On August 3, around 60 coders will meet in Koramangala, for a daylong session of coding web apps. They will brainstorm, share their experiences in programming and talk about the social culture around software development. What sets this group apart from the hundreds of other programmers that gather in the IT City? All 60 will be women.

The event is one organised by Rails Girls, one of the handful of initiatives from the free and open source software (FOSS) community to get more women to code.

It’s no secret that there are far fewer women than men in computing. Women employment in information technology industries, according to a study conducted by the University of Cambridge, is a mere 28 per cent. However, when it comes to the FOSS community, the problem is aggravated: only 2 per cent of the coders are women.

With this stark imbalance, there’s the threat that the FOSS community, credited with creating revolutionary software tools, could lose its focus on gender issues. Waking up to this, several free software projects such as desktop environment project GNOME, web application framework Ruby on Rails, and Debian operating system have initiated women outreach programs.

Small steps

Increasing awareness among girls about contribution to free software projects is an important step to addressing the gender imbalance, say Pallavi Shastry, a student from Bangalore, and Sakshi Jain from Ajmer. The two interns from India to the Rails Girls Summer of Code for 2013 believe that the workshops such as the ones in Koramangala have a significant role to play in this.

Organisations such as the Women in Free Software and Culture in India (http://wfs-india.org/) too conduct regular activities in this regard, a poster competition on women and LGBT issues, and an IRC workshop on source code management system Git, the most recent.

And, it would appear, some of these have started yielding results.

Raghu Ram, executive committee member of the Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK), claims that the group’s ongoing nine-day, residential, free software-based industrial training camp has seen a remarkable increase in the number of female participants. Of the 180 candidates, 100 are women, he says.

However, Mr. Ram admits there are hiccups to getting more women involved.

Girls have less exposure to FOSS as they do not participate in as much intensive technical training growing up, he says. Besides, there are still cultural inhibitions here. “The registration drive [for the FSMK camp] involved convincing many parents about the security, facilities and nature of the camp,” he adds

Chinmayi, a self-employed FOSS enthusiast and developer of ‘Bachao’, an Android app that sends out distress alerts, also believes that interaction in a male-dominated FOSS community could discourage women.

Besides, she points to the seemingly “different etiquette” on FOSS forums. “Interaction on mailing lists, replying in-line and not top posting mails, discussions on IRC — although these are simple, for a beginner, it could serve as a deterrent. And the response, especially from the men, if a newcomer does not adhere to these rules, can be harsh,” she says.

Beyond the code

Perhaps the conscious encouragement of women in FOSS communities can help address these issues and normalise the glaring gender bias.

Aruna Sankaranarayan, the only Indian woman to have received this year’s internship as part of the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, says essential contribution to FOSS can happen beyond coding. Working on a documentation framework based on XML as part of her internship with GNOME, she says: “You don’t have to be a geek to be part of the community. Passion and commitment, as shown by documenting, marketing, designing fonts and localising content to native languages are all valuable FOSS contributions.”