Sarah Sharp talks about increasing diversity in open source

sarah sharp

Sarah Sharp delivering her keynote at SCaLE 14x

Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Issues a challenge for all of us to take responsibility for increasing diversity

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The Southern California Linux Expo 14x (SCaLE 14x) concluded on January 24 with a keynote from open source developer Sarah Sharp, who made waves in October, 2015 with a blog post explaining why she stepped down as a Linux kernel developer. Here are some highlights from her presentation.

Sharp opened her talk by giving a nod to SCaLE for being one of the most diverse Linux and open source conferences. She then called on white males in the audience to repeat after her: “Increasing diversity in open source is my responsibility.”

She explained it is their responsibility because often in the tech world minorities have to shoulder the unpaid emotional work of increasing diversity. “We have to look at our privileges that shows bias. Each of us have identities and skills that society values and some of us have identities that society discriminates against. Recognizing that we have privilege helps us seek out diverse voices,” she said.

Sharp also talked about the popular notion of meritocracy in the open source world. She pointed at a study by MIT that showed that companies that were described as meritocratic had more bias towards men when it comes to salary versus those who were not described as meritocratic. She said that the reason could be that “when an organization describes as meritocratic we make excuses for why there is disparity.”

She urged the audience to reconsider their privilege and unconscious bias and figure out how to increase diversity and bring equality.

Sharp then talked about time. Geeks, for example, need to go into ‘deep hack’ mode: when you sit down on your computer for the world to melt away around you and you are absorbed in your work, doing whatever you love doing. And you need uninterrupted time to work. But for a lot of people uninterrupted time is a precious commodity, particularly people who are caretakers looking after children or elderly relatives. A majority of women from different cultural backgrounds work as caretakers because they can’t afford full time care for their children.

Sharp said that in open source project we assume people will invest all of their time into the project, but even if these women want to contribute they can’t give their full time as it’s not a luxury they can afford. So open source projects should consider that and try to be inclusive of such people. Events and conferences can offer childcare so women can come, drop their kids and attend the conference. Linux Foundation, for example, has started offering child care at their LinuxCon event.

Sharp also pointed out that when we go out to hire people we look at their GitHub page, how many commits they have made. But caregivers can’t have that much commitment as they don’t have the luxury of time. She said that next time when you go through resumes don’t set aside the ones you know are minorities and may not have a GitHub account.

There are many companies that are adopting non traditional ways to get people in tech. PayPal, for example, offers Recharge program where they have job offerings for women who have taken a break to take care of family; such programs help them in getting back. There is also a pilot program at Etsy where they are offering coaching, mentoring to new moms so that they can talk about how to juggle their time commitments.

She pointed at another notable problem in the US: access to computers. She said that according to the US Census there is a racial disparity in which households own a computer. She said that African-American and Latino households are less likely to own a computer and even if they do they are not the most powerful computers. Then consider who in the family gets to use it, and in what order of priority.

Access to internet is also a challenge in many emerging economies like India where wired broadband is rare and a majority of people are using mobile Internet where they have to pay for every bit they use.

Open source projects can take these points into consideration to be inclusive of such people. We can create sandboxed servers so people with less powerful computers can test and compile their code on the server. She pointed out that Canonical’s Launchpad bug tracking system takes 10 clicks to file a report. It will be too expensive for an Indian contributor using the mobile broadband to file a bug report.

She said that open source project should consider how they can reduce the development footprint for the users who are on unreliable internet access. She urged that if your project has documentation, please ship with your documentation so that user doesn’t have to go to the internet to access the documentation.

She also talked about bringing new people into open source because a majority of open source projects, like Linux kernel, have an aging developer base. This is a point that was once mentioned during LinuxCon Europe, and it’s serious. “In the open source world we tend to let long standing contributors shoulder a lot of burdens and responsibilities. And as a result they get burned out. We should be focusing on growing new leaders and new contributors to our community,” she said.

In order to create successors, next leaders of your project, you should document how you do releases and other stuff so it’s easy for other people to take over. If you don’t do that the chances are that your project will die as there won’t be the next leader.

In the end she shared her own story of how her dad got her into computers, how her husband assisted her as an ally and how other men such as Andrew Greenberg and Bart Massey brought her to the open source world. Her point was: everyone of us can play a role in increasing diversity in the open source world.

She finished her talk with these words: “Improving diversity in open source community is your responsibility, don’t be a bystander.”

Her talk ended with a standing ovation.

She deserved it.

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