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Monday, 14 February 2011 10:30

Kernel dev sets out on an uncharted path


Valerie Aurora has many achievements to her name. In a world where FOSS developers are overwhelmingly men, she has been a Linux kernel developer for the last 10 years. She's been a consultant, speaker, writer, founder of companies and advocated for women in open source.

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Which means she has survived after reading the flame-infested Linux kernel mailing lists for that period - a tough task for even the hardiest.

The field in which Aurora (pic below) operates is an unfriendly one - the proportion of women in FOSS is abysmally low by any standards. And the FOSS community's attitudes towards women are not exactly welcoming.

At the recent Australian national Linux conference in Brisbane, which a much larger number of women than usual attended, keynote speaker Mark Pesce violated the conference anti-harassment policy by using sexual images in his talk; late last year, Apache employee Noirin Shirley was allegedly sexually assualted. These are but two of numerous incidents over the years.

Aurora has worked for big companies, including Red Hat, IBM and Sun Microsystems. But recently, she took a different path and decided to set up an initiative, along with Sydneysider Mary Gardiner, to help increase the number of women in open source.

Called the Ada Initiative after the first woman programmer/open source programmer, Aurora is hopeful that it will achieve what she has set out to do. She has set out a series of what she sees as realistic goals to make the situation at least a little better.
Valerie Aurora
She took some time out during a recent consulting job to speak to iTWire.

iTWire: What was the tipping point when the idea of starting this initiative crystallised in your mind? And why just the two of you - there are many more prominent women who are involved in FOSS?

Valerie Aurora: Mary and I have cared about women in open "stuff" for about a decade now, and always pushed the boundaries on what we could get done in purely volunteer time. More recently, kernel work started to bore me, and I've been actively plotting a change of career since fall of 2009.

The moment I personally decided to "go for it" was when I heard about the reaction to Noirin Shirley's blog post about being assaulted at ApacheCon. The reaction was world-wide and vituperative in a way that astonished me. But the worldwide nature of the attack on her made me realise that the open source community and the social web in general also had a worldwide reach for good.

We hope that the Ada Initiative will grow beyond the two of us. I reached out to multiple women with strong track records on activism, but Mary and I were the ones who had the combination of career flexibility and emotional energy to work on it right now. Many people assure us that we are being wildly optimistic in planning to employ two people full-time in an open technology non-profit. But we are in touch with and working with other top women's advocates and keeping an eye out for opportunities to work more closely with them.


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iTWire: What steps can you take to avoid duplication of efforts? That's the bane of most FOSS endeavours.

VA: Mary and I have both spent many years volunteering in various women in open source communities, so we have a pretty good feeling for what can be accomplished in volunteer's spare time, and what we can't. We are focusing on the kinds of sustained, intense projects that other groups simply can't do. We also are committed to scalability and re-usability of our efforts. Rather than teach a woman how to write a patch ourselves, or individually replying to each sexist email on a mailing list, we focus on creating a well-documented program and training other people to use and teach it. We are both prolific writers and like to document what we've learned so no one else has to go through the trouble we had.

iTWire: First Patch Week sounds like an interesting idea - is it your own or has it been practised elsewhere?

VA: We got the idea for First Patch Week from the bzr development team at Canonical. They have a concept of a "patch pilot," someone whose primary job is to watch the mailing lists for patches and then work with the author to get the patch cleaned up enough that it goes into mainline. The interesting thing about how they do this is that each team member takes a turn being patch pilot for a week, during which time shepherding patches is their number one priority. We want First Patch Week to be a partnership with organisations who can say, "Hey, anyone who is qualified can take this week and spend it mainly on this mentorship project, and we won't bug you about your other projects."

iTWire: Improving women's participation in Wikipedia and other open data projects - how?

VA: Wikipedia has gotten a lot of press lately for both the low number of women editors and the relatively low proportion of women's biographies. The problems look remarkably like those of women in open source: lots of harassment of women contributors, across-the-board dismissal of women's contributions or skills, men working in teams and supporting each while women are driven out and are too few and far between to create effective teams. We are working with Wikipedia experts to see how we can apply the lessons learned from women in open source to Wikipedia. In particular, we want to encourage women to form communities and support each other, and to help leaders in the community create and foster a change in the culture such that this kind of harassing and discriminatory behavior becomes socially unacceptable.

iTWire: How would you measure progress - numbers? numbers doing useful work?

VA: As scientists and statistics geeks, we have some distress over the pitiful state of data on women in open technology and culture. The Wikipedia study is great, as was the FLOSSPOLS study in Europe a few years back, but in general we don't have a good baseline to compare against and see what change we've made. One of our first projects is to conduct a wide-ranging study on the various open communities. Once we have a baseline, we can at least measure whether the situation is getting better overall. Figuring out whether we were the cause of that improvement will be more difficult.

Some of the things we've thought of measuring:
* Number of women who submit a patch during First Patch Week
* Measures of harassment of women at conferences and in online communities - number of reported incidents, number of conferences and projects with a meaningful and enforced set of rules about discriminatory behavior, proportion of women overall
* Number of organisations we've consulted with about gender

We welcome more ideas.


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iTWire: While the existence of an anti-harassment policy for all FOSS conferences is a good idea, do you have any fears that others will get the idea that motherhood statements are enough?

We are concerned about people adopting a feel-good code of conduct and then not enforcing it, thereby making the people who were supposed to be helped by it feel even less a part of the community. We reach out to and support groups who are developing policies and standards and give them our experience with ways people work around or misunderstand these statements. Some patterns do show up and sometimes they are surprising! One example is the idea of "Well, I can show sexual images in my slides as long as I warn people/ask permission/tell the prudes to leave the room." I can see the logical appeal of this approach, but in the end it just makes people feel even more marginalised. You have to call that out explicitly.

What can be done to educate people about the very real uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous situations that women face at these conferences? As you probably know better than I do, conference mailing lists are not exactly the best route.

At this point in my life, I'm not sure what mailing lists ARE the best route for. :) Working carefully and considerately with individual people who are trying to do the best they can seems to be a good tactic so far. When people who have power and responsibility respond to complaints of any severity with speed and sympathy, they send a signal to the rest of the community about what's acceptable behaviour, right up to and including groping and assaulting women.

iTWire: What role can the media play in helping increase the participation of women in FOSS?

VA: There are some basic precepts for how to write about women in a way that increases respect and prestige for them. For example, don't talk about her sexual attractiveness (or lack thereof). Don't talk about her clothes, hair, or jewellery if you wouldn't do so for a comparable man. Do use her last name, her title if she has one, and go into depth on her work and experience.

But more directly, the media can perform a crucial role: it can make people aware of the problem who would never have had any idea of it before. The article that I wrote and Linux Weekly News graciously published, "The Dark Side of Open Source Conferences," really shocked a lot of people out of their complacency. I believe a solid majority of the open source community thinks harassment of women is totally unacceptable, and since a lot of harassment occurs in private with no other men or only men who also like harassing women, this majority lives in the blissful misconception that harassment of women doesn't happen any more. Just bringing attention to what's really going on is a service.

One more way the media can help is to look for and publicise women who are being overlooked because they don't promote themselves as much as comparable men, or because we automatically assume they can't be as important, etc. Simply going out and looking for an interview with a less well-known woman will get you (a) a good interview, (b) helping women karma. I can name any number of fascinating, well-rounded, surprising people who don't get nearly as much recognition as they deserve.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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