Open source advocates have turned their minds to tackling another problem with proprietary software development: women.

Only two percent of the thousands of developers working on open-source software projects are women, a panel discussion at the annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention heard. This compares to some 25 percent of all developers in the proprietary software industry. And they want something done about it.

The barriers to women in open-source development include chauvinism from some male developers who post or mutter unpleasant comments as well as an "old boys network" that discourages them from taking part in open-source projects, said panel members.

One idea being considered is the creation of women-focused groups in some open-source communities, said Danese Cooper, a board member of the Open Source Institute and an open-source advocate at Intel. At least one such group, called Debian Women, has been created within the Debian community; So far, four women have joined the project because of that group. Creation of a similar group is being discussed within the Apache open-source community, she said.

For Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation, getting involved in that project meant being persistent and gaining a reputation for good work. One problem, she said, has been that women with families can't always spend as much time on open-source projects as other developers. Baker said she couldn't have worked as much on the Mozilla project had her husband not helped raising their seven-year-old son. "It matters when you have kids, it really does," she said.

Panelist Zaheda Bhorat, manager of open-source projects at Google, agreed that time demands can be great. "It does require evenings and weekends," she said. "[Open source] communities are global" and work around the clock.

Allison Randal, president of the Perl Foundation and an editor for O'Reilly, said she has been able to get involved in open-source projects by being assertive and just working hard. "I think maybe the hardest part of that is just doing things" and not being afraid of reactions from male developers, she said. "That seems to be the way the open-source world works."

One important step women can take is to encourage other women to get involved, said Claire Giordano, a senior marketing manager for OpenSolaris at Sun. In college at Brown University, some male students told her she "couldn't cut it" as she studied math and computer science. "I didn't listen," she said.