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Paper: Outreach and Diversity in FOSS

May 23, 2011 • Karen

Last week I finished my final research paper for INFO 203: Social and Organizational Issues of Information, on the mechanics of how people get involved in free and open source software projects and how implicit problems and biases in how that "recruitment" process works could explain the dearth of women and other diversity issues in FOSS communities. Honestly, I feel like I didn't say much more than what Asheesh said in his super-excellent PyCon talk (and indeed, I quote from his talk and writings in the paper!). But there wasn't a singular piece of writing out there, as far as either of us were aware, that laid out the need for FOSS recruitment changes (and underlying vision for FOSS) that Asheesh and I share. So now there exists a paper [PDF] [HTML] that he can point people to and tell them to read. Huzzah!

I don't track the traffic to this website in the slightest, but at least one other person has linked (and glowingly recommended (!)) it so far. Which is good. I guess. It's sort of alarming having strangers read a paper I did for class as if it's an actual thing. I'm so totally not an expert on any of this stuff; I'm neither a FOSS leader nor a real academic. The only thing that's making me not completely terrified is that I do, mostly, believe the argument the paper makes and want it to be more widely discussed. So, fine.

Anyway. As a teaser, my favorite bit in the whole dang 29-page thing:

Normal humans like to be welcomed. Recruitment processes for any number of other communities and collaborative efforts – university students, churchgoers, Habitat for Humanity volunteers – typically include elements to orient new members and help them become useful. Yet, for various reasons, such efforts are drastically undervalued and neglected by most FOSS projects. Feeling like an outsider – being the only woman, non-coder, or other minority member in the room, on the email list, or in the IRC channel – only exacerbates unwelcoming or hostile infrastructure.

It is important to note that none of [the previously discussed] assumptions or "filters" affects women or a particular ethnic group exclusively. There are plenty of people, men and women, who would otherwise be fantastic FOSS contributors who do not do so because they are busy, unsure of their technical prowess, shy, and/or discouraged by a project's seemingly-hostile atmosphere. It is also important to make clear that despite the dismal statistics, the FOSS community is not devoid of female contributors and project leaders; these "filters" are not absolute in their effects. My point is merely to show that women (and presumably other minority groups) tend to be disproportionately affected by these flaws in FOSS recruitment. On the flip side, this also means that women and minorities represent the greatest growth potential for outreach in the FOSS community; if FOSS were to go from 2 percent women to 50 percent women (or even just 20 percent women), that change would not merely make FOSS's demographic calculations more equitable but would also signal huge community growth as well, with thousands of new contributors coming "off the sidelines."

(from pages 19-20)