Diversity in Open Source: A Work in Progress

The open source community operates on a set of values, including a commitment to inclusion and diversity, to enrich the development process and teams.

Diversity in tech

Open source software draws everyone from freelance web developers to tech giants into its fold, thanks to some of the benefits it bestows. These include flexibility, scalability and accountability. But open source technology also offers organizations something else, which isn’t nearly as easy to quantify – a community. The open source community is an essential part of the open source movement; without the community, there would be no open source code, and there would be no infrastructure to elevate it to its full potential.

Additionally, the open source community operates upon a set of values that enrich both the development process and development teams. Key among those is a commitment to diversity and inclusion. For example, the Open Source Initiative has dictated terms and conditions for any project distributed under an open source license. According to OSI, anyone who wishes to license an open source project must (among other things) agree to not discriminate against any person or group in the deployment or distribution of their code.

However, as with many professional and educational organizations, a commitment to a higher ideal is sometimes easier said than done. Many obstacles to diversity, equality and inclusion exist in the tech world – at all levels, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and more – so it’s not surprising that the open source community would face similar struggles. But the proof is in the pudding, as evidenced by the results of a 2017 global GitHub survey among open source users and developers around the world:

  • Only 3 percent of respondents identified as female, and 1 percent identified as non-binary. A full 95 percent of respondents identified as male.
  • Only 16 percent of respondents reported belonging to a minority ethnic or national group within their home country.
  • Interestingly, 7 percent of the survey respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or asexual – a higher percentage than the corresponding 4 percent of the general population.

While the third bullet is heartening, the other numbers are pretty bleak. And the bad news is more than just statistical. As recently as March 2019, women who ran for the Board of Directors at the Open Source Initiative reported digital sexual harassment, with some members of the open source community misogynistically labeling them as “threats.” However, there is good news: there are many movements out there trying to combat these problems head-on, on many levels.

The Contributor Covenant

The Contributor Covenant is a code of conduct for open source projects created to overtly welcome all people to contribute to open source software. The Contributor Covenant is a movement named after a specific mark-up that pledges to value all people as whole human beings and to foster an atmosphere of kindness, cooperation and understanding. The first paragraph of the Contributor Covenant Code of Conduct reads:

In the interest of fostering an open and welcoming environment, we as contributors and maintainers pledge to making participation in our project and our community a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of age, body size, disability, ethnicity, sex characteristics, gender identity and expression, level of experience, education, socio-economic status, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation.

Developers who want to signal their intention to make the open source community welcoming, diverse and inclusive can view, download and include either a markdown or text version of the Contributor Covenant to their source code repository at the root level. Many widely used and influential platforms, such as Atom, Angular JS, Bootstrap, Creative Commons, Kubernetes, Linux, the .NET Foundation, Rails and even Google, utilize the Contributor Covenant. They are all expected to do more than just add a README file to their source code repository; they are expected to be committed to enforcing the code of conduct, including dealing with problems as they emerge.

Red Hat’s Women in Open Source Awards

Red Hat is a highly successful and influential enterprise software company built on an open source development model. They are known as the world's leading provider of open source solutions, and they pride themselves on staying true to the original intent of open source. Red Hat taps into the collective talent and innovation of open source communities to produce better software, and as such is a leading voice on all things open source. In 2015, Red Hat capitalized on this authority by initiating the Women in Open Source Community Award, recognizing and honoring women who make important contributions to open source projects and communities, or those making innovative use of open source methodology.

Dana Lewis won the 2018 award for her efforts to revolutionize care for people with Type 1 diabetes. Frustrated with the diabetes care industry’s failure to provide a device that worked for her, Dana created one of the first DIY artificial pancreas systems. Her efforts grew into the Open Artificial Pancreas System (OpenAPS) community, a free and open source software (FOSS) project that empowers people with diabetes to make a device that works for their needs.

Avni Khatri won the 2017 Women in Open Source Community Award for her efforts to empower kids to change their lives through technology. Avni’s dream is for everyone—especially kids—to have unlimited access to education so they have more autonomy over their lives and the ability to improve their communities. Avni has traveled to remote communities in Mexico, India and Morocco to install school labs with Linux computers, FOSS applications and open content such as offline Wikipedia and Khan Academy, and to enable local volunteers to support the labs.

Mozilla: Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth Is

Mozilla was born out of and remains part of the open source and free software movement. The Mozilla community prides itself on being an open, accessible and friendly community for new participants, and the organization has prioritized and publicized their commitment to increasing diversity within their ranks and their work.

For example, in 2018, Mozilla unveiled a two-pronged effort to make the code review process more egalitarian, especially in open source projects that rely on volunteers. The goal was to subvert unconscious gender bias. So Mozilla built an extension for Firefox that gave programmers a way to anonymize pull requests, so reviewers would see the code, but not necessarily the identity of the person who wrote it. They also sought to understand how sites like Bugzilla and GitHub work, to see how “blind reviews” might fit into established workflows. The following excerpt from the Mozilla blog outlines the inspiration behind it:

“When we talk about diversity and inclusion, it helps to understand the ‘default persona’ that we’re dealing with,” said Emma Humphries, an engineering program manager and bugmaster at Mozilla.“We think of a typical software programmer as a white male with a college education and full-time job that affords him the opportunity to do open source work, either as a hobby or as part of a job that directly supports open source projects.”

This default group comes with a lot of assumptions, Humphries said. They have access to high-bandwidth internet and computers that can run a compiler and development tools, as opposed to a smartphone or a Chromebook. “When we talk about including people outside of this idealized group, we get pushback based on those assumptions,” she said. For decades, white men have dominated the ranks of software developers in the U.S. But that’s starting to change. The question is, how can we deal with biases that have been years in the making?

Mozilla has also made great strides in their own ranks. In March 2019, they published a blogpost on the state of their efforts to improve diversity among their staff. Some highlights of their progress include:

  • The number of women in technical roles at Mozilla grew from 13.2 percent to 17.4 percent.
  • As of December 2018, women represent 39.1 percent of all people managers (up from 36.0 percent), with 41.2 percent representation of women in executive leadership roles (up from 33.3 percent).
  • Mozilla increased representation of minorities from 6.9 percent to 7.9 percent in 2018, but still fell short of their goal of 8.9 percent.
  • In 2018, 12.4 percent of all people Mozilla hired were from underrepresented minority groups and 36.2 percent were people of color (up from 35.2 percent in 2017).

Mozilla has also prioritized support for LGBTQI+ employees, participating in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2019 LGBTQ Workplace Equality Index. Mozilla’s gender transition guidelines and policy support Mozilla employees undergoing a gender transition; their fully inclusive parental leave policy supports all parents of newborn children; and their offices now boast all-gender restrooms.


When it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion, Mozilla is a leader in the open source universe, and they have inspired many peers to follow in their footsteps. However, much work remains to be done because the obstacles facing women and minorities in the open source world are compounding. In other words, the position that these individuals find themselves in can’t be addressed through a single lens or strategy.

For example, Drupal Founder and Acquia CTO Dries Buytaert has written about how inequality makes it difficult for underrepresented groups to have the "free time" it takes to contribute to open source projects. “Systemic issues like racial and gender wage gaps continue to plague under-represented groups, and it's both unfair and impractical to assume that these groups of people have the same amount of free time to contribute to open source projects, if they have any at all,” he writes. “What this means is that open source is not a meritocracy.”

Wired’s Klint Finley also highlighted some findings about the aforementioned GitHub global survey, writing that about half of respondents reported that their open source contributions were an important part of landing their current jobs. “If women and people of color aren't contributing to open source, these already under-represented groups could find themselves frozen out of the high-tech job market,” writes Finley.

So now, it’s incumbent upon all of us in the open source world – from executives to freelancers – to strive for greater improvement. And this responsibility is not a small one. Enhancing diversity, equality and inclusion requires regular, comprehensive and proactive work. These ideals should be part of all business processes – from coding to recruitment to recognition. And perhaps most importantly, we must remember that, no matter the progress, this work will never be “done.”

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