Friday, 26 January 2007

Attracting women

After the LCA dinner, a friend-of-a-friend asked me that perennial question: how do you attract women to your FOSS group? Here are my ideas.

Getting women into your group

The best way to attract women to your group - is to have women in it already.

Particularly women that are great role-models: active women that contribute and organise, like Pia Waugh (LCA2007 "Seven team"). Unfortunately, for many groups this just sets up a chicken-and-egg situation. If you don't have women already, how do you get your first ones to come along? Luckily you can leverage women in other groups. Some ideas:

Start by asking your own members. Do they have wives/girlfriends or colleagues in IT? What about other local IT communities eg local businesses? This is just like any other FOSS evangelising: these women are already in IT, but maybe have never heard of FOSS (or never realised that it could actually benefit them to come to a group like yours).

Then ask groups like yours in that are in other regions. Do they know any women that live in your area that might be interested? Would they be interested in travelling to your area and bringing their friends along, to get the ball rolling?

Look into the local, regional and national "Women in IT" groups and advertise yourself there. Promote what it is that you do, and why it would be interesting - just as you would to any other newbie.

LCA's great success this year was the large percentage of women that attended (10%). This was fuelled by the work put in by Mary Gardiner and other members of the LinuxChix group. These groups exist to help women do interesting stuff in IT - your group counts!

Even if these groups don't serve to find you any members, consider asking the women to come and speak at your group. Especially on gender issues. The linuxchix miniconf was a great success with women speaking on issues such as negotiation and the gender pay-gap issue. Women are interested in these issues... and so are men.

Retaining your women

One of the broader issues for women in the corporate world, is that women and men have their own cultures. Be mindful that women's culture is likely to be distinctly different (though no less important) than the culture you already have in your group.

Obviously I am speaking broadly and individuals differ widely, but there are some common issues with women, and understanding these issues will help you integrate.

Firstly, don't assume that your culture is better. If you have a culture in which people brag about their exploits and the loudest shouter wins the floor... don't be surprised if women stay away in droves. Women come from a culture in which it is considered polite (and expected) to await an opening before speaking. They will not jump in and say their piece just because everybody else does. If an opening is not made for them, then they may never speak at all - to the detriment of everybody.

Female culture thrives off positive feedback and encouragement. If you notice that a woman in your group has done something you think is cool - encourage her to tell people about it. Do not be surprised to find that she thinks nobody wants to know. This is a place where it's ok to tell her that she is wrong. :)

Most women are self-deprecating (by inculturation) and will often down-play their experience. Poor self-esteem is common, even in those that have many successes behind them. You may need to treat your women like "the quiet kid" who needs some encouragement to speak up.

With the particularly shy and retiring - take them under your wing a bit. If she is too afraid to do it herself, promote her successes for her and show her how much her contribution is valued. Prompt her to talk about what she did and what she learned. When she sees that you're not all big, scary people that are going to laugh at her... she'll be more likely to stay.

Don't be big, scary people that laugh. ;)

Newbie women are afraid of the same things that any newbie is afraid of. They're worried that they will look stupid amongst all these shining gods of IT. They think their dumb questions and newbie mistakes will be laughed-at. It's up to you to make sure they know that it's ok to be a beginner. This also goes for experienced women with low self-esteem - who often rate themselves as a beginner even when they are an expert.

Share your own stupid questions and mistakes. Show them that you gods are really human too and were once a newbie with dumb questions (and, in many cases, still are). Let them know that everybody asks stupid questions and nobody thinks the less of them. Make them understand that what they are going through is not only normal, but expected. This can be as simple as saying "I'm glad you asked that", when they do pluck up the courage to ask.

Finally, support (or start) a women's chapter for your group. The intent is not to have a separatist group, favourable only to a minority. It should instead be a safe haven for newbie women to socialise and network with their peers as they adjust to a new and alien culture.

Getting women into your group (and keeping them there), is a Hard Problem. But there are lots of things you can try. The effort will mostly be in the initial stages - once the ball is rolling it'll take on its own momentum, and the results (I think) are worth it.

Want to know more?

Read Val Henson's article on encouraging women in linux. It's very thorough.

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