GitHub Graciously Helps Female Programmers Cower In Fear


It’s no secret that the tech world has historically been a boys club. Programmers, engineers, hackers, makers; the majority of them are all male. Any females who wander into the fray tend to be ostracized, or perhaps even worse, garner so much unwanted attention that they are treated more like a sideshow than a colleague.

The situation is a matter of fact, but the causes are still a matter of debate. Are females really less interested in technology? Or is it more likely that there are many females who would have gotten into the field had it not been for the negative connotations of a “girl on the Internet”?

In an effort to help increase female participation in open source development, the Ada Initiative recently announced they had entered into an agreement with social programming site GitHub, wherein any female who requested a private repository on the service could receive one free of charge (a feature which usually costs $7+ per month).

While this sounds good on paper, and is no doubt an excellent PR move for both parties, who does this actually help?

Fear of Open Source

The open source world is sadly not immune to this particular plaque of the larger technology field: females are in very short supply. One would hope that the more enlightened open source community would be somewhat more inviting for female participants, but the reality of the situation doesn’t seem to agree.

The Ada Initiative reports they’ve found a general reluctance among the comparatively few female programmers to open up the source code of their software for a number of reasons:

In working with women in open source, the Ada Initiative found that many women are reluctant to post their code publicly when they are first getting started in open source software. This reluctance has good reasons behind it: fear of being told they are bad programmers, fear of being publicly mocked or harassed, and even fear of losing job opportunities. All of these are greater risks for women on average than men.

Ada Initiative Blog

These fears are well known to anyone looking to start in the open source world. Every person who has submitted a patch or published an open source project has, at least once, had a pang of self-consciousness. In the wide world of open source there are players of every conceivable skill level, all the way up to industry leaders; putting your code out for that vast repository of knowledge and experience to examine causes a feeling that is every bit like stage fright.

The claim that female programmers feel this fear any more than males seems a bit dubious. It’s pretty hard to put a number on emotion, and I say you’d be hard pressed to find any open source developer who could say with a straight face that they entered into the community without any fear of inferiority; male or otherwise.

While this is absolutely an issue that the community should be addressing, what good to separate it into male and female categories? Work should be done to make the open source community a more accepting place for new contributors of both sexes, rather than focusing on females and letting the males fend for themselves.

Helping or Hurting?

Despite the dichotomy the Ada Initiative is bringing to the situation, their core observations are indeed correct: open source can be intimidating  So how do we fix this? How do we make it so new developers are more comfortable with releasing their source code?

Apparently GitHub feels that the best way to do that…is to help developers hide their code.

GitHub’s offer to give free private repositories to female open source developers seems to be a complete step backwards. By making this public policy, it simply strengthens the notion that female programmers aren’t good enough to play with the “big boys”. Setting the precedent that any female who requests it can have the source code of their supposedly open source software hidden from public view does nothing but validate the fears that keep females from releasing their source in the first place.

I am a male who has written open source code, and know all to well the feeling of uncertainly you get when developers who are clearly more skilled than yourself review your code. Can I have a free private repository? If not, why not? Why is it that women should receive special treatment if they are nervous about contributing to the open source community? Isn’t that the opposite of equality?

But besides the issue of gender, how does using GitHub’s private repository feature help further the cause of open source software? Even the blog post that announced this partnership mentioned how the key to becoming accepted and comfortable in the open source community is just that: opening up your source for peer review:

But the best way to get better at programming is to collaborate with and get review from other programmers, which is far easier to do with a shared repository like those provided by GitHub.

Advising that female programmers use GitHub private repositories as a way to control who looks at their source code is against the principles of open source, and furthers the stereotype that female programmers are unable to operate on the same playing field as the rest of the open source community.

Make no mistake, the goals of the Ada Initiative are honorable enough. There is no question that the gender ratio is strongly skewed towards males, which is something that clearly needs to be addressed. But advising policies which segregate development into male and female categories is certainly not the right approach.

About Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: .
  • Guillermo Garron

    I have always said, that creating “special” categories for women where they do not need them (almost anything but sports) is a way to increase discrimination.

    In all intellectual fields, they need to be in the same field with the same rules, if they accept handicap, then they have self-discriminate themselves.

    • k0nsl

      Wise words.

  • Max

    Before you wrote your strongly opinionated post about how women should or should not feel, did you ever ask them? The Ada Foundation clearly has, even though it may be hard for you, a seasoned male programmer, to understand this.

    When I first started programming, I didn’t release any of my code, even though I was well aware of the libre software movement, and even learned to code for the core purpose of being able to contribute to the movement. Why? Because my code was utter crap, and I knew it. Everyone writes garbage code when they’re just learning. Even as a male in this situation, I knew that if anyone saw how crappy my code was, they wouldn’t want me anywhere near their projects. Now consider females, who are seen by the broader community (whether or not you care to admit it) as worse at programming. This of how much more difficult the decision would be fore them. Additionally, poorly written code just reinforces this stereotype.

    White men have a history of telling other people what is best for them. Please don’t follow down that path.

    • Tom Nardi

      In fact, I did. I spoke to every female programmer I personally know, and they all thought this concept was as ridiculous.

      Though I wonder how much of the article you really grasped before writing out your response, as the issue of how people should or should not feel about releasing their open source code is in no way the point of it. At no point do I claim that women should not feel a certain apprehensiveness about releasing their source code, and in fact, I believe that is a very natural feeling for every person who enters into the OSS community.

      The issue being addressed is the logical fallacy that you can create equality by giving one group special treatment.

    • Techni Myoko

      “did you ever ask them?”

      Yes he did

      “When I first started programming, I didn’t release any of my code,”

      When I first started, I released all my code.

      And I was even stalked by a user from gamefaqs who went and down-ranked this first page of my submissions (I guess he got bored after realizing how many I have)

      “Now consider females, who are seen by the broader community (whether or not you care to admit it) as worse at programming.”

      I never got that impression. I have a rather large fanbase that numbers in the thousands that would even tell you otherwise.

      “White men”

      There’s no need for the racism :/

      • Bob_Robert

        He’s already categorizing people by gender, race is just another way of saying the same thing.

        It doesn’t matter what my personal preferences are, the problem comes from projecting my preferences and opinions onto other people.

        (I use the personal pronoun because this issue is fundamentally personal)

    • test

      The Ada Foundation does not talk for woman generally, they talk for self selected group of woman that choose to engage in Ada Foundation. There is no way to know how many of woman in IT agree with them and to what extend.

  • Miroslaw

    I’m not exactly sure what’s a nastier piece here, yourself, the author, or the text you’ve written.

    • Techni Myoko

      I’d say your comment, or you. He wasn’t nasty at all, and I know him personally. Calling him nasty is an exaggeration at best :/

  • Hans Bezemer

    If you post code, you can either be praised or criticized. If you’re praised your ego is stroked, If you’re criticized, you’ve learned something. As to the consequences for females on this statement (which a wise man taught me long ago) I leave drawing conclusions to the reader.

    • test

      In 99% of cases, if you post code, you will be ignored. People do not care that much about random repositories on Github.

  • k0nsl

    But what if you’re transgender, or whatever that’s called, do I get both public and private repositories, perhaps for free? :]

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  • Jay

    This is nonsense. The whole stigma around tech being a boys only club is the reason why there aren’t that many women in technology. We have to let of of this as an ‘issue’, and let it happen naturally. Women don’t need our help with anything, then can and do make things happen. Stop trying to solve problems that you think only men can solve.

  • SleeZee Lyers

    You are absolutely right. I can understand a woman being afraid to have a public repo and being subjected to cruel taunts that she should have used a generator not a for loop. LIKEWISE, I A MAN have the same fear.

    So why give women this free private repo?

    It does nothing to help the underlying problems:
    1) People are assholes on the net
    2) Other people are fearful of criticism

    All it does is perpetuate the problems.

  • Jerry

    I pretended to be a woman, and got in on the freebie. :p

    Take what you can, give nothing back!

  • Ani Chan

    Thanks for this post. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this move by Github made me uneasy. It was disheartening to see the comments boil it down to “I’m an upper middle class white male, where’s MY free Github account?” But I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that it’s not helping these women be a part of the open source community by hiding their code in private repositories.

    I’d like to think that women aren’t the delicate flowers they’re made out to be (even by the same organizations that try to promote them as strong, smart, and independent in the same breath). Too many of these programs that are meant to help women seem kind of patronizing from my point of view. I’d rather see these organizations promote confidence in these women to put themselves out there and have the larger hacker community police themselves to not be jerks.

    • Hans Bezemer

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. I (as a FOSS developer) have to deal with unreasonable and impolite users as well. We had a lengthy discussion on that recently within my community. But it won’t go away discussing it. Dealing with it is the only way to go: in other words, face the music. The police is you. I know lots of females have confidence issues, but you simply have to stand your ground and don’t let it spoil an otherwise beautiful day. Whatever we do, we always start out to be newbies and newbies get a lot of criticism – most of the time well deserved. If you go through the log of my projects you will see there are many people I have said thanks, just because they criticized my work. And therefore it got better. It never is an attack on your person, it’s an “attack” on your work. You are who you are, but your work can and will change when exposed to public scrutiny. Therefore, this “policy” is counterproductive in so many ways. A women who went through all that and still stands her ground in the hairiest of environments is Elisabeth Rather, CEO of Forth Inc. She is well respected, but still gets the “treatment” every now and then. That doesn’t put her down. And for that she is where a lot of female developers want to be and changes what needs to be changed. You can’t change things when you’re on the sideline shouting. You simply have to be there and exert your influence.

  • Bob_Robert

    Just off the top of my head, I can think of 4 excellent professional programmer friends of mine who happen to be women.

    At the same time, I don’t consider myself a programmer at all.

    Gender has nothing to do with it. So, stop forcing gender. Treat people as individuals, both as programmers AND as fools who make trouble for others.

    If men are “over-represented” as programmers, maybe they’re also “over-represented” as boorish malcontents. That doesn’t mean that all women are “nice” either.

    Maybe what is really needed is gender neutral log-ins and userIDs. Yes, I know, my icon does not reflect that attitude.

    • Ani Chan

      I can’t say I agree with having gender neutral log-ins. It seems like a bad precedent to set if we have to hide in anonymity in order to expect to be treated like regular human beings on the internet. In a way, it’s the same as hiding behind a private repository on Github.

      Gender DOESN’T (and shouldn’t) have anything to do with it. This is what people need to understand. We should be able to display ourselves, one gender or another, and not have to think about the consequences of representing that gender.

      If anything, I’d want to encourage other women to represent themselves online while contributing to open source. The more women do that, I would hope that more people realize that gender doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to programming quality. I’d hope that more women contributing would make people realize that individual women programmers don’t represent their entire gender. There will be bad programmers and good programmers, just like there are for their male counterparts.

      I would hope that the larger open source community has enough sense to call out bad behavior and out of line criticism, but I think that should be true regardless of gender. The sooner we make gender not taboo and just as inconsequential as the city you live in or the type of cereal you ate this morning, the better.

      • Bob_Robert

        I agree with you. I was trying to get those who would hide in anonymous accounts out into the world.

  • nohorse

    It’s OK for github to offer its premium service for free in cooperation with a foundation trying to do good. Private repos don’t imply any sort of hiding. People don’t pay for premium services to cower in fear. Your just waving your ugly flag here. Don’t let your religious zealotry concerning open source paint a sinister face on a simple good natured act. I get the feeling you don’t believe in private repos but lots of people do. That’s why it’s a premium service. It’s really the only thing github could give away.

  • test

    As a woman programmer, the more I hear about ADA the more I dislike them. There is a tendency to underestimate woman in IT and wanna be feminists going around telling everybody that woman are in fact weaker and less capable are not helping.

    I do resent them acting as self selected speaker for woman in IT while making noise around ridiculous things. I heard about ADA in three cases and disagreed with them in all three of them.

    Free Github private repository is nice gift, but I would be happier if I would not get it with “there you go little girl, do not be afraid”. It does not even make sense, you do not need private Github repository to keep the code private. You can happily code on your computer with all the privacy you might want.

    Private repos are there for closed source businesses. Github earns money that way. They could give us exactly the same gift with “support for small woman led business” explanation. Why the “get woman into IT” initiative went for condescending “poor afraid little girl” explanation is beyond me.

    A bit off-topic, but still rant on ADA:
    Girls/woman often assume that they either would not be able to learn to code or that they would not be able to cut it in industry. Neither of these is true. Neither is ADA projected image of typical male programmer as maladjusted ape. Most male programmers are perfectly fine people. Woman in industry will be occasionally underestimated, there is no reason to deny that. But, the environment is nowhere near that bad as ADA claims it to be.

    Heck, do you really think that you will get social-status-conscious girl into coding if you will stereotype all geeks and nerds as sexist pigs and blow things out of proportion?

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  • Aaron Wolf

    The answer is MUCH simpler than all this. GitHub is NOT actually a real proponent of Free Software! GitHub is PROPRIETARY. They are interested in achieving monopoly status and getting people to pay them via their freemium model. They are not great friends of FLOSS despite everyone seeing them that way. They don’t give gratis service to projects with FLOSS licenses, they give gratis service to anyone who is public. I’ll say it again: GitHub is PROPRIETARY. If you want to really further Free Software, you’ll use Gitorious or SourceForge’s new truly Free Allura system or other options that are themselves FLOSS.

    The reason GitHub is doing this is for profit. It is in their business interest. Why Ada is supporting this is another matter, and they shouldn’t be doing this, they shouldn’t be handing GitHub new clients like this.

    • GitFlub

      Very interesting viewpoint. Definitely something to consider.

  • nobody

    First and foremost, a lot of people pay for private repos on Github. In fact, a lot of people choose BitBucket over Github because they offer private repos for free. Quite frankly, you own the account and you wrote the code, so if a service wants to offer to host those things for you and you want to barricade them off from the world for whatever reason, you have the choice to do so and it doesn’t matter why.

    If the people at the Ada Initiative were being told women were afraid of posting their code publicly, I agree that women are telling them they’re afraid of posting their code publicly. Doesn’t matter how many; they’re catering to an audience that exists and Github wants to help.

    In knowing what we know now about the success of the offering vs. when you first decided it was appropriate to write this, their assessment was not wrong at all.

    And just so you’re aware, women *have* been publicly shamed over code they have on Github. The most prolific event to date was a woman working for Mozilla who was tag-teamed by three other prolific figures in the development community on Twitter. After being called out, one apologized, one half-assedly apologized, and the third played the “I’m sorry you’re offended,” card. If she didn’t work for such a well-known and liked company, and didn’t have the backup she did to stand up for herself and her code; do you really think finding herself in that situation is going to encourage her — or other women — to join the club?

    Now, if you’d bothered to do any real research into the Ada Initiative’s offering, you’d have found that the reason they were giving out private repos was first so women could familiarize themselves with Github as a service, only before familiarizing themselves with Open Source as a movement. They plan on easing more women into open source through the Code of Our Own project, wherein women work on other projects by women (again, because it is less intimidating).

    People that want to immediately rush to the conclusion that this is pandering to women the wrong way seem to think that the way you learn how to ride a bicycle is to jump straight into a race.

    If you truly want women to participate in open source, stop writing articles that question their integrity to do so based on how public they want their first steps into it to be.