How to get young women interested in open source

Make money and have fun in open source

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Women in open source. Women in programming. Women in tech at all. Where are they?

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We're familiar with the statistics, and we've seen the photos from the tech conferences. Seas full of men. It requires patience to scan for the odd female in those auditoriums. It's a popular topic, this scarcity of women in technology, one of the hip things to whine about these days. It's politically correct to blame the male "priesthood" in Silicon Valley. Ask Paul Graham. He took it in the ribs after a few reckless comments about the funding practices of his startup seed accelerator, Y Combinator. He was quoted as saying, "God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that," in a recent article. Ouch. But, really, is he so wrong?

I have an 11 year old daughter. Even though she sees me sitting at my computer for ungodly hours of the day making a living for her, she's a lot more interested in watching Katy Perry on YouTube than learning how to write code on Khan Academy. Why is that? Coding is fun. Writing some lines of PHP, hitting enter, and watching the look of an entire website change in an instant, now that's exhilarating!

Well... it doesn't wear a candy striped leotard and strut around through a maze of life-sized lollipops.

For years, I've been wishing somebody like Wired Magazine or would do an annual "Sexiest Geek Alive" issue, like People magazine does. Give me Matt Mullenweg, Linus Torvalds, or Nick Roach over Adam Levine any day. I'm literally weak in the knees thinking of the long list I could make. Is there anything sexier than a man who can DO something?! I had come to the conclusion that what the open source community needed was more sex appeal, starting with some geeky pinup boys. Then, I read an article by Sarah Pressler which convinced me of the danger of that kind of thinking.

I've realized that's not exactly the best direction, as fun as it sounds at first. Boys might attract girls... but eventually, what we want is more females getting enchanted with the mysteries of open source. We want them to feel the rush of writing code or contributing to an open source project. They'll get interested when they think it might be as fun as putting on makeup or listening to a pop song. So, instead of whining about the dearth of women in technology, let's show them how fun it is!

Seeing incredible, powerful women in the community will draw the girls in. Female role models who are making money with open source, and having fun doing it... that will keep them interested. You can't expect a young girl to imagine the possibility of a successful career as a woman in technology, if she has no idea what that looks like. Be the change you want to see, right?

There are a lot of us "being it" already. There are also some incredible organizations contributing to the cause. I think this is one of our best tools to make a difference in the balance of the genders in our field, encouraging girls to join in the fun. I know firsthand about one of these organizations, because it made a huge impact on my own career in open source.

When I applied to become an intern with the GNOME Outreach Program for Women in 2011, I had already used open source software for many years. I am not an average GMONE applicant. Fortunately, they are usually younger than I am, and therefore, will probably be more influential on their peers. I had co-owned an ISP that ran exclusively on open source software and had used only open source tools myself since I had begun using a computer for anything more than word processing. I didn't need to be convinced that it was viable. I knew it worked. But, I was in a transition period in my life.

 We had sold our Internet service, and the economy was sagging. An internship was perfect for me at the time. My next move was up in the air, and the opportunity to contribute to the open source software that I had benefited from for many years sounded great. I was accepted to participate in web design and marketing tasks for GNOME, and it ended up shaping a future for me in web design. The internship solidified my devotion to the open source ideal, furthered my experience in web design, and reminded me that the culture of technology is ever so interesting and inspiring. My experience with the GNOME community taught me how effective the open source collaborative model is. The opportunity to hop on IRC chat when you're stuck on a problem or need some input is invaluable, and the end product is so much better with a melding of minds.

I was hooked. My future was certainly going to be in open source software, and I thank GNOME for that. Organizations like them are changing the world one woman at a time. Each of these women is becoming a model for the young girls behind them. The fact that the Executive Director of GNOME, Karen Sandler, is just the sort of role model I'm talking about, was icing on the cake.

 I recently attended WordCamp, a WordPress conference, and I was so happy to see the vitality of that open source community. People definitely knew they were working with a different model, a community model, and they love it. Many of the businesses represented at the conference, like 10up for example, contribute a significant amount of their employees' time to WordPress core itself. They get it. There were a lot of women there, not enough, but quite a few. Women like Sarah Pressler and Natalie MacLees were energetic and inspiring. WordPress is attracting women into open source jobs, as well it should.

 I now own a freelance WordPress web design business that is growing daily. I run Ubuntu and the GNOME desktop and use only open source tools like Inkscape, GIMP, LibreOffice, and WordPress. I am making a good living using open source. And it's fun, it really is. I get to make things all day long, beautiful things.

 Are you listening, girls?



View the complete collection of Women in Open Source Week articles.

About the author

Christy Eller - Christy is a WordPress web designer who has been using open source software since the StarOffice days. She was an intern with the GNOME Outreach Program for Women (OPW) in 2011/2012, and credits much of her success to the free and open source tools she loves so dearly.