Leading by example: Women in open source

Kim Polese, a woman with a long history in open source, will receive the Symons Innovator Award from NCWIT next week.

Many who bemoan the lack of women in the open source community (as well as in technology fields overall) do little more than that: bemoan it. Others try to lead by example.Summit on Women and IT next week, the Symons Innovator Award will go to Kim Polese, who is perhaps known best for her work in co-founding Marimba, a provider of system management solutions built on open source platforms. Marimba became profitable and was sold to BMC Corp. in 2004. Since then, she joined SpikeSource Inc. as CEO.

National Center for Women & Information Technology would fall into the latter category.

At its annual

SpikeSource acts as a platform for the testing/distribution/etc. of "software solutions" for businesses, whether open source, proprietary or some combination of the two. Before either of these jobs, Polese worked at Sun Microsystems and was Java's original project manager.

In other words, her roots in open source run deep. And the fact that her experience is an anomaly in open source puzzles NCWIT CEO and co-founder, Lucy Sanders.

"It's counter-intuitive to me," Sanders said in a recent interview. "I would expect open source to be very open to everybody — It's collaborative ... flexible. There's so many things I can name about open source that are beneficial."

That the open source community has a reputation for being rather hostile toward women seems to be backed up by an annotated bibliography NCWIT had put together on the culture of open source computing. Just 1.5 percent of open source software developers were woman in 2006, research found, and the figures are believed to be about the same level still.

"Research suggests that barriers to women’s participation may be deeply imbedded in the culture of OSS."

Something is causing it, said NCWIT chairman Brad Feld: Women's involvement in computer science and IT tends to be about 20 percent; and in other tech-related fields, women are at a near numerical parity with men. Even then, women are not making as much money as their male counterparts, according to a recent survey of the 25 best-paying jobs for women.

A lot of it has to do with the "heroes" in computer science and related fields.

"The vast majority of visible heroes are men," Feld said. So NCWIT began a project to interview 30 to 40 women of the same caliber as the male heroes. Polese was among those women (which is among the reasons she was chosen for the Innovator Award this year).

NCWIT has several women prominent in open source speaking at the summit May 18-20, in addition to Polese, and plans to study the issue more, in hopes of breaking through that barrier. The best way to break through, though, NCWIT has found, is to lead by example and collaborate with - as evidenced by Feld's chairmanship - men.

By creating an organization led by both women and men, NCWIT hopes to focus on the issues leading to the problem, rather than the problem itself. Among the problems? Parental bias, Feld said. Many parents inexplicably push their daughters away from computer science-related fields, fearing they career opportunities are not as great.

Funny thing is, when Sanders first got her start in computer science in the early 1980s, that was the heyday for women in the field. About 30 percent of those in the field were women; "I don't remember feeling terrifically out of place," she said.

Heck, the cheerleading coach in her high school was a math teacher - and she taught the seniors programming in Fortran and Basic.

Have to admit, that'd suprise me today.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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