Women in Open Source

Oct 16, 2013


  • Doing open source work is a path to success in the software industry.
  • Women are underrepresented in open source, and therefore largely not currently capitalizing on this substantial opportunity.
  • The open source world is daunting for everyone, and it's especially bad for women.
  • I am offering my time to mentor a woman who is interested in getting involved in open source — particularly deeply technical and/or low level work. Also, this.
  • The last paragraph explains how to get in touch if you're interested.

The work that I've done in open source has led to nearly every major leap I've made since I started working as a programmer. It's how I got my last job (an executive position), how I get speaking gigs, and how I met nearly every one of my current set of friends and mentors.

That last point is important: research shows a link between something called "social capital" and career advancement. Your circle of friends — a representation of your social capital — acts as a source of information, resources, and credibility [1]. In other words, your friends teach you stuff, help you out, and if they're successful and prominent, they make you look good (twitter retweets might make this an especially big deal in our world).

I've experienced this first hand. In my last job, I was — quite frankly — failing miserably until I met a couple of guys who helped me understand how to think about what I was doing in the right way. With their help, I turned things around so well that I get invited to speak all over the world about my successes in that area. I met those guys as a result of open source work. Quite a snowball.

I have personal examples for days, but thankfully, you don't need to take my word for it. The bibliography for [1] is literally a list of research on this topic.

Women are terribly underrepresented in open source [2]. Since open source is an effective way to accumulate social capital in the software world, womens' underrepresentation is an enormous missed opportunity for career advancement, success, and — frankly — making money.

I get it, though: the open source world is inhospitable to basically everyone, and it's a lot worse for women. Whether we consciously intend it to be or not, open source is a boys club. Although I have observed the men I hang around with be very welcoming and inclusive towards women who are interested in joining our circle, being passively inclusive isn't enough. We need to actively recruit and mentor women until we reach critical mass [3].

That's why I've decided to offer my time as a mentor to a woman who is interested in getting involved in open source — particularly in something deeply technical and/or low level, since that's my area of interest and one where women are particularly poorly represented. Specifically, I'm talking about working on things like databases (distributed or otherwise), memory allocators, virtual machines, operations tooling, etc. The kinds of things I write about on this blog.

I'm willing to offer half a day a week of my time for whatever I can do to help, whether it's teaching, pair programming, debugging, connecting with smart people I know, or any and every combination of those things and whatever else. I'm new at this, so we'll have to figure it out as we go.

If you don't have time for — or interest in — open source work, but feel that you might benefit from more informal regular chats (IMs, IRC, whatever) about whatever it is that you're working on, I'd love to help in any way I can, so definitely still get in touch. This is the type of relationship that I have with many of my mentors and it's tremendously useful.

Drop me an email with a bit of background about who you are and the type of thing you might be interested in working on. You don't already have to be working on low level or deeply technical stuff. A few years ago, I wasn't either. All you need to be successful is interest and motivation.

  1. A Social Capital Theory of Career Success, Scott E. Seibert, Maria L. Kraimer and Robert C. Liden
  2. Gender: Integrated Report of Findings, Dawn Nafus, James Leach, Bernhard Krieger
  3. Incidentally, the research shows that mentoring is a key contributor to career advancement, higher salaries, and more job satisfaction. It also shows that women typically have less access to mentoring, arguably a key facet of the glass ceiling.
    1. Impressing for Success: A Gendered Analysis of a Key Social Capital Accumulation Strategy, Savita Kumra, Susan Vinnicombe