Over lunch today we had a panel of 6 women in open source talk to us.
The first question was about their earlier days – what made them interested in open source or computer science or all of it.
Megan started in humanities and then just stumbled in to computer programming. Once she got in to it she really enjoyed it though. Elizabeth got involved with Linux through a boyfriend early on. She really fell in love with Linux because she was able to do anything she wanted with it. She joined the local Linux users group and they were really supportive and never really made a big deal about the fact that she was a woman. Her first task in the open source world was writing documentation (which was really hard) but from there her career grew. Erica has been involved in technology all her life (which she blames her brother for). When she went to school, she wanted to be creative and study arts, but her father gave her the real life speech and she realized that computer programming let her be creative and practical at the same time. Estelle started by studying architecture which was more sexist than her computer science program – toward the end of her college career she found that she was teaching people to use their computers. Karen was always the geekiest person she knew growing up – and her father really encouraged her. She went to engineering school and it wasn’t until she set up her Unix account at the college computer center. She got passionate in open source because of the pacemaker she needs to live – she realized that the entire system is completely proprietary and started thinking about the implications of that.
The career path
Estelle has noticed in the open source world that the men she knows on her level work for big corporations where as the women are working for themselves. This was because there aren’t as many options to move up the ladder. Now as for why she picked the career she picked it was because her parents were sexist and she wanted to piss them off! Elizabeth noticed that a lot of women get involved in open source because they’re recruited in to a volunteer organization. She also notices that more women are being paid to work on open source whereas men are doing it for fun more. Megan had never been interviewed by or worked for a woman until she joined academia. Erica noticed that the career path of women she has met is more convoluted than that of the men she has met. The men take computer science classes and then go in to the field, women however didn’t always know that these opportunities were available to them originally. Karen sees that women who are junior have to work a lot harder – they have to justify their work more often [this is something I totally had to deal with in the past]. Women in these fields get so tired because it’s so much work – so they move on to do something else. Erica says this is partially why she has gone to work for herself because she gets to push forward her own ideas. Megan says that there are a lot of factors that are involved in this problem – it’s not just one thing.
Is diversity important in technology?
Erica feels that if you’re building software for people you need ‘people’ not just one type of person working on the project. Megan says that a variety perspectives is necessary. Estelle says that because women often follow a different path to technology it adds even more diversity than just gender [I for example got in to the field because of my literature degree and the fact that I could write content for the website]. It’s also important to note that diversity isn’t just about gender – but so much more. Karen pointed out that even at 20 months old we’re teaching girls and boys differently – we start teaching boys math and problem solving earlier and we help the girls for longer. This reinforces the gender roles we see today. Elizabeth feels that diversity is needed to engage more talent in general.
What can we do to change the tide?
Megan likes to provide a variety in the types of problems she provides in her classes, with a variety of approaches so that it hits a variety of students instead of alienating those who don’t learn the way she’s teaching. Karen wants us to help women from being overlooked. When a woman make a suggestion acknowledge it – also stop people from interrupting women (because we are interrupted more). Don’t just repeat what the woman says but amplify it. Estelle brings up an example from SurveyMonkey – they have a mentorship program and also offer you to take off when you need to (very good for parents). Erica tries to get to youth before the preconceptions form that technology is for boys. One of the things she noticed was that language matters as well – telling girls you’re going to teach them to code turns them off, but saying we’re going to create apps gets them excited. Elizabeth echoed the language issue – a lot of the job ads are geared toward men as well. Editing your job ads will actually attract more women.
What have you done in your career that you’re most proud of?
Estelle’s example is not related to technology – it was an organization called POWER that was meant to help students who were very likely to have a child before graduation – graduate without before becoming a parent. It didn’t matter what what field they went in to – just that the finished high school. Erica is proud that she has a background that lets her mentor so many people. Elizabeth wrote a book! It was on her bucket list and now she has a second book in the works. It was something she never thought she could do and she did. She also said that it feels great to be a mentor to other women. Megan is just super proud of her students and watching them grow up and get jobs and be successful. Karen is mostly proud of the fact that she was able to turn something that was so scary (her heart condition) in to a way to articulate that free software is so important. She loves hearing others tell her story to other people to explain why freedom in software is so important.