There is a uniform path into open digital infrastructure projects.
People's paths into FOSS projects usually follow the same route. Individuals often spend more than a year passively reading mailing lists and trying to make sense of the code on their own before actively taking part in discussions and committing to code. That people need to put in so much time and work is seen as necessary for newcomers to prove their commitment and be taken seriously. Our interviewees were aware that this status quo strongly favors people privileged to have access to computers in their youth, but the prevailing sentiment is that this is necessary to guarantee independence and quality work. Clear onboarding mechanisms are the exception, not the rule.
This rather arbitrary pre-selection affects the lack of diversity in infrastructure projects in several ways:
- Limits skill sets If people join a community by contributing code, the result is that only developers join the community. People with other, non-technical skills who might be sorely needed have no way of entering the community.
- Selects for financial background People without a steady income or the backing of a financially stable environment have a hard time working their way into a project to the point where they are accepted as a contributor. There is no guarantee that the time they spend will at some point pay off financially, whether that be in the form of contracts or job opportunities.
- Preserves unbalanced demographics around race, region, and gender Though there is awareness of large race and gender imbalances, there are few examples of communities or projects actively trying to diversify, since such efforts would go against the established way of joining projects.
“We expect them [newcomers to the project] to know their stuff.”
“The first days are most critical [for newcomers to stay with a project].”
“It all [the FOSS ecosystem] works quite well once you understand it.”
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Understand that the path into FOSS is perceived as formative, and people often identify strongly with the path they themselves took; criticizing it can lead to developers taking the criticism personally. Instead of arguing for greater diversity, approach the issue by first helping the project work out which people, skills or perspectives the project needs to be successful – and where these could be found – and work from there.
Reach out to people who dropped out of a project in order to learn what factors contributed to them leaving.
The provision of free-to-access resources and examples of good practice about onboarding could help those who are willing to change the process, but do not know where or how to start.
Explicitly funding non-technical positions within tech projects can enhance their standing in the eyes of the FOSS community.
Our data on women is scarce, but there are indications that projects with community management and team leadership roles can help to keep women on board. Financially supporting these roles could help tackle the lack of diversity. However, especially for one-person-shops or collectives, this can mean the imposition of a governance structure on the project that the community is not willing to support.
Instead of attempting to bring more diversity into existing projects, supporting projects run by groups that are underrepresented in tech can help contributors hone their confidence, skills and reputation, and enhance their standing.
Adopt an intersectional approach towards diversity that takes into account race, place of origin, gender, class and abilities.