IRL Season 7, Episode 4: Inclusion in open source
Categories: Digital Inclusion IRL

Open source is only ajar without inclusion

Open source refers to software licensed so that others can view, copy, alter or share that code. “Open” was first used to describe an openly collaborative ecosystem for software development, but has expanded as a term used to describe similarly collaborative models for science, data, content and education.

Open source software has shown to accelerate innovation through what is essentially an open invitation to contribute to the evolution and innovation of software. One of my favourite stories, which I think speaks to potential of that invitation, is this ad for Firefox 1.0. made possible by thousands of contributors who raised money to place this 2004 full-spread ad in the The New York Times.

While this story demonstrates the potential of open, women, non-binary, transgender, people of color, parents, non-technical contributors, non-English speakers and other marginalized people and allies have been sharing that in practice this invitation remains exclusive and exclusionary. If you agree with me that “open” is fundamentally about access, empowerment and participation of all people, then you’ll agree we are failing miserably in that endeavor.

In the past decade, representation of women in open source has inched up merely 1.5 percentage points to a shockingly low 3%. Gender representation is the canary in the coal mine for inclusion in open source — if a demographic representing nearly half the population on Earth fares so poorly, how will we ever progress in other areas of representation including non-English speakers, race/ethnicity, age, family status, socioeconomic status and dis/ability?

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Open source diversity means equity offline and IRL

“Diversity is a number, inclusion a process, equity an outcome.” —Jess Mitchell

This matters: 78% of companies run all of part of their businesses with open source software.

Technology generated by homogenous groups is already known to adversely impact the lived-experiences and quality of life for women. In 2015 a revolutionary heart replacement was found to be only suitable for 20% of women compared with 80% of men. In 2014, Apple’s first Health Tracking app completely missed menstruation as a health metric. Amazon more recently had to scrap an AI recruiting tool, because “computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. Most came from men […].”

With some of the largest technology companies in the world building open source software, including Google, Netflix, Microsoft and Facebook, ensuring equitable outcomes through diverse participation would have substantial real world impact. Quite simply, more people would benefit.

Calling all men! Or wait, no…. this is just a random photo from 2019 FOSDEM, the world’s largest open source developer conference.
Photo credit: Robert Kaiser (with permission)

Open source meritocracy and impact on inclusion

“Meritocracy” was widely adopted as a best practice among open source projects in the founding days of the movement: it appeared to speak to collaboration amongst peers and across organizational boundaries. 20 years later, we understand that this concept was practiced in a world characterized by both hidden bias and outright abuse. The notion of “meritocracy” can often obscure bias and can help perpetuate a dominant culture. Meritocracy does not consider the reality that tech does not operate on a level playing field.Words Matter, Moving Beyond Meritocracy – Mozilla

Initiatives on behalf of diversity are often perceived by those most successful in meritocratic systems to be optional, or, at the very least separate because there’s a sense that everything is working as intended. And perhaps for some, this is because open source is almost religion. Challenges to the status quo can be equivalent to blasphemy. Interventions to improve diversity can be akin to questioning orthodoxy, which makes them very difficult and often dangerous to enact, especially when they are met with disdain and fierce opposition from those who hold formal or informal power.

As an example, in 2018 a core contributor to the LLVM compiler framework (the framework behind programming languages from by Apple, Mozilla and others that makes creating new program languages and enhancing existing ones much easier) stepped down, citing implementation of a Code of Conduct and funding for Outreachy interns as primary reason. Outreachy is a program that partners with projects like LLVM to provide three-month internships to people who are under-represented, experiencing systemic bias or discrimination in the technology industry of their country.

Building inclusion into a system that has worked so well for the majority represented will come with eruptions, including some coming from prominent and influential people, as was the case with LLVM. Equality can feel deeply uncomfortable, and may even feel like a challenge to the achievements of those who were successful in a meritocratic system. The fires that erupt, though uncomfortable, will give way to fresh meadows of diverse new growth and rejuvenation.

Is inclusion everyone’s job? Or a job everyone should know how to do?

Despite slogans like “inclusion is everyone’s job”, the majority of people working to improve inclusion are those who are most impacted when it fails. They are the most likely to take on emotional labour, the most likely to burn out, and sadly, most likely to face backlash and trolling. The very people we seek to include are fed up and exhausted. Who can blame them?

Hope for what’s next

With all of this said, I believe we are at a key turning point. The #metoo era is creating a surge of companies and organizations prioritizing inclusive workplaces, with employees holding them accountable. Last year, for example, Google employees proposed to stakeholders of their parent company Alphabet that executive pay be linked to diversity and inclusive metrics.

We’re seeing a similar type of activism emerge within open source. As an example: Drupal’s community-led Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) working group is influencing decision-making at the highest level, driving updated inclusive forms for gender identity, and pushing for more inclusive project events. Another example is OpenStack, which has invested in an annual community surveys to better understand and influence gender diversity in its communities. Individual influencers like Jill Binder push WordPress and other open communities to engage more diverse speakers. These are only a few voices in a rising chorus.

There is even better news. For the first time, there is an opportunity to move from sporadic understanding and implementation to consistent application of best practices. Improving diversity in open source can now rely on understood and peer-validated criteria and actions that anyone can use.

Under the banner of the Linux Foundation’s CHAOSS project, and building from Mozilla’s 2018 research recommendations, there is now an initial set of peer-validated metrics intended to help project owners understand, evaluate and ultimately improve how their projects include and empower everyone.

A selection of those metrics can be found in this basic checklist of easy ways projects and contributors can evaluate and improve in areas of governance, leadership, communication and documentation. Early case studies where these metrics have been leveraged include Mozilla’s Open Source Support Program (MOSS), Firefox Developer Tools and soon the Linux Foundation Hyperledger project.

As evidenced by open collaboration on this metrics development, one side effect of this surge in interventions on behalf of inclusion is a new and growing community of people eager to connect share, learn and grow from cross-organizational efforts. Mozilla moderates a D&I discussion group with membership from Red Hat, OpenStack, Kubernetes, Node, Drupal, WordPress, Debian, NumFocus, Ubuntu and the Coral project; a community call regularly brings people together on shared topics like Code of Conduct enforcement and “Every Day Actions to be a Better Ally”.

And here is where I get really excited. Because software engineers and community managers already expect to see reports of “bugs” in their software, adding a new category of “bugs” for reporting “inclusion” is low effort. For example, if I am evaluating an open source project for contribution, and I see that the code of conduct does not include information about who a report goes to, I can open an bug report to start a process of discussion and change.

This work sets up a process where anyone can report or fix issues of inclusion, moving from a broken system dependent on efforts of underrepresented and marginalized people, to one where problem solvers can go to work on both simple and bigger changes collectively; and where communities hold projects accountable for implementation of those changes. Open source software development would be at its full potential.

I’m optimistic that this work, and collaboration across projects, will uncover blind spots, open people’s eyes, and set us on a trajectory for greater diversity and innovation for tech overall.

Get involved

Want to learn more about what Mozilla’s doing? Here are ways to get involved:

  1. Join Mozilla’s D&I in Open Source Mailing List
  2. Join our next D&I in Open Source call to learn about ‘Every Day Actions to be a Better Ally
  3. Review your project with this list, and tweet what you learned #OpenSourceDiversity

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About Emma Irwin

Emma Irwin leads D&I strategy development for Mozilla’s open source projects, and their communities. During a successful career as an software developer, she developed a passion for open source both as a mechanism for innovation, but also personal development and social change.  She has since dedicated her career to helping people and open projects find each other.

Learn More about Gender Equity in Tech

All the things we love on the internet — from websites that give us information to services that connect us — are made stronger when their creators come with different points of view.

With this in mind, we wondered: “What if the internet was built by mostly women?” Listen to Mozilla’s IRL podcast episode all about gender inclusion.

15 comments on “Open source is only ajar without inclusion”

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  1. Buster Showdog wrote on

    I am very disappointed that Mozilla has become part of the thought police. e.g. by restricting what words its employees use. That is an example of totalitarian regimes, e.g. Nazi Germany, the Stalinist U.S.S. R., and Communist China. e. g. if you possess ideas that differ from what is fashionable among the elite, you lose the right to have a job, enter your desired profession, or get an education–traits of the Middle Ages. Is that the atmosphere Mozilla wishes to encourage?

    Many of Donald Trump’s votes came from those who objected to the pressure to conform to fashionable liberal causes such as feminism and homosexuality. Are such people to be punished by being prohibited from working at an organization such as Mozilla? If otherwise qualified, they Mozilla, and the country all lose. America may still be the home of the brave, but it is doubtful that it is still the home of the free.


    1. RoundDuckMan wrote on

      What makes you think that this leads to totalitarianism? Besides the point that companies always had policies on allowed behavior in various ways, especially in terms of speech and action (imagine making fun of the boss, see if that goes out well, or the earlier days like the 50s and before when women were pushed to follow social standards towards their gender), the whole point is to have people be nice to each other. A code of conduct is just a set of rules that people should abide by so that a bunch of strangers of different groups won’t end up yelling at each other or whatever. It’s not a government law, or some “feminazi” rule of law that brings in a new order of “feminazis” to rule over everything. It’s just be nice, for the most part. Be nice, and respect people’s differences, and they do the same.

      The problem is the standards of morals between conservatives and liberals are so radically different that conservatives cry that they have to say the specific pronoun for a transgender co-worker, not bug a female co-worker on a date as much as they keep saying no, or rant about “family values.” There are only two ways of handling this in a workplace: either you allow conservatives to do what they want, which will just make women and minorities leave real fast, if not feel resentful of their position or not do as well in their job, or you set up rules for conduct that will only piss off a few conservatives off, who will eventually get used to it because things are better when people are helping out each other towards the goals of their employer instead of a mono-cultural elite of programmers acting like gatekeepers of their hobby or job.

      BTW, for a thing as important as computers, why leave it mostly to men? Leaving it to men is as bad as leaving it to older people as programming looked like it was doomed to become until recently, which was why the Raspberry Pi Foundation and was formed. If we should get more boys into programming, why don’t we also get more girls in as well?

      One last thing, one of the freedoms of free software is to change the program as you wish, and women get the least benefit when not too many of them are programming or are even computer literate to ask a programmer.

      BTW, if a duplicate of this exists, it was on accident, there were some bugs with trying to post this reply, likely because of the modem disconnecting from the Internet when I was trying to send this reply.


      1. CK1 wrote on

        I’m a conservative ethnic minority woman and I object to the essentializing of conservative thought in this response! And the assumption that ethnic minorities (and/or women) think in your way only. Many ethnic minorities in GB vote conservative. Why do you think it is alright to insult people whose views differ from yours? You are guilty of the very thing you accuse others of! As long as people of any colour or sex/gender aren’t discriminated against, I would rather see hiring of staff on the basis of ability, hard work and talent. If fewer women are interested in coding, isn’t that their choice? Are we advocating the use of force to get the “balance” right? If you can prove to me that women want to get into the industry and are actively thwarted in their quest, then fair enough. Measures need to be taken. But I bet you can’t. Equality of opportunity is fine, it’s the assumption that there has to be equality of outcome that’s the problem here. Some of us see balance in terms of male/female difference and respect for that difference. Again, we can’t essentialize on these things. I wonder what the definition of “older” people is here also, I bet that’s another type of person you feel free to discriminate against. Whoever you are, you’ll get “old” yourself some day! It’ll all look different then.


        1. Richard Moss wrote on

          Oh, Joy! Such a breath of spring. How I love a balanced view and a voice of sanity.

          Let us strive to treat each other with respect and kindness, let us marvel at the world’s diversity and learn from it, as we contribute to it in our own individual ways.


    2. Magillacuddy wrote on

      I too am disappointed in the thought control.
      The presuppositions of this article are that – if there are differences they must be motivated only by prejudice, is irrational and Orwellian.
      The conclusions of this article are not based on any rational interpretation, but driven by a predetermined agenda.
      Logic is nowhere evident. If women prefer not to enter certain industries, it’s their right. If men choose to practice certain professions in greater numbers, why is that a bad thing for anyone?


  2. Dave K wrote on

    This photo (nearly all men) could be my workplace too. I get the feeling it’s everywhere in tech. I’ve noticed from volunteering that the gender imbalance is already very strong senior year in high school … whereas in the fifth grade, both boys and girls show equal enthusiasm for engineering. I’m not sure where the trouble comes in.


  3. Firefox User wrote on

    If you guys want to piggyback of off Mozilla’s reputation to launch your Social Justice Blog, that’s between you and Mozilla.

    But for god’s sake please stop advertising your agenda articles at me when I open a new tab.

    I used to recommend Firefox to my friends and family and I sure as hell ain’t going to do that anymore as long as I know you’re going to be using the browser to push your propaganda at them.

    I can’t even block the ads with uBlock origin. Who thought this was a good idea?


    1. M.J. Kelly wrote on

      Hi Firefox User, you can customize the new tab experience on Firefox. Here’s how:


  4. Andrew wrote on

    Hiring based on gender diversity is no different from the patriarchy stereotypes of the 1950s, where white anglo-saxon men were preferred over all else. There were plenty of women who were capable of doing the work of men, but they were passed over because of the prejudice against their sex.

    We must be careful in our eagerness to promote diversity in the workplace that we do not practice similar discrimination against those men who, albeit having a history of dominating the workplace (or at least being the preference in the workplace), still deserve to have a place in a TRULY diverse workplace.

    Hiring practice, to be truly objective, should not focus on gender AT ALL. Instead, only those who are most competent for the position for which they apply should get the job. In that way, we will have a blind eye turned towards all of the mitigating factors which will, naturally, be represented when the work place’s only qualification is the candidate’s ability to do the work.


  5. Trueash wrote on

    Dear Mozilla. You know, I lived under a communist regime long enough to smell a big and mean totalitarian rat under this guise of D&I. Oh jeez… I thought that of all people, software developers should be least susceptible to ideological propaganda.


  6. Steven Smith wrote on

    Honestly this is sad to me. The fact that out of a need to feel diverse applicants are being hired dependent on race, gender, and other factors not determined by skill. There are actually laws against hiring like that. This protects both the white male and the minority female in that skills and experience are the only determining factors in hiring. Mozilla and many other companies risk being sued large sums of money and the funny thing is that they are here bragging about this fact.

    I am not meaning to put women or even minorities down. My CS degree has many talented women programmers in the classes some who are better than me, though also some who are not. I also feel there is no longer any bars holding them back like there once may have been. Heck women were even in the CS field in the very beginning in big ways and they always should be. But they also should feel free to do what they want in life and for many women they do not want a computer job. Why should we be encouraged to have 50% of the work place be women when there simply are not as many women interested in getting into CS? Again power to the women who choose to do that, but power also to those who go into medicine, or marketing, or even power to the women who want to be hard working moms. Whatever they want to do is fine and it is their life, just make sure they compete and are rewarded fairly, something that cannot be done when we set benchmarks and metrics around hiring so many women or minorities, rather than making growth as a company be the only measured thing.


    1. Emma Irwin wrote on

      Hi Steven

      Skilled people, who also people who happen to be underrepresented (race/gender, age, socioeconomic status etc) are deterred from participation in ways not visible to you. If you care about including skilled people, you care about inclusion.


      1. Jean MacIntyre wrote on

        I am a woman among the privileged by education — in the 1950s. My school (for girls) taught only enough math to meet minimum college admissions requirements, not enough to take even Maths 101, but did very well with languages and history, good enough for an AB and PhD in English and an academic career. My graduating class of 135 from one of the Seven Sisters had 32 English majors, only two in maths. The earliest gigantic computers during WW2 were largely programmed and run by women with mathematics skills, but by the time computers began to shrink while becoming more powerful, the computing world had become a boys’ club with its own private adaptations of language (e.g., “boot” for “switch on”), while the very word “computer” communicates “only mathematicians work here.” Much of the current language used by computer experts of all genders remains incomprehensible to us who grew up and were educated when the most advanced technology most widely used was a manual typewriter, and Latin was required for college admission. The boys’ club did not invite us in during the early days of the personal computer — mine remains a glorified typewriter cum remote encyclopedia — so those of the boys’ parents’ generation in general, not exclusively women — were barred by technospeak and the perception it raises that the club was [is?] closed to new members.


  7. Richard wrote on

    This article and the email I received linking to it are the reason I’ve removed myself from Mozilla’s email list (at least until clearer heads prevail).

    I’m also going to have to add myself to the list of people disappointed to see Mozilla throw its lot in with the likes of critical race theory, virtue signaling, victimhood privileging, “oppression Olympic”, “intersectional”, ideological marriage between a modified Marxism and postmodernism. As many are quick to point out, these ideologies are fundamentally incompatible with each other, but hey if Christians can learn to do it with evolution, Marxists can certainly figure out how to do it with postmodernism.

    I want to be very clear – while I’m not an American, I do not like what I see happening right now in their country (or ours to be fair, but for different aspects, but I believe to share the same phenomenological root). I do not like Donald Trump, what he says, who he is, his sociopathic narcissism, incompetence in dealing with other countries etc. It’s a long list, and the biggest reasons not to like Trump are not the reasons typically emphasized and sensationalized by the media or those most clearly evident in his late-night tweeting (well, depending on how one reads between the lines I suppose…).

    What is of greatest concern me at this point is that the people who subscribe to the mode of thinking outlined in this article are so steeped in their own conversation, sense of moral superiority, and confirmation bias that they utterly and repeatedly fail to understand the key role their own moral, intellectual, academic and social mistakes have played in getting him elected in the first place! I’d like to be able to tell you that no amount of insanity on the left (which is my own political disposition btw) could convince me to vote for a guy like Trump on the right (or is he?), the truth is there is always a potential breakpoint where the cost-benefit equation apparent to a given person could flip if things get bad enough (unless of course, you vote in a purely tribal way to spare yourself from having to think much, which if it weren’t so damned important to our collective future would be forgivable given the complexity and info overload we’re all having to deal with now).

    When push comes to shove, people seem to be letting their cowardice get the better of them in an environment where victimhood privilege allows it to masquerade as a virtue in the form of having compassion for the victim. We’ve frankly got enough on our plate to worry about with climate change, ecological and sociological pressure generated from our highly successful but insufficiently broad or adaptable economic system (i.e. our current mode of growth and progress), and finally, the fruits of said system in the form of disruptive technologies. There are tragedy of commons problems a-plenty which we must eventually solve (or at least manage), we don’t need to add fuel to the fire of yet another one born out of people’s desperate, shortsighted, and fundamentally flawed attempt to retain control in a world where localized complexity is exploding on account of hitting the knee of an S-curve in technological development.

    There are differences – both physical and psychological – between men and women (apparently, this comes as a shock to some). Many of these differences are biological fundamentally. This is a basic fact that people looking for 50/50 gender parity in every category they regard as “privileged” *powerful*, influential and important seem to have overlooked (never mind they also completely overlook “gender imbalances” in deadly boring work that no one *wants* to do if they have the choice). I’m all for opening things up and making the work environment hospitable to individuals who might not line up with the typical profile of someone “normally” interested in a given field or profession. We should want to be inclusive and “open” in principle, but disciplines and professions are processes of *exclusion* on a fundamental level. This is what it is to develop a professional domain of expertise.

    Of course, these professions should be open to any individual with the requisite set of competencies, but we should not modify the criteria or the fundamental demands of the position to accommodate a certain demographic just some of us are convinced (more like confused) that it’s unfair. If you want to be a police officer, you have to develop the required physical and mental competencies. If you want to be a software programmer, the same basic principle applies. What we could look at, is how the culture of the police force or the tech industry generate “artifacts” (on account of their selective and exclusionary nature) that further discourage participation from people who don’t fit the typical mold in one way or another.

    Maybe being a member of a particular gender or *gasp* having a particular genetic background might actually predispose you to have a slight edge or advantage in certain domains of ability or performance that are relevant to a particular role or profession. Is that really so hard to believe? You think it applies to dogs, horses and other farm animals but can’t possibly apply to us have I got that right? If so, then I would like to suggest that your assumptions about the differences in outcome between artificial selection (by humans) and natural selection (by environmental conditions acting on a particular lineage) are either mistaken or misapplied.

    Is it really racist to observe that the competitors from Kenya tend to be good at running marathons? Does anyone seriously believe that this (largely correct) stereotype which applies to some Kenyan athletes (out at the tail of the distribution, the *exceptions* within their own population) must, therefore, apply to *every* person whose ethnic background originates from that area? Does anyone seriously believe that this is just part of their cultural upbringing and has nothing to do with many individuals from that area having descended from ancestors who lived much of their lives at a high altitude? What about the rather large proportion of Olympic sprinters who have darker skin, or the percentage of athletes in the NFL or the NBA who have similar characteristics in common.

    Genes tend to travel in groups when they inhabit given individuals within a population, and until recently (on a human timescale at least), populations of humans had developed along different lineages. We all want ourselves and our children to have good genes, but when can we have a mature conversation about how we could eventually apply what we’re learning to benefit individuals *and* society instead of just one or the other, or only the rich at everyone else’s expense. Or how about a million other technically and ethically challenging but fast approaching questions that we are going to have to consider as we progress into the latter half of this century!? Identity politics is getting in the way of important technological, ethical and all too human questions right now – please wake up and snap out of this madness!

    All in all, I’m just sick and tired of the way people try to square the circle using ideology here instead of taking technology, methodology and cultural development together and having honest, searching and deep conversations about what the path forward – both together and as individuals – could look like. I get it, this is extremely complicated, fraught, and if we’re being honest – terrifyingly scary stuff. No one wants to repeat the mistakes of narrow reductive and dehumanizing empiricism (eugenics mainly) or any other mistakes of the prior century with 21st century tools, but it seems like most folks in academia and tech only got the memo for the mistakes made on the political right instead of those made on the political left (Marxism, communism etc.).

    Human talents, abilities, and the potential to develop competencies are not allocated equally among humans. Don’t try to force people to pretend these unpleasant facts away (about IQ, athleticism or anything else). Instead, start thinking about how we could build a better society, and develop technologies which enable individuals to realize their ambitions in ways that are beneficial on all the different levels – individual, family, community, county, province, country, global, and then a similar breakdown across different timescales, you today, you tomorrow, you next week, next month, next year, 5 years, decades, centuries whether you or those like you that come after etc.

    Perhaps there will be ways in the future that we can endow people with a set of talents and aptitudes that they choose themselves. Maybe we could learn to let people “re-roll” their character, but for now, we have to recognize the way in which inequality is baked into our condition and our circumstances at a level far deeper than one that could be culturally re-negotiated. Perhaps we could talk about how the successful, lucky or powerful might have some responsibilities toward those who are less lucky, but that’s a conversation that has to be had carefully with the Rawlsian veil of ignorance in mind. Beyond that, don’t force me to play your ridiculous ideological identity politics game of virtue signaling and make-believe by holding my social reputation hostage.

    Above all, please be a little more precise and thoughtful before signing on to bad ideas. Compassion is pointless if you’ve misunderstood and misdiagnosed the nature of the problem because you’ve accepted a bad explanation. Having done so renders one highly likely to just make things worse (as affirmative action, reverse racism or identity politics will reliably tend to do).


  8. RF wrote on

    I liked this article a lot. It definitely made me think about how to improve diversity. Thanks for writing it! 🙂


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