When you have a community, and you notice that there's an imperfect distribution in participation, what do you do?
How do you increase participation of a particular minority group? What should your goal be?
For example, if you have an open source project, and you need more programmers to contribute -- what do you do? What I've observed is that the project advertises explicitly - they say, "Hey, we'd like more developers - interested?"
The leaders of the project call up their good friends, and ask those people to help out. Then they present at conferences, saying "Hey, look at our cool project. Want to join us?" They talk to individuals, they talk to groups. They say the same thing, "We'd really like you to join us. So, why don't you download our code, ask me some questions, and contribute!"
Bottom line: they network, and they find the people that they are looking for.
So, I think this model works equally well for getting more women involved in open source projects. You say to your group of friends, "Hey, I'd like more women contributing to my open source project. Do you know any?" You go to conferences, and you say explicitly, "Hey you - would you like to participate in my project? What are you interested in? Can I help you find a project that is of interest to you?" You go to user groups, and you talk to the women who show up and find ways to keep them engaged in the group, and in the code.
All the hand-wringing over this problem that starts with "I don't know what to do" can be solved by simply asking people to be involved. Politely, insistently and like you're bringing them the best party you've thrown all year.
Invite them explicitly, rather than falling back on a "if we build it, they will come" mind-set. Sure, a laid-back approach works when you have a popular project, or the choice to contribute is easy. But otherwise, we need to ask for greater participation.
Take a moment, ask yourself -- how many women do you know that write code? How many women do you know that contribute to open source in other ways? What can you do to expand your open source circle so that you invite at least one woman into our community? More than one? Maybe half a dozen?
Change yourself, and the whole community will change with you.
Fact is, open source software contribution is still kind of difficult. There are so many barriers to entry that community managers from huge corporations and extremely large open source projects are willing to meet with a group of five people at a 2000-person conference to explain the culture, the potential pitfalls, and the tremendous benefits of getting involved. And those same people are so convinced of the importance of this one-at-a-time contact, that they tell potential contributors, "If you have any questions, email me directly, and I will help you."
We love our communities and the ideas that drive free and open source software so much that we want to talk to anyone who is interested. We think that it is worth it to convince people, one at a time, to contribute.
The same logic applies to getting women involved. The change won't happen in a day. We convince people, one at a time, that what we work on - what we believe so much in - is worth contributing to.
And then, one person at a time, we will make it so that women are 50% of open source community.
(image courtesy of diamondmountain via Creative Commons license)
Have some feedback? Corrections? Ideas for other posts? Contact me @selenamarie.