal of the programme is to increase women's participation in all of free software.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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