The 7% solution: Women of Drupal
It really might seem, at first blush, to be quite surprising that an open source project like Drupal, which has a very open, inviting and not-all-that-macho development community, has so few women, but the problem of female under-representaqtion is endemic across technology; open source is no exception. During a BOF session at DrupalCon Barcelona 2007, some of us wondered why that is.
The consensus answer: visibility.
Working in the shadows (or at least alone in one's room)
When we went around the table, introducing ourselves, right away we found we had something besides Drupal in common: nearly all of us were self-taught. We certainly were not products of big engineering schools. None of us had career counsellors pushing us into IT. In fact, most of us kind of stumbled into web programming and development almost by accident. No, we came from business, accounting, film, art, activism....
What struck me was that we noticed the same thing in the Deeply Geeky session at BlogHer 2006: nearly all the women in tech who were present were self-taught. The message: it's never too late.
Meet Robin. ("robeano"). She just did first commit on signit module. How did she learn coding? Don't look at her academic background: she studied business administration. Now she's working for a large Drupal development company.
Say hello to Sophea ("ms.static") from Helsinki (by way of Sydney and Delhi). She got into Drupal through experimental sound and participatory radio. She describes herself as more of an audio geek than a coder, but has found her interest in collaborative audio systems has drawn her into the Drupal community. Now she's interested in pushing Drupal in terms of handling sound.
Zoe ("zoeyk") is an information architect. Before sitting down at our round table, she was wondering what she's doing here at DrupalCon "with all these guys." She comes out of the non-profit arts organizing and curating world, and got involved in technology more from the user side. She finds Drupal challenging, so she's trying to ease into the Drupal world. I think that's how a lot of us felt at the start.
You don't have to be a rock star (to be a star)
In open source communities, the only barrier to entry is your own initiative (and complementary bravery, determination, curiosity and -- hopefully -- bliss). In a do-ocracy, you can gain credibility just by doing. No certificates required.
And you can start at the proverbial bottom and rise up to become a star.
Look at Addi ("add1sun"). Her background had nothing at all to do with computers. Now a major coding contributor to Drupal, Addi learned php and Drupal only a year and a half ago! She had studied to be an anthropologist and lived in Thailand for a while and then came back to the States and started working for the government back state-side, where she was just "stamping and moving paper." Then the IT department wanted her to be an end-user to test a new program for her department. The thing is, she soon discovered that it was easier for her to learn the code and just fix it than to try to explain to the IT coders what they had to code. From that she became the systems administrator for her department. Now she's a full-time Drupal developer and trainer
, and on the board of the recently formed Drupal Association [my bad].
Karen ("KarenS") kind of stormed onto the Drupal scene all of the sudden. But like the others, she did not study computers: she was a CPA. She happened to like computers, but never had any training. Still, her interest drew her towards the work. She went out her own, taught herself HTML to build a site for elder care. Then, after someone converted the site to PHP and then went away, she taught herself PHP so she could update it. Then she got tired of fixing the code so she rewrote the site from the ground up. Then she sold that PHP system she developed to other people building other sites. Then she realized that maintaining one's own code can be a lot of work, and she got involved with Drupal. Now she's the maintainer or co-maintainer of about a dozen modules, including some of the most commonly used modules in Drupal today: CCK, date and calendar. She figures she's probably one of the only grandmothers who's writing code.
Allie ("Allie Micka") was a film student who happened to take some computer science classes. 2-3 years ago, she tried out Mambo and Drupal (and thought Drupal pretty much sucked). Then she tried modifying Drupal and Mambo (and found that Mambo pretty much sucked). She went with Drupal, and ended up writing email-oriented modules because she wanted functionality to send stuff to friends. Now she's a major contributor.
Shy but not unfriendly
Are you a self-taught geek still hanging back in the shadows of your tech community? Maybe it's time to step out into the light. You're not alone.
And if you're still a bit intimidated, you might seek out someone like Angie (who's smiling at the camera in the photo at the top of the page, wearing a t-shirt with the words
"Shy but not unfriendly" "Just shy (not antisocial) ... you can talk to me!" [correction]). Angie (aka "webchick") has always been a geek. Her first computer experience was when she played with vic 20 at 4 years old. She wanted to get into into video game programming, but stayed away when she learned that it meant studying lots of math. So she stayed with website stuff. She got involved with Drupal through Google's Summer of Code program. She had heard of Drupal from the Spread Firefox site, and as she wanted to work with non-profits and grassroots sites, it seemed like a good fit. She did a module, then got hired by one company, then another. She admits that she "kind of got obsessed with Drupal." It shows, because she's heavily involved in core development, writing and organizing site documentation, security reviews, and the Drupal Association. "I spend pretty much every waking moment on Drupal," she says. But don't let her stellar accomplishments intimidate you. She's one of the most friendly, welcoming and helpful people in the entire Drupal community, who is happy to sit down with anyone to "spend an hour or whatever to get people obsessed with Drupal."
Being seen just doing it
In our session that day, the big question was how we could increase participation of women in the development community -- especially open source development. The thing is that today there are lots of women involved in technology, but it seems to be a secret. Visibility is important. If there are others already visibly involved, it's a bit easier for new women to join in.
It seems that one barrier easily dealt with is that so many women self-select out of the IT/software/development world because of the perception that women are not welcome. Angie and Stephanie noted that just having clearly female online handles can occasionally attract some sophomoric challenges from men (or boys) who felt challenged or threatened to find women in their midst, but that has definitely been the rare exception.
This soft approach of quiet enabling and empowering certainly is not the only way to go. We did look at other possible things that might help. But it's a difficult issue to advocate. For example, the idea of adding to Groups.Drupal.org (an open group-oriented site where new and veteran members of the Drupal community can join topically and regionally focused groups to explore in detail what might not interest others all that much) a "women of Drupal" group was met with a general distaste. It was too ... political. Separating. Isolating. (I can anticipate perhaps some dissenting comments to this post.)
Preferred at least in this circle was the idea that each woman participate visibly in the Drupal community, not as a "woman developer" but as a developer (or designer or administrator) who just happens to be a woman. We're not a community within the community -- we are a part of the community as much as anybody.
All photos used by permission. Follow their links to more great photos of the conference and of the women there.