Is requiring open-source experience sexist?

A post at GeekFeminism caught my eye: Is requiring open-source experience sexist? The post concerns the idea that requiring (or just preferring) previous experience in open source projects when considering hiring someone, and whether that causes a gender bias:

Open Source is very male-dominated, is known for being unpleasantly sexist, and is also a subculture whose norms (even where neutral as regards sexism) don’t fit everyone.

If you insist on a lot of experience in a particular male-dominated sub-culture as a prerequisite for a job, that reads as “we prefer [a subset of] men, basically, or at least people willing to work hard to minimise all the ways in which they aren’t [part of the subset of] men” even if you didn’t intend it to and even if you didn’t want it to.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether open source really is as male-dominated as the author here makes out, not least because I don’t feel well-qualified to judge that: I’ve only ever been involved in small open source projects, and only tangentially. More significantly, as a man I may be blind to some serious bias in the open source culture. However, I would contend that the open source world is not homogeneous, and caution against judging the entire community on the basis of the most high-profile failures.

I’m also going to avoid tackling the obvious idea that open source experience is at least fairly objective, and that it might act to counter some of the other gender biases in hiring. This seems like a promising line of investigation, but it’s a fairly sticky wicket as it’s essentially an argument of the lesser of two evils.

What is apparent from my experience of hiring over the last decade, and seems to have been passed over here, is the very low bar that is in place when considering a candidate’s open source experience. The vast majority of candidates don’t offer any experience at all. Small amounts of experience are a huge plus point. Furthermore, in many tech companies the rate of hiring is limited only by the lack of quality candidates, so it’s not the case that someone else’s OSS experience will edge you out of a job: if you’re both equally good but in different ways, I’ll hire you both.

It’s not necessary to have tangled with the alpha geeks in the sort of high-profile projects that get buzz on Hacker News in order to impress me. Fix a bug, even a tiny one, that nobody else seems to care about. Optimise some code. Write unit tests. Code up a Firefox or Chrome plugin for something you find useful but doesn’t appeal to anyone else. Any of these things will immediately make you stand out from the crowd, and they can all be done on small quiet projects where people will be glad of your input, and can be done without needing to be deeply embedded in the community. If you simply can’t find a project whose team you get on with, there are plenty of abandoned projects you can pick up and give some care and attention to.

If the amount of experience I’m looking for is so minimal, why is it useful? For a start, it shows attitude and interest. It also shows you can get things done. Perhaps most importantly, it gives a sample of your work that I can look at, which previous employers generally wouldn’t allow. Toy problems we work through in the interview will never compare to the benefit of seeing real code.

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