Ada Initiative Supports Women in Open Source, Counters Sexism

A new non-profit launches to combat what’s sometimes called open source’s dirty little secret.
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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research on women in open source since the FLOSSPOLS survey that everyone relies on, but which are now five years out of date."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."

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Tags: open source, Linux, programmers, developers, FOSS

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