Open source’s diversity problem

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in tech, especially open source, but their contributions speak for themselves.

Open source’s diversity problem
Tachina Lee with modifications by IDG Comm. / Getty Images

Tech has long had a diversity problem, but in open source, it’s even worse. U.S. Bureau of Labor data shows that 19.4% of software developers are women, but according to a 2017 GitHub open source survey, 95% of respondents were men and just 3% were women (1% identified as non-binary). The reasons are various, but one key reason may simply be that open source communities can be unfriendly to women developers.

According to that same GitHub survey, it’s not that women developers don’t want to contribute to open source projects. Actually, 68% of the women surveyed said they are “very interested” in contributing to open source, but are significantly less likely to do so than men (45% compared to 61%). Even so, we do have a rising number of women open source stars who are contributing to and/or maintaining open source projects.

Comcast’s open source chief, Nithya Ruff, asked for examples of great women open source builders. Among many impressive women, here are a few to watch.

We are all made of stars

“In open source, the maintainers working on the source code are the scarce resource that needs to be protected and nurtured,” Tobie Langel once told me. This is true, generally, of open source contributors and maintainers, but it’s perhaps doubly so for women developers. Given how open source pervades all software (upwards of 90%, according to Sonatype data), if we want our software to reflect the interests and requirements of those who will ultimately depend on it, we should improve the diversity of the open source communities writing that software.

Although we have a long way to go, there are indications that many projects have already recognized the quality of contributions from women developers.

Some people who made Ruff’s list are well-known developer rock stars. It’s hard to talk observability, for example, without mentioning Jaana Dogan. Dogan is a force of open source nature, contributing extensively to the Go programming language, Open Telemetry, Prometheus, and more. Or consider Michelle Noorali, a shining light in the Kubernetes constellation. She spends considerable time making it easier to develop and manage containerized and distributed applications on Kubernetes, with significant contributions to Helm, Draft, Cloud Native Application Bundles (CNAB), and Service Mesh Interface (SMI), among others.

If you’re a Postgres geek, specifically, PostGIS (adding support for geographic objects allowing location queries to be run in SQL), Regina Obe is “the rock PostGIS is built upon,” according to Paul Ramsey. If you use Redis (and let’s face it, we all do), you benefit from Madelyn Olson’s work as one of the project’s five maintainers.

Into Kubernetes? You can thank a number of women. For example, Nikhita Raghunath is a core maintainer for the project. For kube-state-metrics, you’re depending on Lili Cosic. (I profiled her work in 2020.) The Kubernetes Native Policy Engine? That’s Shuting Zhao. Plus I’m sure there are others I’m simply not aware of—yet.

Still in the cloud-native community, consider Alyssa Wilk and Asra Ali, two key maintainers for Envoy. Within the Istio project, maintainers include women like Mariam John, Andra Cismaru, Lin Sun, Cynthia Coan, Iris Ding, and others. Open Service Mesh? Sneha Chhabria, Shalier Xia, Sanya Kochhar, Kalya Subramanian, and more. On the list of maintainers for all Cloud Native Computing Foundation projects you will see a number of other women doing impressive work.

Look at projects like osboot, maintained by Leah Rowe; Porter, maintained by Carolyn Van Slyck; Cwtch, maintained by Sarah Jamie Lewis; I2P, maintained by Sadie Doreen; OctoPrint3D, created and maintained by Gina Häußge; the compile time regular expression library for C++, maintained by Hana Dusíková; and many more.

Strength in numbers

But it’s not enough. Not yet. We need many more women contributing to open source if we hope to reflect the same diversity in development as open source has in use. Nor is this merely a matter of sprinkling token contributors across a spread of projects. Noorali suggests that her desire and ability to speak up on a team has much to do with not feeling alone:

“This is my first time on a team where there are more than two women on my team. For most of my career, I was the only woman on my team. I got to be on the same team as Carolyn Van Slyck for several months before this one…. I feel a sense of ease and comfort I have never felt before personally and I do think it has something to do with not being a minority both in gender identity and ethnicity. I’m also not the only first-gen American on the team. There are more personalities like mine.”

We need to encourage more women to contribute code, as well as to contribute through docs (like Ashleigh Brennan, who maintains the Knative docs) or community building (like Paris Pittman does for Kubernetes) or project leadership (like Liz Fong-Jones does for Open Telemetry).

There are many other ways and means to contribute. I’ve named a few women who make open source better. It’s time, as RedMonk’s James Governor has encouraged, to listen to women’s voices and increasingly recognize them in the communities that build our world through open source code.

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