I listened to a podcast interview with a number of women who are mentors in the google highly open participation contest (which offers prizes to 13-18 year olds who contribute to open source projects). It’s got some interesting tidbits about community building on open source projects and some controversial banter about the role of women. Notes below — my comments in italics.

Community managers are often women. Someone noted that this project had more women than any other open source project she had been involved with. Is this a great thing where we’re seeing more women in open source? or is this the-women-taking-care-of-the-kids thing again? — ouch. I’d say yes, to both questions.

…coding is fun, and it is an awesome feeling to fix a bug or add a feature, but the human connection is even more rewarding. — yeah, I like the human connection stuff too, but sometimes it is really hard to carve out time to code. It certainly isn’t one of those socialized female traits to ask whether this newbie’s future contribution is really more valuable than whatever you are working on.

…Women may be drawn to these roles, but there are also a lot of men are very good at that. Absolutely.

…gnome love mailing list offers a great approach. People will give you something bite-sized to work on. The neat thing about these tasks is that it’s not just easier for the new contributor, you also need a much smaller commitment from the mentor. It is a way for a contributor to start small and many folks start there and then take on more central tasks.

…should we target some kind of stamp-of-approval for a women-friendly project? No, we should lower the barrier for all contributors. Frankly, with open source, you do need to elbow your way in. It is pretty intimidating to a lot people not just women. If you make it less intimidating to join your project, you will get more kinds of people, not just women.

A must see event…

Invisible Computers: The Untold Story of the ENIAC Programmers.
Thursday, November 8, 2007 6pm
Google Headquarters
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

This is a fundraiser for Kathy Kleiman to complete a full-length film telling this important story. I saw this short film at Grace Hopper many years ago. Last year, when I was doing research on ideas for our elementary school technology classes, I remembered the stories of these innovative early programmers, who received little or no recognition of their significant technical achievements at the time. I wanted kids today to realize what I didn’t know until I was all grown up and a programmer myself. I had no idea of the strong women innovators who came before me.

If you enjoyed reading about Mary Houbolt, one of the first generation of human “computers,” you must come to this event. Even if you can’t come, please, please blog about this one. This is a very important fundraiser. The full-length movie absolutely must get made, so that these stories can be told to a wider audience and future generations.

Please register for this event if you can come and forward the info to people you know who might be interested. If you can’t come, but still want to support the making of this documentary, you can also make a donation.

It is good to read about progress from some colleges in creating gender balance in computer science, since the overall trend has been a steady downward curve in the number of female cs grads. [see NYT article “Computer Science Takes Steps to Bring Women to the Fold” — thanks Tucker!]

“Moving emphasis away from programming proficiency was a key to the success of programs Dr. Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon instituted to draw more women into computer science.” The point is not that standards are being lowered, but rather a change in focus from drawing only those who already know how to program vs. an emphasis on “high overall achievement and broad interests, diverse perspectives and whether applicants seem to have potential to be future leaders.”

Other tactics that are working…
* materials for tell high school students about computer science, that will be provided to teachers of math, science and English because girls have already opted out by then (Dr. Lazowska and Dr. Blum)
* a Web page for prospective students showing what computer science is for: “everything from designing prosthetics to devising new ways to fight forest fires” and deliberately featuring all women in the photographs (University of Washington)
* a college group called Women in Computer Science runs a program which brings ninth-grade girls from nearby schools to the university campus for five weeks each summer. It creates a “in a positive and encouraging environment.” for learning both concrete computer skills and abstract computer science concepts (Brown University, Artemis Project)

This discussion reminds me of Shirley Malcom’s declaration at Grace Hopper 2004 that computer science has a marketing problem, referencing the well-known Edsger Dijkstra quote: “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” If girls got the picture that computers aren’t about programming, but that it is a powerful way to do accomplish incredible things, then maybe we would have more women getting CS degrees and appearing in software industry.

I’ve written about this before. Perhaps I should not be surprised that there are so few women in the field, since what I most love about it is not easily seen from the outside. Oliver Steele once summed it up well in conversation, when he said that in college they teach how to be a computer scientist, learning to be a software engineer is a side-effect. It is perhaps unavoidable that university classes are all taught by professors who are interested in computer science as an end unto itself, rather than as a means to an end — you need to do computer science research to qualify. Most of us who are practicing programmers do it for fundamentally different reasons. Sure, programming is fun, but that’s not the point. The point is to change the world in some small or large way, to have an impact on something or someone outside of the machine.

I would love to hear about more tactics that are making a difference … what else is going on? do you know someone who is making a difference? are you? if you are a woman in CS, what made a difference for you?