Meet India’s women open source warriors
Women programmers from India are pushing the barriers in a male-dominated world, fast becoming top contributors to Linux and other Free and Open Source Software
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“Shut the f**k up”
As Vaishali Thakker, a 23-year-old open source programmer looked over the hall filled with around 200 people, she didn’t know how to react to what she had just heard. Thakker was one of the five women on the stage at PyCon India 2017, a conference on the use of the Python programming language, in New Delhi. The topic of the discussion was “Women in open source”.
As the women started discussing the open source projects they had been working on, the challenges and so on, someone from the audience got up and drew the attention of the gathering to the wi-fi hotspots in the hall.
They were named “Shut the f**k up” and “Feminism sucks”.
“It was right on our faces,” remembers Thakker.
For their part, the organizers were upset and even warned the audience. But the event had no code of conduct for anyone to really penalise or expel the culprits.
“It’s disheartening when you’re talking about the problem, someone is actually giving a proof that it (gender bias) indeed is a problem. In a way, I found it funny, because how stupid can you be to give proof that the problem actually exists,” says Thakker.
And how. It’s just been three years in her coding career but she is familiar with the high wall that gender stereotyping puts up in the world of software scripting. More so in her chosen field of coding.
Thakker is among a small—but fast-growing—set of women coders from India shaping the future of several open source platforms globally including the Linux kernel, the core software program behind the world’s biggest eponymous open source software. Linux, the most popular and mainstream platform in the free and open source software, popularly referred to as FOSS world, powers Google servers to Nasa’s rockets, and competes with Microsoft’s Windows, which is a proprietary product. In India, systems powering the Bombay Stock Exchange and platforms such as the Credit Information Bureau India Ltd, better known as CIBIL, are built and run on Linux.
In a year when campaigns such as #metoo challenged bro cultures at the workplace and there is a stronger push for gender diversity on tech office premises, India’s next generation of women open source contributors are beginning to make a mark globally. Outreachy, a not-for-profit global program aimed at bringing under-represented communities into open source programming, now sees nearly half of its fellowships awarded to women from India—the highest among participating countries. Data for previous years was not furnished.
The December 2017-March 2018 cohort, for instance, has 17 Indian women—and one of Indian origin based in Melbourne—from the 42 that Outreachy has chosen. They include interns from Almora to Roorkee, Bhubaneswar to Goa, Mohali to Serampore in West Bengal, besides those from the big cities of New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad.
Not so open after all?
In the open source software development world ruled by the demigods such as Linux founder Linus Torvalds, it’s a long and uphill battle for women to make a mark and make their contributions count.
And that has nothing to do with the adoption of open source by organizations and businesses globally.
The world’s biggest companies—including Citibank, Airbus, Exxon Mobil and Wal-Mart Stores to India’s BSE—use it and open source software counts some of the most diverse users across different industries.
Yet, the developers contributing code to the open source community are far from diverse. For instance, in a random survey of around 5,500 respondents from over 3,800 open source projects on software development platform GitHub last year, it was found that women formed a mere 3% of the community.
The reason? Feeling unwelcome, getting stereotyped based on gender-biased mindsets and even facing unsolicited sexual advances.
“Women are more likely than men to encounter language or content that makes them feel unwelcome (25% vs 15%) as well as stereotyping (12% vs 2%) and unsolicited sexual advances (6% vs 3%). Unsurprisingly, women are also more likely than men to seek out help directly (29% vs 13%) from people they already know well (22% vs 6%), rather than ask for help from strangers in a public forum or channel,” said the Open Source Survey, conducted by GitHub together with other partners from academia and the open source communities.
Initiatives such as Outreachy and Linux Foundation are beginning to bring about a change, even if it’s moving the needle just that bit. For instance, Julia Lawall, a research scientist with Inria and a mentor to newcomers at Outreachy, says her interns from India have contributed over 100 patches to the kernel so far. Lawall, who has contributed over 1,000 patches on her own in the Linux kernel so far, is talked of highly by the likes of Thakker.
“The interns from India all show a lot of independence and enthusiasm in their work. Many I have supervised have worked on code cleanups, typically resulting in over 100 patches to the Linux kernel,” says Lawall in an email interview.
Over past two months, we interviewed at least two dozen people from within and outside the open source community to identify a set of women open source contributors from India. While the list is not conclusive by any measure, it’s a good starting point in identifying the women who are quietly shaping the future of open source from this part of the world and how they dealt with gender biases.
Meet the dozen
Sameera Deshpande-Dalal, 35, can easily pass off as another software programmer, working at one of India’s thousands of software code shops. But with over 100 contributions to open source compiler (a program that converts software code into machine-level instructions so that the processor can execute them), Deshpande-Dalal, mother of a 15-month-old boy, says support at home made a big difference.
“Sometimes I feel, when they (women) are in this field they are more aggressive because they want to prove that they are as good as their male counterparts,” she says, adding she has not faced gender bias at work yet.
“I don’t have any complaints. I feel girls are not short on talent, it’s just that they have to stick around. Sometimes, it becomes difficult if you have a maternity leave, you’re disconnected for six months from everything and you cannot complain about it because the child needs you,” she says.
How did she cope? “I took my child to office with me, and my office supported that,” Deshpande-Dalal says.
Nisha Poyarekar, an open source developer who quit her job at Tech Mahindra in January 2016 to start Reserved-bit, a hackerspace in Pune, says the free and open ideology behind open source attracted her. Moreover, her husband Siddhesh is a hardcore open source evangelist. And that was a big influence, she admits.
“Siddhesh wouldn’t even allow my mother-in-law to use anything but open source software. That’s how deep the influence was at home,” she says.
While Siddhesh still pursues his day job at Pune-based open source software company Linaro (he is Deshpande-Dalal’s colleague), the husband-wife duo curates meet-ups and events for Pune’s open source developer communities. On her part, Nisha is also an active member of the city’s PyLadies group, a community of women developers in Python computing language.
“The confidence and self-assurance are lacking big time in the community and the participation also suffers,” says Poyarekar.
“From a male perspective, one of my concerns as a FOSS contributor has been the lack of coverage about women who are actually doing it. Vaishali, for instance, is vocal enough but then, not a lot of women working on open source projects such as compilers are as vocal,” says Siddhesh.
“My colleague Sameera (Deshpande-Dalal) has been working on open source compilers for over 10 years, is a GCC contributor with over 100 patches out there, really among the most brilliant contributors from India, and nobody knows about her,” he says. (GCC stands for the GNU Compiler Collection, a standard compiler for most UNIX-like operating systems.)
Siddhesh also talks about Kirti Wankhede, another open source developer who actively contributes to kernel virtualization. Wankhede, 38, works at Nvidia.
“I personally feel there are two aspects: first and most important is how you present yourself to the world and then how the world looks up to you. If you present yourself the way you want to be, the world would look up to you the same way. Then you will not find biases in your surrounding,” she says.
With nearly 500 patches contributed to the Linux operating system overall including some to the kernel, Ahmedabad-based Bhumika Goyal, 22, is another open source warrior.
“From outside, open source and Outreachy looked very intimidating at first, but then in my third year, I decided to give it a shot anyway. I chose Linux kernel because it required knowledge about C language, which I was good at,” she says. “Biases are there because at many places, some people feel women aren’t good enough to code.” The Linux kernel community does not have gender biases, she adds.
What then stops woman from open source? Often, it is just taking the first step. For Divya K. Konoor, 35, an open source engineer working with IBM, it was one night of coding when she actually became an open source contributor from just finding the bugs in the software.
“To be honest, it took me a lot of guts to start my first community code contribution. I was reluctant because I was scared to jump into an ocean full of experts from across the world; I thought I would be judged and people in the community would be rude and I wouldn’t be able to swim too far,” says Konoor, a Bengaluru resident.
But, one night in office, Konoor was about to let a colleague make a community fix that she had debugged when a female colleague and friend stopped her. “She said, ‘Divya, if you have debugged it, you should contribute to it.’ I sat up till 1am that night and finally made my first contribution.”
“When it comes to having more women in open source, it’s not that we don’t have them, we have them in numbers, but maybe they are just shy and want to still be in their comfort zone,” says Dube.
For Aruna Sankaranarayanan, an engineer with Mapbox, a company that makes customizable maps for third-party applications such as Pinterest, coding and introduction to open source platforms happened quite early. When she was 16, Sankaranarayanan built a calendar app for the next 500 years. Later, from writing code that tracked internet shutdowns in India to an open source project to find Indian classical music on Wikipedia, she has been more like an open source missionary looking for problems to solve.
“I love the open source ideology—the principles behind giving your users the freedom to modify what you build and the spirit of community that creates,” she says.
Sankaranarayanan says using a software that you own and have community support on can have powerful outcomes. “Open source changed how I approached technology and convinced me very strongly of the impact that technology can have on social issues—be it tracking government shutdowns of data or helping map real-time flood data—the little that I can do with technology and my community has made me feel empowered.”
While coders such as Deshpande-Dalal and Goyal—separated by over a decade in terms of age—deny facing any gender bias so far, many others point to the deep yet subtle undercurrent of stereotyping playing through their careers and life.
Jane Herriman, director of diversity at Julia Computing, an open source programming language, says stereotypes lead to not only differences in self-perception but also in skill acquisition between girls and boys. “Gender stereotypes —that boys are better at or more likely to like math, for example—cause the first dominos to fall. Even the toys that children are given (and have marketed to them) signal to boys more than to girls that engineering and tech are for them. Playing with Legos, for example, will heighten spatial reasoning, which will later influence a child’s ‘aptitude’ for particular types of math,” Herriman says on email.
She gives her own example. “I went to an all-girls high school that didn’t have a terribly strong math program. My science teachers were fantastic but you had to go to the all-boys school next door to take advanced placement physics,” says Herriman, who completed her bachelors in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon and is now pursuing a Ph.D in material physics from Caltech, or California Institute of Technology. Julia Computing is her day job.
She talks about how she was one of two or three in a calculus class, who were taking the course for the first time rather than as a refresher. “I was alongside engineers who had apparently spent their childhoods taking apart radios to understand how they worked, when I didn’t even know how to use a screwdriver. I wanted to study physics but I decided against it because I assumed I wasn’t smart enough,” Herriman says.
The Open Crusade
Linux Foundation, Wikimedia (a not-for-profit foundation started by Jimmy Wales to fund Wikipedia and other projects), Gnome (a desktop environment for many open source platforms including Linux and Ubuntu) and several others are among top open source organizations offering their projects for internships run by different mentors at Outreachy.
Lawall says the open source movement in India, especially among women, has been spreading from school to school, thanks to the alumni such as Thakker and Tapasweni Pathak, a Mapbox coder, who have been actively campaigning for the women-in-FOSS cause.
She points at the examples of contributions made by the Outreachy Indian interns such as Goyal and Amitoj Kaur Chawla—a Johns Hopkins University student who has 279 patches to her credit—to open source projects globally.
Some of these contributions address specific problems. “Under the supervision of the kernel developer Tejun Heo, Bhaktipriya Shridhar Radharapu has contributed over 100 patches addressing the specific problem of modernizing the use of work queues,” adds Lawall. Work queues or tasklets in Linux allow for deferred functions in programs.
Other internships have focused on new features. These result in numerically fewer patches, but also have a strong impact. “For example, Gargi Sharma has reimplemented kernel process ID management and Vatika Harlalka has worked on the implementation of full dynamic ticks, which reduces the degree to which critical CPU-bound applications are interrupted by the OS,” says Lawall.
Already, the efforts of Outreachy and Google’s Summer of Code program, which offers three-month paid internships to students from across the world to work on open source projects guided by expert mentors, have started paying off, according to the Linux Foundation.
Still, the challenge in increasing the number of women in the Open Source community remains—the numbers are up but not enough. “Studies by Bitergia (a Madrid software analytics company in open source development) and Linux Foundation show that participation in projects is less than 10%. However, the Linux Foundation is seeing a higher attendance with the last Open Source Summit at 17- 18%,” says Nithya Ruff, a director on the board of Linux Foundation on email. Factordaily