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“Issues of Women in Open Source” for Ubuntu Open Week, and “Why?”

Last week I did a presentation for Ubuntu Open Week on the Ubuntu Women Project covering some of the “Issues” that are involved in why many women feel discouraged within the community. Full logs of the session can be found here. Mackenzie Morgan followed up my session with one describing what the Ubuntu Women project is actually doing to address these concerns, full logs of her session are here.

Truly Mackenzie’s session was much more valuable than mine, and I’d like to do away with mine entirely when more people understand that there are challenges facing women who join F/OSS communities. Unfortunately each time we have one of these sessions we spend a considerable amount of time justifying the project to folks – why we exist and why we are so targeted toward women (rather than other groups who are poorly represented).

The sessions went well, the questions were good and engaging, and once again it’s nice to have such a supportive community.

After the session I was asked a question privately which seemed simple but really got me thinking:

“Why are you involved with promoting Women in F/OSS, did these groups actually help you? How?”

So to simply answer the second question first – yes, they absolutely helped me, I would never have made it this far without groups like Ubuntu Women and LinuxChix.

How did they help? I’ve wanted to write a long “How Women in F/OSS groups helped me” essay for quite some time now, but I never quite get around to it, so here’s the rough version:

When I started using Linux back in 2002 it was with significant help of my boyfriend at the time. I had a number of local friends who were supportive of my involvement, but I always felt like I was at least 20 steps behind all my friends when learning things, was too timid to ask questions in any public forums, and even with supportive friends at the local LUG meeting, I always felt a bit uncomfortable as one of the only women.

My boyfriend discovered LinuxChix in late 2002 and pointed me in that direction – suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore! In 2003 I worked with Samantha Ollinger to launch the Philadelphia chapter of LinuxChix so I could meet up with more local women using Linux. The local chapter and international LinuxChix lists provided a comfortable environment where we should share stories of success and frustration, get advice from each other on many issues, and simply geek out with other women who shared our interests. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have loads of fun with my male geek friends, but there is something vital to me about being able to commune with other women. Feeling less alone as a women in F/OSS made a huge difference for me.

In 2006 I got involved with Ubuntu Women, which has been the only specifically geared group I’ve been a part of for encouraging women within a project. It’s been an important “safe place” for me to discuss things I encounter within the project, bounce ideas off of others, answer questions that folks ask about expanding involvement of women in their projects. What I’ve gained from this project through the support of peers is the confidence to be heavily involved in the Ubuntu community. I’ve made friends through the project who I know I can drop a note to when feeling frustrated and need a sanity check (am I overreacting to be offended by $this? how should I confront $situation without upsetting others?).

So now that I’m full of confidence and successful in F/OSS, why am I still so involved? Why do I choose to spend my time with this?

I’m involved because I feel that having as many people involved with Ubuntu as possible is important and I have the expertise to focus on women as a group to recruit from.

I’m involved because it still helps me, and encouraging and supporting others is very rewarding for me.

I’m involved because my success is not a solitary story, there are several women involved with the Ubuntu community who will state that they’ve been helped by the project or those involved in the project who have learned lessons through involvement and have striven to be more welcoming and encouraging to women in their projects and LoCo teams.

I’m involved because I’ve watched women who felt they couldn’t contribute, who people assumed were “just at an event because they’re someone’s mother/sister/girlfriend” blossom into active members of their LoCo teams because someone spoke to them to find out their interests and talents and get them involved.

I am hopeful that lessons learned within the Ubuntu Women Project regarding support and encouragement will continue become more and more a part of the Ubuntu community. Whether we’re focusing on recruiting more women, more people in our local communities, educators, our grandparents or anyone else, I feel support and encouragement for new contributors of all kinds to the project will remain important to the project and community.


  • Robert

    You said that you were “too timid to ask questions in any public forums, and even with supportive friends at the local LUG meeting, I always felt a bit uncomfortable as one of the only women.”

    That’s really funny because I never thought I would need to actually explain this to a person but… On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog. You can read futher more on this wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you%27re_a_dog

    And I would like to point out one line of the wikipedia article: “On another level, the freedom which the dog chooses to avail itself of, is the freedom to ‘pass’ as part of a privileged group; i.e. human computer users with access to the Internet.”

    Is it that hard to understand?

  • Bugsbane

    Cool story. Seems to me it can all be summed up in the 1 sentence quote:

    “Feeling less alone as a women in F/OSS made a huge difference for me”

    If having a sub-community makes anyone feel more comfortable contributing to F/OSS, that’s got to be a good thing in my book.

    Thanks for helping to explain in an inclusive way, Elizabeth.

  • pleia2

    @Robert I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey, my example in that specific instance was a real life Linux Users Group meeting, not one that is online. The point was that, for me, it’s uncomfortable to be the only woman in a room at an event.

    Are you suggesting that we just hide our gender, and hide in places online to avoid any of the “issues” that women tend to encounter? As a person active in my local LUG, at conferences and in the Ubuntu community I would find this limitation very troublesome. Many women do take this route and refuse to admit their gender, but I seek to make it easier for those of us who don’t want to hide.

  • Nigel Babu

    Hi Lyz, I totally agree with you the fact that women need women. Men are a little bit too geeky (thats the best word I get).

    I often notice this when I try to convey something to my mother/aunt/cousins at home. Usually, I have to explain to my cousin and let her do the remaining, it works faster. Its great to know that Linux communities are helping women use Linux, I probably have to coax my parents to use Linux.

  • Mackenzie

    I assure you, I’m plenty geeky ;-)

    My first DC LinuxChix meetup was what made me want to go from user to developer. veryone there recounted their expertise, and I was just a new user, which was slightly intimidating but they just laughed and welcomed me. I met Valerie Aurora (formerly Val Henson) there and was awed by her…wanted to be like her. Still working on that ;-)

  • Marqueue

    I’m assuming the main reason for targeting women is because, other under-represented groups are going to be a lot harder to reach out to.

    But it is hard to see this clearly from the outside, so I can understand why this question gets asked.

  • William Chambers

    As usual a great overview. I’m still baffled at why so much flack gets directed at the groups. It just makes no sense.

  • furicle

    Not really apropos, but I like that logo. Haven’t seen it before, even on the Ubuntu Women’s site.

  • pleia2

    The logo was created after the site was designed, so it never quite made it into the design.

    Redoing the website is part of our long-term todo list, so it’ll get up there eventually. Thanks!

  • Malta Paul

    Reading your blog, reminded me of a young lady pilot I know. Twenty years ago she was the first lady pilot to have her training sponsored by Air Malta, together with 19 boys! I asked her did she feel strange being the only girl with all these boys. And her answer was ‘No I just take full advantage of it’ Great I thought! Now she is now a Captain on the Boeing 737 aircraft but currently flying the Airbus A320/321 aircraft again as Captain of course.

  • pleia2

    Yeah, there are certainly loads of women who don’t feel at all strange being the only girl out there. I just don’t happen to be one of them :) But through support of my peers I’ve been able to be just as successful!

  • Robert


    Well I guess I’ll just have to agree with Bugsbane. If segregating yourself from the larger community helps you, then go ahead it’s your choice.

  • pleia2

    @Robert I’d like to encourage you to read the open week session logs I posted. It was made very, very clear that Ubuntu Women is against the idea of segregation, indeed it goes against the entire premise of the project :)

    And personally I am in no way segregated, I am a member of the Ubuntu Community Council and work with many parts of the Ubuntu community.

  • Amber Graner

    Great Post!

    You summed up beautifully why I am involved in Ubuntu Women and look at what else I can do to encourage not only women but everyone to get involved. However, had I not been pointed to Ubuntu Women less than a year ago I might not be: organizing events, blogging for Ubuntu User, maintaining my own personal blog, interviewing women for Full Circle Mag, helping with Ubuntu Weekly News, LoCo teams, and other various community events.

    Ubuntu Women is definitely a group I point to as an example of a positive point of entry into the Ubuntu Community!

    Thanks Again for the awesome post and keep up the great work!!!

  • Pendulum

    I’m really glad you wrote this post because it’s a bit of how I feel and actually you’ve been pretty instrumental in my feeling comfortable getting involved. I got the courage to go to PLUG meetings when I was in Philly because I knew you’d be there so I wouldn’t be the only woman. My recent push to actually be involved in Ubuntu had a lot to do with knowing czajkowski and you and knowing that you were both people who were incredibly welcoming no matter what.

    I have loads of male geek friends, but it’s not the same. Luckily, they’re all quite supportive of me and do understand the need for groups like Ubuntu Women :)

  • Nigel Babu

    @Mackenzie: Sadly, not all women are geeks.

  • Mackenzie

    Neither are all men.

  • Nigel Babu

    @Mackenzie: Haha, so true. :)