GNOME Outreach Program for Women Reincarnates

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 13, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"It's not rocket science," says Marina Zhurakhinskaya, the organizer of the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, talking about efforts to get more women involved in free software. "You just need to say that women are welcome in your project, because that in itself sends a signal. Also, you want specific people they can get in touch with to do their first patch and to ask questions." It's a simple formula, but the first indications are that it is a reliable enough foundation to make the recently revived Program a success.

The GNOME Outreach Program began in 2006, when Hanna Wallach and Chris Ball noticed that none of 181 of the applications to work with GNOME in Google's Summer of Code were from women. Working with Google, Wallach and Ball created six internships specifically for women, for which over 100 applied.

Despite this initial success, the Program was not revived until August 2009, when the GNOME Foundation Board appointed Zhurakhinskaya to organize the program. Zhurakhinskaya spent the next year locating projects within GNOME that would take part, and lining up potential mentors.

In December 2010, the first round of internships began, timed to coincide with the summer break for students in the southern hemisphere. As I write, the second round's participants have been announced, and are scheduled to begin work on May 23.

Differences from the Summer of Code

Although inspired by Google's Summer of Code, the GNOME Outreach Program differs in several major ways.

To begin with, the Program is not limited to developers. Although in the first round, the majority of successful applicants were coders, the Program is also open to women wishing to work on documentation, art, localization, and marketing -- areas in which women's participation in free software is frequently slightly higher than in programming. In fact, in the second round, all eight participants are non-coders, although most have a background in software development.

For another, the Program is not restricted to students. Participants in the first round, Zhurakhinskaya notes, included a developer who left a small free software company to take part, a post-graduate researcher, and a job hunter. Similarly, the second round includes a translator and a freelance web developer.

Even more importantly, some of the differences serve to minimize the chances of failure. For instance, participants must submit their first patch with the help of a mentor as part of the application process. This requirement, Zhurakhinskaya explains, helps "to make sure that they have some sense of what contributing to the free software community is like and that they have the commitment to actually sit down and download the code and make changes to it."

As a bonus, this pre-acceptance work helps to give applicants a sense of accomplishment. "Many of them say that once you do that, it's addictive," says Zhurakhinskaya.

She also suggests that getting to know the mentor and other people in a project first might be especially supportive for women, who are often said to be socialized to prefer collective projects to individual ones.

Yet another difference is that the GNOME Program has more of an "intern-style" structure. In other words, instead of applying to do a single specific project as in the Google Summer of Code, participants work on a number of tasks, starting with smaller ones and moving on to larger ones after consultation with their mentors.

This arrangement has the obvious advantages of reducing the chances that participants are overwhelmed by taking on too much too quickly or by losing direction because they are not in touch with their mentors. But the arrangement also benefits GNOME, since "more of the work that participants do lands in the main branch of the project."

Early Signs of Success

With the first round recently completed and the second one about to begin, the long-term success of the GNOME Outreach cannot be evaluated yet.

However, Zhurakhinskaya finds the first indications hopeful. Now that the first round is over, Zhurakhinskaya continues to mentor Hellyna Ng in her work on the GNOME Shell. Tiffany Antopolski, who worked on documentation, is now participating in this year's Google Summer of Code, working on Empathy.

Similarly, Chandni Verma, who worked on Empathy, has presented at the GNOME.Asia Summit, and is scheduled to talk at GUADEC, GNOME's annual conference, while Luciana Fujii Pontello, who worked on Cheese during the Program, is now Cheese's maintainer and a mentor for one of the women participating in Google Summer of Code.

To judge from their blog entries, the other four participants in the first round have been less active since they concluded the Program, although Zhurakhinskaya has seen at least one participating on IRC. The others, she admits, she might have missed simply because her focus is on the general orgnization of the project.

Still, "if we have fifty percent of people sticking around, that's great," Zhurakhinskaya says. "But I think that everyone has appreciated the program, and that everybody has learned."

"There are definitely many women out there who are on the verge of becoming serious free software contributors," Zhurakhinskaya concludes from her experiences in organizing the GNOME Outreach Program for Women. "They are ready. They have used the technology for many years. They have gone to some free software events at a university, but they just need something to show them where they can go and start contributing." By running two rounds of the Program each year, Zhurakhinskaya hopes that she can help provide one place where such women can realize their potential.

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