Square tries to make open source “welcoming and inspiring” to women

January 27, 2015, 7:15 PM UTC
Dorsey in the San Francisco headquarters of Square, one of his two hot tech companies
Photograph by Art Streiber

At most companies, most tech jobs are held by men. But the proportion of open source developers who are female is almost infinitesimal: Just 1.5%, by some estimates.

Square, a San Francisco-based mobile payments company founded by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, says it wants to change that. To make the open source community more friendly and accessible to women, the company disclosed that it is publishing an open source code of conduct that it hopes will help provide a “welcoming and inspiring environment for all.”

What is open source? Simply put, it is source code (used to develop software programs) that is freely available and modifiable on the Internet. Open source developers from all over the world contribute to various projects, which are hosted on various websites—GitHub, a popular code hosting site, has over 8 million users and over 19 million code “repositories.”

This community isn’t made up of just one-person coders in their basements (a popular misconception). Developers from tech companies large and small—from Microsoft and Google to pretty much every startup in Silicon Valley and beyond—are involved, using the available code source for various software projects. In other words, opening open source is a big deal. And, not many women are involved.

Some of the guidelines included in Square’s code of conduct, published earlier today, seem better-suited to kindergartners than humans capable of developing complex code. For example, they include “be respectful,” “be considerate” and “be collaborative.” But the company’s diversity programs lead, Vanessa Slavich, says having general guidelines—especially when it comes to how to report infractions—can go a long way in making women feel more comfortable in open source circles.

“If you’re new to soccer or baseball, you have a rulebook and you know what is allowed and what is not allowed,” says Slavich. “So we’re encouraging diversity in this space by having a guidebook that says this how it works, and if you ever feel uncomfortable, this is how you can report it.”

Indeed, included in Square’s new code of conduct includes an email address that community members can use to file complaints if they experience or witness “unacceptable behavior.” According to the company, once a report is made they will respond within two days and evaluate the complaint. If the allegation is serious enough the offending party could be permanently banned from contributing to Square’s open source code. (The complaints will be processed case-by-case, by an internal committee.)

To be sure, Square isn’t the first company to publish an open source code of conduct. Twitter, for example, has very similar guidelines for its contributors. But as yet another high-profile startup, Square could help draw more attention to the need to make the open source community more open and inclusive to women.

“There’s harassment and unconscious bias [within open source communities],” says Slavich. “Online, people are anonymous, so it’s a lot easier to say things that you normally wouldn’t say.”

As we saw in last fall’s Gamergate controversy, in which hard-core gamers threatened and intimated female video game developers, there is a dangerous element to these kinds of anonymous communities, where derogatory and even threatening language can quickly escalate.

There’s another advantage to getting more women involved in open source communities—it can be good for women’s job prospects. Why? Employers often look up candidates’ lines of code on online, open source repositories. So if a female candidate isn’t on GitHub or other websites, it’s akin to not being on LinkedIn.

“Open source is a great thing for technology,” says Slavich. “But women aren’t really a part of the conversation.”

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