Ada Initiative Supports Women in Open Source, Counters Sexism

Tuesday Feb 8th 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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A new non-profit launches to combat what’s sometimes called open source’s dirty little secret.

In the last two years, sexism in free and open source software (FOSS) culture has been increasingly discussed and documented. (See Sexism: Open Source Software's Dirty Little Secret.) However, little has been done about it.

Now, women's advocates Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner are determined to change this situation by the creation of The Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization to encourage women's participation in both FOSS and related groups such as the Free Culture Movement and Wikipedia. It's an ambitious effort, but one that the founders are determined to make, despite the inevitable hostility with which their efforts will be received in some circles.

Both Aurora and Gardiner have been active in FOSS women's groups for over a decade. However, the catalyst for the Ada Initiative was the hostile responses to Noirin Shirley's account of being sexually assaulted at ApacheCon in November 2010. The incident led to Aurora, Gardiner, and other members of the Geek Feminism blog to draft sample anti-harassment policies for conferences, and eventually to Aurora quitting her work as a full-time kernel developer at Red Hat to focus on the issues involved.

Named after Ada Lovelace, an associate of Charles Babbage who is often credited with being the first computer programmer, The Ada Initiative is intended as a means to do the kind of intensive work that is difficult -- if not impossible -- when relying on volunteers.

The current plan is to find funding for two years' full time work for at least Aurora and Gardiner. Others may be hired as funding permits, or for special projects.

"We're hoping to rely on corporate donations, probably with some early funds raised through individual donations" says Gardiner. The Ada Initiative has already announced its first sponsor, Linux Australia, and its founders hope to announce other sponsors shortly.

Drawing the Roadmap

Assuming that the necessary funds are raised, The Ada Initiative's co-founders have several ambitious goals.

One of the earliest priorities, according to Gardiner, "is the first substantive research on women in open source since the FLOSSPOLS survey that everyone relies on, but which are now five years out of date." The Ada Initiative will spend the first six months developing a research methodology and doing a new survey, then repeat it at the end of two years, leaving a consistent standard that can be used afterwards, either by The Ada Initiative or its successors.

More immediately, the organization will be working within FOSS and related communities in three ways. According to Aurora, "one is creating reasonable policy frameworks in general on things like how to successfully run [things like] a Women in Open Source Scholarship. There are a lot of people who want to run a Women in (fill in the blank) Project, and they just don't know how. The things that we develop and write down we can share with them."

Aurora continues, "The next one is to actually do in-person workshop and training." Examples of these events include what Aurora refers to as Allies Workshops for male and institutional supporters and First Patch Week, an intensive short course that would encourage women's participation in FOSS by teaching them via mentors about the cultural mechanics of proposing, writing, and submitting code modifications to a project.

"The third thing that we are doing," Aurora says, "is offering specific consulting to companies and organizations for specific requests that they have. So say they've just had a very unpleasant public thing involving sexism, we can help them understand how to respond in a way that best communicates what they actually believe. It's partly media relations, and partly how to develop internal policies to prevent the same sort of thing happening in the future. It's usually an emergency response, but it can also be in advance."

However, Aurora adds, "One thing we are very clear on is that we are not going to be fee for service. We are not going to be earning money because some bad thing has happened."

Another point that the founders emphasize is that men are welcome to contribute to The Ada Initiative as mentors or other consultants-- and, in fact, that much of the audience for its activities will be male or represented by men.

"We think there is a large community of men who would really like women to be a greater part of open [culture]," Aurora says, "and we have to give them the information they need to help them understand how to be part of this movement."

Besides, Aurora adds, there can be tactical advantages of working with men because of the very sexism that The Ada Initiative opposes. "There are certain things you can do automatically if you are a man. You automatically get perceived differently."

Gardiner and Aurora also want to stress that The Ada Initiative is complementary to existing organizations for women -- and is not intended as a replacement or umbrella organization, let alone as a competitor.

Instead, Gardiner suggests that The Ada Initiative will take on projects that existing organizations are less apt to undertake. Not only are many groups, such as Debian Women or KDE Women focused on specific projects, but, because of traditional divisions of domestic labor, women still frequently have less time to volunteer.

Moreover, some goals are simply harder to achieve with volunteers. Gardiner suggests that volunteers are best-suited to activities like coding, which can be divided into a series of smaller tasks, or event planning, which involve concentrated bursts of effort over a short period of time. By contrast, larger issues that involve multiple projects or intensive work over long periods of time are easier to organize when people are working on them full-time.

At any rate, Aurora notes, "Especially in open source, the majority of participants are paid, and it seems a bit much to expect that women are going to be different and participate in their free time. We want to get women involved professionally full-time."

Bracing for the Reaction

Aurora and Gardiner are well aware that their efforts are likely to meet hostility and abuse --- and that this sort of reception is historically a prime cause of burnout among women's advocates.

According to Gardiner, women who want to be involved in FOSS "often find that their tolerance for the level of conflict is really short. Very quickly, you'll find this level of hate rhetoric, trolling, and puerile behavior that is pretty exceptional."

As a result, Aurora says, "Mary and I have both gone through several cycles of not caring any longer." She recalls sitting at a bar with other experienced advocates for women in FOSS, and "of the six people sitting at the table, only one of us was not burned out. She is now burned out."

However, Gardiner and Aurora hope to avoid burnout because of the way that The Ada Initiative is being organized and planned. "Just being able to make some sort of positive difference and being able to work actively and intensively" may make a difference," Gardiner says.

Moreover, Aurora observes that, in previous activist efforts, "generally there's been one person who has done the bulk of the going to conferences, being the public face, and being the person who gets the death threats which inevitably happen. Kathy Sierra is just one of the high profile examples of that.[Sierra is a programming instructor and game developer who cancelled her appearance at a tech conference due to threatening blog posts and death threats.] One of the things we're doing is having a minimum of two people for the Ada Initiative, so it's depersonalized. People are hopefully going to be more likely to attack The Ada Initiative than a person.

"The second part of burnout is that activism takes a lot of emotional energy. It's extremely draining, and when you have to work a full time job to support yourself then you come home to death threats and angry emails and people being upset about the way you've phrased something, pretty soon you decide to stop doing that. So we also need to be able to go home in the evening and relax, and the only way we can figure out how to do that is to get paid for [activism]."

And if the founders burnout anyway over the next two years? Then, "in an ideal world, we'll have grown a couple of excellent candidates who would love to go to work for The Ada Initiative," Aurora says.

Evaluating Success or Failure

The planning for The Ada Initiative includes evaluating progress towards its goals at each step of the way. According to Gardiner, the project will be reconsidered in six months if it has not found adequate sponsorship, with any funds raised returned to their donors

Similarly, Gardiner concedes that, "it is, for instance, not realistic to expect that in 2013, fifty percent of developers will be women." Instead, Aurora and Gardiner are viewing the next two years as an initial phase in the project.

During that time, they hope to observe and document small but definite changes in the participation of women in FOSS and related areas. Aurora suggests that measures of success will be such things as "the number of women who have submitted their first patch through one of our programs, establishing a baseline for women in open source and culture, the number of groups and organizations that we have assisted, [and] the number of conferences that have adopted some form of anti-harassment policy."

By contrast, signs of failures might be the number of women who fail to keep up their involvement, or of conferences that, after adopting an anti-harassment policy, fail to enforce it.

If nothing else, Aurora and Gardiner hope that the Ada Initiative will leave a legacy of training material and advice for women's advocates who come after them.

The Ada Initiative is confronting complex problems that many others have faced with limited success, but, overall, its founders are convinced that the time has come for their approach.

"It's the right thing to do, and it seems like it's far overdue," Aurora says. "A lot of people want to do something and they have nowhere to go to do it, so there's this pent-up frustration and helplessness. We hope to give people a focus."

ALSO SEE: Sexism: Open Source Software's Dirty Little Secret

AND: Eight Completely Free Linux Distros (And One More)

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