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Did the GNOME Foundation spend too much money on women’s outreach?

April 14, 2014

Gender has been in the news quite a lot in recent years with some folks feeling that the field of technology needs to have more women involved. The GNOME Foundation has recently run into some financial problems as noted by Phoronix below. I took a peek at the PDF file file that contains some of the recent budget numbers and it was notable how much spending has increased on women’s outreach while spending on hackfests and other things has declined significantly. Does spending so much on women’s outreach really make sense? I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why in this column.

Gender and open source software
I took a look at the issue of gender in open source a while back in an article on ITworld. I noted in that article that I had worked for and with many different women over the last twenty years in my technology career. The women I worked with served in many different roles: IT managers, vice presidents, art directors, web producers, editors, editors-in-chief, marketing managers and plenty of other roles.

The GNOME Foundation has run into cash flow problems and as a result is freezing non-essential expenses. The GNOME Foundation has eliminated their cash reserves leading to this dire situation, but should be recoverable in the months ahead. The GNOME Foundation got into this situation through its Outreach Program for Women (OPW) and managing the program (and funds) for a number of other participating organizations. The GNOME Foundation staff and board fell behind in their processes with being overwhelmed by administering OPW. GNOME’s Outreach Program for Women is explained as “The Outreach Program for Women (OPW) helps women (cis and trans) and genderqueer get involved in free and open source software.” They’ve had around 30 interns for their most recent cycle.

More at Phoronix

GNOME Foundation and Women's Outreach Spending

The GNOME Foundation increased spending for women’s outreach significantly but cut other programs.

Image credit: GNOME Foundation

In short, the women I’ve worked with over the course of my career have been at pretty much every level in technology publishing. But, as I noted in the ITworld article, they all had one thing in common: THEY. JUST. DID. IT. They didn’t get into technology because of an outreach program, they got into it because it was the career that they desired based on their own individual personalities.

So I’m quite skeptical about the value of outreach programs such as the one run by the GNOME Foundation. And remember that I’m going back more than twenty years here in my recollections about working for and with so many different women. It seems quite strange to me that any woman would even need an outreach program to pursue a career in open source or any other technology related field. Why? What does an outreach program have to offer than individual desire and initiative don’t? Nothing as far as I can see.

I also find it offensive that such programs seem to regard women as victims that need assistance in pursuing technology careers. Ugh. When did we regress backwards in our thinking? The women I worked with were strong individuals and didn’t want or need to be coddled in their careers. They were respected because of their abilities and work ethic, not because of their gender. They didn’t require “validation” by anyone because they were strong in themselves and moved forward without needing the artificial encouragement of an outreach program.

The road to you know where is paved with good intentions
Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t think the GNOME Foundation is deliberately trying to put women into the victim role or anything like that. I think that their motives are quite noble, but the effect is more or less the same. Women are being indirectly told that in order for them to come into the field of open source software they need to be specially welcomed based on their gender, and that’s not a good thing at all since it disrespects them as individual human beings. You know what they say about the road to perdition being paved with good intentions and all that.

I included a video from Xena: Warrior Princess in my ITworld article and I’ll include it here as well. I’m a big fan of that show, and I always appreciated how the Xena character was a strong person and never saw herself as a victim of men or of women. I think she’s a far better role model for women in technology than the “you’re a victim and you need our help” mentality that has been put forward by some people. In some ways she reminds me of some of the women I’ve worked with in technology over the course of my career.

What about other programs run by the GNOME Foundation?
One of the disturbing things about the data in the GNOME Foundation PDF is that the organization seems to be sacrificing other programs in a misguided attempt to bring more women into technology. Is it really fair to do this? And exactly how successful has the outreach program been in the larger scheme of things? How is the GNOME Foundation judging the success or failure of it’s program? I haven’t seen anything that explains this but please note it in the comments if you have.

One-sided gender egalitarianism in open source
Some of this gender egalitarianism seems to be oddly one-sided too. For example, human resources and nursing are both careers that are overwhelmingly dominated by females. And yet I have never heard of outreach programs designed to bring men into those field. I’m fine with that because I doubt such programs really work in the long run anyway. I can’t imagine a man deciding to suddenly change careers and go into human resources because of an outreach program, nor do I see most women doing anything similar either. Individual women and men will make the career decisions that make sense for them, in their own time and for their own reasons based on their needs and interests.

There was an article on Linux Journal that spurred my commentary on ITworld about gender. It was written by Susan Sons, a woman that had been in technology for quite a long time, and I think she’s a great example of a human being who made her own career decisions without having to be coaxed by any sort of outreach program. In her article she takes issue with those who would relegate her and other women to the role of helpless victims.

I came to the Open Source world because I liked being part of a community where my ideas, my skills and my experience mattered, not my boobs. That’s changed, and it’s changed at the hands of the people who say they want a community where ideas, skills and experience matter more than boobs.

Give me a young person of any gender with a hacker mentality, and I’ll make sure they get the support they need to become awesome. Meanwhile, buy your niece or daughter or neighbor girl some LEGOs and teach her to solder. I love seeing kids at LUG meetings and hackerspaces—bring them! There can never be too many hackers.

Do not punish the men simply for being here. “Male privilege” is a way to say “you are guilty because you don’t have boobs, feel ashamed, even if you did nothing wrong”, and I’ve wasted too much of my time trying to defend good guys from it. Yes, some people are jerks. Call them out as jerks, and don’t blame everyone with the same anatomy for their behavior. Lumping good guys in with bad doesn’t help anyone, it just makes good guys afraid to interact with women because they feel like they can’t win. I’m tired of expending time and energy to protect good men from this drama.

Do not punish hackers for non-hackers’ shortcomings. It is not my fault some people don’t read man pages, nor is it my job to hold their hand step-by-step so they don’t have to. It is not my place to drag grown women in chains to LUG meetings and attempt to brainwash them to make you more comfortable with the gender ratio, and doing so wouldn’t work anyway.

More at Linux Journal

Unite people, don’t divide them by gender
I think these programs just end up being a waste of everybody’s money and time. I’d encourage the GNOME Foundation to rethink their entire approach to this issue. Has it really been worth all the money they’ve spent? If they must have an outreach program then shouldn’t they make it gender neutral? I think that makes much more sense than what they’ve been doing with it recently.

Instead of dividing people by gender or other characteristics, the GNOME Foundation should be welcoming all people into open source software. The important thing is to keep the doors open for everyone, regardless of gender, and to let each individual make his or her career choices in their own way and for their own reasons.

Update: I ran into an interesting message on Google+ by John Layt that has a different take on the program being run by the GNOME Foundation. Do check it out for an alternative point of view on this issue:

I’m sure most of you would have seen the sensationalist stories on Phoronix and Slashdot about how the Gnome Foundation is “running out of money” because it “spent 25% of its income” on the Outreach Program for Women, and the inevitable troll backlash blaming the “femi-nazi” agenda, etc, etc. Well, rather unsurprisingly, the real story is rather different, but as usual the trolls and click-bait websites don’t like facts getting in the way of a good story that reinforces their preconceived biases or earns them ad-views.

The Outreach Program for Women is a sponsored internship where participating organisations like KDE or Python or Gnome find sponsors to pay for interns to work on projects as a way to encourage more women to participate in free software, and has been a huge success in doing so. The Gnome Foundation runs this program for the other organisations, putting all the money through their own accounts, and charges an admin fee to cover their expenses in doing so. The problem that Gnome has is a classic cash-flow crises that often hits small businesses that try to scale up too big too fast: they needed to pay all the interns before the sponsors had paid the Gnome Foundation their promised money. As a result the Gnome Foundation dipped into their general funds to pay the interns, leaving them without any cash-in-hand to pay for their other activities. Once the participating organisations and sponsors pay their promised money then the Gnome Foundation’s cash reserves will be restored and they will be able to resume normal activities.

So the real story is that OPW was such a success that it out-grew the Gnome Foundation’s ability to run it in an efficient and prudent manner. I’m sure they will learn some important lessons and restructure the financial and admin side of OPW to keep the accounts separate and to ensure this doesn’t happen again, because both the Gnome Foundation and the OPW are valuable contributors to the ongoing success of Free Software and it would be a real shame to lose either of them.

The story is also a healthy reminder that if you value the work done by organisations like the Gnome Foundation or the KDE eV or the EFF, then you should donate to ensure that they can continue that work. These organisations run on shoe-string budgets and even small donations can make a huge difference.?

More at Google+

What’s your take on this? Tell me in the comments below.


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6 Responses to Did the GNOME Foundation spend too much money on women’s outreach?

  1. John Layt on April 16, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Thanks for the link to my post Jim, you may also be interested in a follow-up post I did at https://plus.google.com/104051197821989601827/posts/MeNbTq5FVJU that set out some numbers for last years OPW, i.e. the round that caused the Gnome Foundation this problem. Note that I am not involved in OPW, nor in the Gnome Foundation or even Gnome itself, I’m actually a KDE community member who thought the explanation might be better received coming from an independent outside party. I should also state for the record that I have been appointed one of the auditors for KDE eV’s accounts this year, hence my taking a close interest in how such orgs maintain their accounts.

    In short, the last OPW round had 8 participating organisations who found sponsorship money to pay for 30 interns. It is important to note that separate sponsorship is sought for this program, orgs do not use their general funds to pay for it. Only 3 of those interns were from Gnome itself and were funded by outside companies. Each intern is paid US$6,000, and the Gnome Foundation receives US$250 in admin fees per intern. That will show up in the Gnome Foundation accounts as US$180,000 in sponsorship income and US$180,000 in OPW stipends paid. The important point to realise is that the Gnome Foundation is just the intermediary for this money, this is not sponsorship money received to fund Gnome, and they are not spending their own money to fund OPW, this is money specifically solicited by the participating orgs to fund OPW. Yes, the Gnome Foundation made mistakes here, not least by not getting more of the sponsorship money in up front, but also by not breaking out the OPW income as a separate line item in the annual accounts and providing a clearer explanation in their press release about how the OPW works. PR is not a FOSS strong point.

    With regard to Gnome’s decline in other income, and spending on hack fests, this is a common problem across FOSS at the moment, we’re seeing it in the KDE eV as well (but that’s a different article). I hear from Gnome friends that they are trying to encourage more hack fests to be organised, but if the hackers don’t organise them then the Gnome Foundation can’t pay for them.

    Now, as for OPW itself, and running special programs to encourage more women to participate in FOSS. My understanding is that OPW grew out of Gnome’s concern at the very low participation rate of women in both Gnome itself and in the Google Summer of Code paid internships when compared to the average percentage of women studying Computer Science and working in the industry. I don’t know Gnome’s numbers, but I can tell you in KDE our percentage of commits by female coders averages about 0.5%, peaking about 3% on occasion, and in GSoC having as few as 2 or 3 women out of several hundred applications. This compares to the industry average of between 15% and 25% in education and work depending on where and how you count. This itself is a decreasing number, especially compared to the peak in the 1980′s of up to 40% (when I started in Mainframes in the 80′s women were *everywhere*). So, what I’m trying to say is that OPW wasn’t designed to get more women into tech (there are other programs for that), but to get more of the women already in tech involved in FOSS. A 0.5% participation rate is just abysmal and I believe indefensible especially if you believe as I do that FOSS is about making the world a better place.

    The results from OPW have been impressive, as the financial pains from its growing popularity are witness to. Gnome has seen an increase in female coders regularly contributing, and the Python community who have been involved with OPW and many other outreach programs had 30% female attendance at their most recent PyCon. The women are out there and they have the skills, and FOSS will benefit from having them involved. Sitting back and waiting for them to magically appear doesn’t work, it needs a concerted effort over a long period of time, and I believe OPW is a valuable part of that.

    • Jim Lynch on April 16, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      No problem, John. You’re quite welcome and thanks for offering a different point of view.

  2. Silence Dogood on April 15, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    According to U.S. Census Bureau stats, fewer than 10% Registered Nurses are male. How come we never hear about gender bias in that career field?

    A quarter of the budget for women’s outreach is ridiculous.

  3. Jim Sansing on April 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    It seems to me that you are objecting to pushing people (in this case) women to do something that they might or might not want to do. If that were the case, I would agree with you.

    However, this is different. As an analogy, consider the medical profession, where many med school graduates are going into more lucrative specialties while there are not enough General Practitioners for the growing number of patients. An organization that feels this needs to be corrected would try to contact potential GPs and find out what it would take to convince them to chose this field. Then it would work towards making the changes necessary to attract more GPs.

    I believe that the Gnome Foundation is trying to pull women into development of Gnome projects. They might think that there is too much of an echo chamber in Gnome development and they need broader perspectives. But whatever their motivation, they are trying to attract more women to work on Gnome, not push girls to be geeks.

    To that extent the only question about the amount of money spent is, “Did it work?”, followed by, “How could the effort be more productive?”

  4. HexJam on April 15, 2014 at 4:11 pm
  5. Brian Masinick on April 14, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    To me, there should be equal opportunity in all areas of employment, regardless of the field of endeavor. Most professions do not need any differentiation whatsoever in terms of gender or social status, and certainly not technology positions. There may be more male technology workers, but as far as I can tell that is mostly a matter of choice. Where I’ve seen a mix, whoever has been in the positions has been the most capable, and I’ve worked with many fine people at all levels of an organization. I’ve worked with people of many different races as well from numerous different countries and places of origin, and in fact, that has been one of the most interesting and enjoyable variations in diversity.

    While on one hand I don’t want anyone’s particular area of diversity shoved in my face, when we can simply enjoy one another and appreciate both our contributions and our differences, there are rarely any instances where I’ve not thoroughly enjoyed it. Any cases I may not have enjoyed or valued were almost certainly cases when something was pushed and shoved at me; I don’t appreciate that, no matter where it comes from, even if it’s just like me (in fact, I wouldn’t want ME or MY ways shoved at me or another person either)!

    Let people gravitate to what they enjoy doing. If someone is excluded because they are being ruled out, then that bears investigation. If the “ruling out” is anything other than a job qualification, then that is where attention can be paid. But I don’t want or need any program for that.

    What about people who are in the final 5-10 years of their careers? I’ve seen more of my peers ousted from their jobs because of age than I’ve seen in any other form of discrimination. If you want to address singling out anyone, how about starting THERE? To me, that’s the one most glaring area of job discrimination I see, and it seems to span much more than just the IT industry, it seems to be an epidemic seen across most of traditional business, but it’s really well hidden. How about exposing THAT instead!

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