More thoughts on diversity in open source

Aside from the issue of community friendliness/hostility, there’s another set of structural reasons that affect who finds it easy to get involved in open source. At both BarCampPortland and RailsConf, I tried to pick people’s brains about why there are even fewer women involved with Ruby and Rails than with Java or Perl. I’ve also been poking around discussions on this online.

Many local tech events aren’t appealing or accessible to a wide range of people. By local I mean things you attend in your hometown, rather than conferences we travel to. A lot of these are most suited to people who are young, don’t have kids, and like to drink beer. That describes me. It does not describe my mother. Sometimes an event just needs to be publicized more widely, but often there are people who might be interested in the technology, but can’t go to a Tuesday night user group because there’s no one to watch the kids, or don’t have an interest in going because they anticipate a room full of socially-delayed young men. So if we want to build active, diverse tech communities, we need to create the means for a wider range of people to participate.

Not everyone can spend time learning new technologies when there isn’t support or compensation from their employer. It’s a pragmatic choice. If you can’t use it at work, why learn it? Especially if you have interests outside of IT, or family commitments and other obligations. Enterprise adoption of new tools and languages helps the diversity of the user base. Yes, there may be compelling reasons to learn new things even outside of work, particularly in the midst of outsourcing, but it’s not always possible to find the time, or scrape up money for books, workshops, etc. I think JRuby could be highly beneficial to the Ruby community in this respect, by allowing teams to deploy Ruby and Rails apps on top of their company’s existing Java setup. The attention from BusinessWeek and similar publications helps too. Unfortunately, many workers have to deal with IT decisions made by people who only read business & management publications, and have no personal involvement with any particular technology.

These things I’ve posted are really just a start, but I think we really need to get past arguing over whether lack of diversity is a problem (yes, it definitely is) and looking for the one true solution (let’s try some likely options and talk about the results), and actually get into action.

4 responses to “More thoughts on diversity in open source

  1. “…because they anticipate a room full of socially-delayed young men.”

    Don’t forget mostly white. I think there was maybe one black person at BarCamp Portland, a handful of asians and a few indian folks. Not to sound disrespectful, I’m just calling it as I saw it.

    I cast my vote as well for more diversity (both gender and race) in the local, as well as global, open source community.

  2. While I both welcome and look forward to more diversity in the workplace, I am not sure I agree with the implication that the current lack thereof is in some way unique to Ruby.

    I am fairly active online, reading forums and blogs and commenting where appropriate. I actively follow Python, Ruby, and the Flex community in addition to the Java world to name a few. I like to think that I have a reasonable idea of what is going on in the programming world in the US that is somewhat grounded in reality. Of course on the other hand I am a man, so take what I have to say as you will.

    While you assert that there is a discrepancy between the number of female Ruby developers vs. the number of female Java developers, I believe that the difference is nominal at best. Of course this perception is anecdotal, and we can argue about it, but ultimately I will end up at the point I really want to make: even if there is more than a marginal difference does it really mean anything?

    I think the discrepancy you are seeing is more indicative of the industry as a whole, I mean I don’t see women flocking to Groovy either. In my entire career I have worked with exactly 3 female programmers. And most of my coworkers and friends that are programmers have expressed similar numbers. It’s not because we don’t hire them, it’s because they don’t apply or they are grossly under-qualified (which is something I see more and more of in both genders).

    I will agree that there are a lot of structural barriers to entry in the programming world in general, but I don’t think there are any that are particular to the women of Ruby specifically. That’s just my opinion.

  3. Glenn, while I don’t have any hard data at hand, I’ve read studies elsewhere that claimed a large discrepancy between even the percentages of women involved in open source vs. technology in general. My own anecdotal evidence is that I’ve seen more women in corporate Java and .NET/Microsoft environments than in smaller open source-based companies. When I worked at CorVel, there were several other women in data services, systems support, and programming, and that was an all-Microsoft SQL Server and C# environment. It was also more ethnically diverse than most tech environments I’ve been in.

    It can be really hard, when there are so few women in some of these areas to begin with, to evaluate whether one set of technologies has an even less diverse community than others, but I think there is a steady decline in diversity when you look at users of proprietary tech with a high rate of enterprise adoption, to enterprise open source tech, to newer and more experimental open source projects. And my best guess right now as to what affects that are the factors I described above.

  4. Please make me feel more welcome. I have been programmering for longer than most of you have been arround. I have never been welcome at events. Ignored, forgotton and not paid. Just Mom who brings cookies, not the person who taught you all about computers from building them to programming them with networks in between.