Take a quick look around the Ubuntu forums and IRC channels and you can miss the pattern: it's mostly men. That is not to say that there is no diversity in the open source community, only that you need to look a little deeper to find it.
According to a recent survey, only 12% of professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women. So I felt especially lucky to "sit-down" with Ubuntu Women members Elizabeth "Lyz" Krumbach and Cheri Francis over a Google+ hangout to discuss the work they are doing with the organization.
Why Ubuntu? All jabs at Unity aside, it is still one of the most popular Linux distributions and this group is doing its best to promote that message while also encouraging women to become more involved.
From its humble beginnings in 2006, the Ubuntu Women mission has been clear - to encourage women to use and contribute to Ubuntu. The organization is not political, so you'll find no mentions of feminism or the like, but rather a safe place where women, curious about the Ubuntu developer community, can come and ask questions without fear of intimidation or condescension. The group's membership has grown to over 300 (including myself) with support from everyone from Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth himself to other community leaders and project teams.
What exactly do the Ubuntu Women Do Anyway?
Though efforts at a formal mentorship program fizzled, the team was not deterred. After some retooling, what emerged was a more informal, but much more effective system. When new members reach out, usually via mailing list or the IRC chat room, someone from the team immediately responds and puts them in touch with a community member who can help get them going.
Contributions to the Ubuntu and open source community are as varied as they are numerous. Here's just a snapshot of some of the areas where the Ubuntu Women as individuals and a team have made a significant impact:
• IRC channel support
• O'Reilly Linux DevCenter blogging
• Package maintenance
• Development & testing
• Local community leadership
Recently elected to the Ubuntu Women leadership team, Lyz Krumbach just won the O'Reilly Open Source Award for her open source contributions. And she will soon be traveling to Ghana to help San Francisco non-profit Partimus - which provides repurposed computers running free software to students and schools in need - with deploying Ubuntu systems.
Cheri Francis, another member of the leadership team, is the spearhead behind the group's monthly Career Day. She also heads up her local community group, ReLoCo and also participates with the accessibility and NGO teams.
One of Francis' proudest moments is introducing Ubuntu to her mom, who has multiple sclerosis. Ubuntu offers the customization she needed to modify the system to make it easier for her mother to use and remember things. This has allowed her to do more than she has with any other computer.
Each month, the group hosts a Career Day chat on IRC in the Ubuntu Classroom #ubuntuclassroom. Cheri Francis spearheads this initiative, frustrated by the lack of information available about IT careers that could help her and others make more informed career decisions.
An IT industry professional attends the online chat and posts information about her career - like how to break into the field, skills needed and what a typical day is like. Each session lasts about an hour, with time included for questions and answers. The next chat will be October 18, 2012, featuring Silvia Bindelli, a computer science engineer who will discuss her work as an engineering software release coordinator.
The open source community backbone is comprised of a legion of fiercely dedicated volunteers. Still, the needs are many. In addition to the obvious need for technical talent - developers, QA, designers and the like - there is also a need for writers, bug triage, organizers and everything in between.
If you'd like to join the Ubuntu Women, contact anyone on the leadership team, or check out the #ubuntu-women and #ubuntu-women-project IRC channels.