Interview: Karen Sandler (part 1)


Gnome Outreach Programme For Women

In Linux Format issue 176, Graham Morrison and Andrew Gregory spoke to Karen Sandler, executive director of the Gnome Foundation. We were so absorbed by what she had to say that we almost missed the free lunch in the canteen. Of the many subjects that the conversation touched upon (we'll be putting the full interview up on TuxRadar soon), the most time-sensitive is the Gnome Outreach Programme For Women. This does pretty much what it says on the tin: it's an initiative aimed at getting more women into free software, not just Gnome.

If you're a programmer, and a woman, and you're reading this, then you're probably not the target audience. You already know about free software. But if you know a woman who has the time, the inclination and who could do with $5,500 to help her do it, you should tell her about this intern programme. The next generation of free software programmers are out there somewhere, but most of them don't even know it yet. It's up to us, and initiatives like this one, to bring them into the fold.

Take it away, Karen:

TuxRadar: About the Gnome outreach programme for women. My first question was going to be: “Why does it matter?” but then when I looked again at the numbers, it’s kind of obvious.

Karen Sandler: It’s amazing. Only 25% of all software developers are women. That includes all proprietary software. It used to be 30%.

So you start out with that, which seems like a low number already, but OK, that’s kind of understandable, women are less into software, I don’t know what the reasons are, but OK. Then you look at students, and only 18% of computer science graduates are women. That also used to be a little bit higher, but whatever, It’s sort of like OK, that’s even less good; and then you look at free and open source software and all of the stats on the involvement of women are dramatically lower. The most I’ve ever seen is 5% quoted but usually 3% or even 1% are the numbers used. It’s an order of magnitude off.

TuxRadar: But the reason why that 25% figure doesn’t bother me is because if 18% of computer programming students are women and 25% of developers are women then women are if anything over represented in the software industry.

Karen Sandler: OK, that’s significant because the numbers are going down. So it used to be that 30% of all developers were women. Now it’s 25%, there were a lot of women who were COBOL programmers for example, in big government jobs. There are all these developers and many of them are aging out, and because the number of students is diminishing, the women have graduated already who are working.

TuxRadar: The other big thing is the difference between 25% in proprietary and 1–5% in free software. Why do you think there’s such a massive gulf there? If anything I would have thought that it would be the other way round; free software is supposed to be inclusive and happy.

Karen Sandler: I think that there are a lot of reasons, but I don’t want to go into too much detail wondering why, because everything that I talk about is anecdotal. There aren’t great surveys and research that show it.

TuxRadar: That’s a problem in itself.

Karen Sandler: Yes, that is a problem, but I don’t have that information. Actually the Ada Initiative is working towards getting some more concrete data.

TuxRadar: Doesn’t GitHub collect information on the sex of its contributors?

Karen Sandler: Do you want it to? I think there are studies that show that when you ask people to provide their gender, you’re first of all asking them a binary question, which is not necessarily the right way to go because many people feel like they don’t fit into one gender or another.

TuxRadar: In the UK you can’t go to the dentist for example without filling in a form that asks for your racial makeup or your sex. It’s annoying, but I can understand why they’re doing it.

Karen Sandler: You’ll also find that of the people who don’t respond, a much higher percentage of them tend to be women. So that skews the results as well. It’s really tough to get a handle on those numbers. I’d rather just think about all the reasons that could possibly be the case and try to find acceptable solutions to them. That’s what we’ve been doing. You know, if people are jerks on mailing lists, women in particular get turned off. Anecdotally, that seems to be the case. You now what? People shouldn’t be jerks on mailing lists. We should have friendly communities where people don’t feel like they’re going to be harassed.

TuxRadar: But everyone benefits when people aren’t jerks on the internet.

Karen Sandler: Everyone benefits. So and that’s what we’ve found about each of these things with the outreach programme for women. Each of the things that we’ve tried to overcome, we’ve found, actually makes our community better for everyone. So why not just do that?

TuxRadar: That sounds so easy. What else do you do to make the community better for everyone?

Karen Sandler: We have one big session at GUADEC – it’s like a keynote basically, a keynote lightning talk session – where all the Google Summer of Code and Outreach Programme for Women participants just present their work. And it’s great. For a lot of people English is their second language, so giving that talk is a major challenge. But then they have the confidence that they have presented in that way and the whole community has seen their work, and knows what they’re doing and knows why they’re there. That’s great, and it has helped a lot with having people feel like they’re more integrated into our community.

Actually it’s not just have them feel that way, but really be more integrated, because when somebody else is working on something related to it they know that they should talk to that newcomer as well.

We have an outreach programme for women and we’ve extended it to other free software projects and so we have 18 different projects that are participating through different distros. So we’ve got Debian and Fedora, and we’ve got the Linux kernel, and Wikimedia. All different kinds of projects.

TuxRadar: Subversion?

Karen Sandler: Yes, as I understand it, Subversion didn’t have any women contributing to it at all before it took part in our outreach programme for women, which is amazing. And the Linux kernel has a terrible track record in attracting women to participate. Now this summer there are seven women who are contributing to the Linux kernel actively through the programme. So it’s a programme that works, but one of the things is that we’ve been learning all these lessons at Gnome and we’re trying to do the best that we can to give our newcomers a shot. Not all of those things are going to be as incorporated into the other projects. We encourage other free software projects to make efforts to incorporate newcomers at their conferences, but I’m sure they don’t do the exact same thing as we do, and they’re finding out what works for them. We do now require that a $500 stipend is added into the internship, so the internship amount is now $5500: $5000 for the internship and $500 for travel.

And that’s because if you bring these women to events where they can meet the people they’re working with, they’re much more likely to stick around and form the relationships that we need in order to improve our communities. So we can have the program, but if we don’t actually keep some of these women and integrate them into our communities there’s no point in doing any of it. We’re trying to do the best we can at Gnome to make things better, but I think the different participants in the outreach programme for women will find their own way

TuxRadar: It’s great that you’re sharing your progress with Debian, the Linux kernel and others. Are you standing on the shoulders of other non-profit organisations? There must have been other initiatives like this in other sectors. Have you adopted any of their ideas?

Karen Sandler: There were some. I think Gnome was the first to do it in an organised fashion, in 2006, to do those internships, and then they picked it up again in 2010. I’m unaware of any programme that was similar, and I would say that having us bring this programme to the other free software projects actually hurts Gnome in a way, because when we first had the programme we only had Gnome interns, we were the only shop in town. If you wanted to say that you supported women in free software then you supported the Gnome Outreach Programme for Women. But now that we have it for other free and open source software projects the funding is often directed to those other projects. So we get a little less work on Gnome because of the success of the programme, but it’s worth it.

We talked about this before we decided to do this, it’s worth it because it helps the situation overall. Sponsors who were coming in who wanted to sponsor women in free and open source software were sponsoring Gnome before, but now they might say that they want their money to go to the Linux kernel or to something else. Luckily we have some sponsors who are just signing up as general sponsors, and then we can assess who the strongest candidates are, the strongest applications across all of our projects. That way we can bring the best women to free and open source software, period.

The first year we opened it up to so many projects, Wikimedia got a ton of really strong candidates, so we moved some of the funds that I thought we were going to use for Gnome interns to Wikimedia, because that’s where the strong women were. This year Gnome had a lot of strong candidates, so we’ve benefitted a little more this time. But it will depend: it depends who’s applying, and where we think that the money really deserves to go.

TuxRadar: Is there anything else you’d like to get out to the readers of TuxRadar Parish?

Karen Sandler: If you know smart women, just tell them about the programme. They can potentially get involved in some way or another. We actually got a number of great applicants from friends of mine posting on social networking, who were not even in free software. There are exceptionally talented women who will go to proprietary software jobs without even giving free and open source software another thought. It’ll get them thinking: “Oh, that’s a cool opportunity, I’ve always been interested in free and open source software, but I never really thought it was for me.” If you’re in a free software project, consider joining us, and if you’re working in a company, please please please ask about sponsorship.

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