Fostering participation in FOSS

Increasing participation of women in Free and Open Source Software

Robots put together a puzzle
Image by :

Subscribe now

Get the highlights in your inbox every week.

Few women have been historically applying for Google Summer of Code, a program in which Google provides stipends for students to work for three months on FOSS projects. Last year, after many efforts by both the Google team and the community to increase the diversity in the program, about 100 of 1200 participants or 8.3% were women, which was a highest level of participation by women yet.

Women do not have high representation in computer science in general. In the US, women represent 25% of all software developers and 18% of students currently graduating with computer science degrees. However, even compared to these numbers, 8.3% women in Google Summer of Code and about 3% women in FOSS show a drastic underrepresentation.

The reasons more women don't apply for Google Summer of Code are the same reasons more of them don't participate in FOSS in general. Sometimes women are not sure if other FOSS contributors will treat them respectfully. Women are less likely to embark on the solitary exploration typically needed to get up to speed in FOSS. Even if a woman knows someone who is involved in FOSS, she might still not be encouraged to join in or might choose to stay out because she would not want to be the only woman in the group.

robot worldTargeted outreach programs have proven to be very effective in bringing in women who are interested in technology, but who have stayed out of particularly male-dominated areas. Out of 181 applicants the GNOME project had for Google Summer of Code in 2006, none were women. However, when Hanna Wallach and Chris Ball organized a similar Women's Summer Outreach Program the same year, 100 women applied and six participated. Similarly, only seven women applied for the spring 2011 batch of Hacker School and one was accepted, but when Etsy offered grants for women to participate in the next batch and raised awareness among women about the opportunity, 661 women applied and 23 were accepted.

These efforts address the reasons women are staying out by reassuring women there is a supportive environment and providing a focused opportunity to gain experience. For example, the GNOME Foundation's Outreach Program for Women, the successor of Women's Summer Outreach Program, offers internships for women with a number of friendly and mature FOSS communities. It connects women with mentors who can help them get started any time throughout the year, including outside of the internship program. There is a virtual community for all newcomers, participants, and mentors in the #opw IRC channel on GIMPNet (

Since 2010, 63 women participated in the Outreach Program for Women internships and 9 more women participated in Google Summer of Code with the encouragement from the program. They described their FOSS journeys in their blogs, which are aggregated on the Women in Free Software planet and on relevant project planets. The Outreach Program for Women internships are different from Google Summer of Code in that women don't need to be students to participate and, in addition to coding projects, other projects useful for a FOSS organization, such as design, documentation, or marketing, can be done as part of the program. Internships are offered twice a year, from December to March and from June to September.

The GNOME project itself, which has had the longest experience with offering internships through the Outreach Program for Women, has seen a substantial increase in the participation of women. While women comprised only 4% of attendees at GNOME's yearly conference, GUADEC, in 2009, women comprised 17% of attendees in 2012. In a recent survey of newcomers who joined and stayed involved in 12 FOSS organizations, 50% of GNOME respondents were women whereas only 6% of the respondents from other organizations were women, with no other organization having more than 15%. The organizations that joined the Outreach Program for Women more recently will no doubt see similar changes.

With 18 FOSS organizations offering internships in the upcoming round of the Outreach Program for Women and encouraging qualifying applicants to apply for Google Summer of Code as well, a record-breaking number of women will surely become experienced FOSS contributors this summer. Application deadlines for the programs are in the beginning of May, and the internship dates are June 17 through September 23.

Please consider applying for the programs, encouraging someone else to apply, spreading the word by using a prepared e-mail and social network updates, and sponsoring internships.


About the author

Marina Zhurakhinskaya - Marina Zhurakhinskaya is a Community Engagement Lead at Red Hat and a board member at the GNOME Foundation and the Ada Initiative. She co-organizes the FOSS Outreach Program. Marina uses her experience with outreach to contributors from underrepresented groups, such as women, to improve outreach to all new contributors. Prior to her community engagement role, Marina developed software for the GNOME desktop. Follow her on Twitter @marinaz