Usually I avoid topics like women in technology because (1) it is a can of worms, and (2) I can really only speak for myself. For the most part, I’d rather be seen as a person in technology than a woman, but this weekend the twitterverse erupted with opinions about Google sponsoring female students to attend JSConf. As a woman who is often the only-woman-in-the-room, I want people to know it isn’t always easy. I was a bit shocked by the blatant failure to empathize.
On the Big Web Show, I talked about being a women in a male dominated field (min 7:12). “I was a carpenter before I got into web stuff, so you guys can’t really compete with the carpenters, no matter how unruly you get.”
That is true, but a simplification. Zeldman threw me a chance to speak openly about being a woman in technology, and out of nervousness, I punted. Perhaps I was also afraid to sound strident? Anyway, I’m going to share some of the things that have happened to me, in hopes that it helps people realize that I was lucky to be successful and a woman. I mean, just take a look at the fastest growing careers for women. We are veterinary technicians not veterinarians, dental assistants not dentists, medical assistants not doctors. We like to believe we have evolved, but the data speaks to something else. Being a home heath aide is dirty work with bad hours and heavy lifting — but it is a career women can imagine, whereas, right now, they clearly can’t imagine themselves coding. I want to understand why not…
After conducting a thorough study on the status of female researchers at MIT. The Dean said:
The heart and soul of discrimination, the last refuge of the bigot, is to say that those who are discriminated against deserve it because they are less good.
Dean Robert J. Birgeneau, Dean of Science at MIT
He says it beautifully. Discrimination now rarely takes the form of some guy saying “hey little lady, shouldn’t you let a man handle that?” It is much more subtle, but just as ugly. These days, bright, thoughtful, enlightened people assume that the absence of women in certain fields results from women being unable to compete on merit. The assumption that, if someone creates a scholarship for women, it is because otherwise, women can’t hack it.
I would argue that there are female developers who are just as good as men, if not better, but despite that, they are less likely to stay in school, stick with engineering jobs, speak at or even attend conferences, and be recognized for their contributions. The problem compounds itself as women see no role-models for how to be a woman in this field, and only the very thick-skinned manage to stay in engineering and web development.
Why is computer science a sausage fest?
I believe CS and Web Development currently select for certain masculine qualities that are largely unrelated to someone’s prowess as a coder. I believe it is these tangential code-cowboy qualities women are unable or unwilling to emulate, and not their skill or capacity for abstraction, problem solving, creative thinking, or communication — All of which actually make them better developers. In fairness, I think a lot of men would rather not live like code-cowboys, but the unspoken judgement is adapt-or-you-must-not-be-smart-enough-for-CS. The vibe is a competitive rather than collaborative, and leaves many women feeling invisible.
People mistakenly assume that affirmative action is about granting minorities undeserved privileges. In it’s purist form, affirmative action is about allowing minorities natural talents to flourish by removing artificial, unfair barriers and decoupling the true skills required to succeed in a profession from the cultural baggage that builds naturally within an insular community.
If we separate the criteria that makes someone a code-cowboy from the criteria that makes them a solid developer, I think we would find that women can and do compete despite significant discrimination. Scholarships like the one Google proposes aren’t meant to give women of lower merit something they don’t deserve, they are meant to circumvent the discrimination that extremely talented women still face. If you assume that a scholarship for women exists because women are inherently inferior, rather than because they are simply underrepresented, it might be time to soul-search and ask yourself if there is a bigot inside.
I (don’t) wanna be a cowboy, baby
The code cowboy
- Stays up all night recoding the entire code base, documents nothing, and forbids anyone to touch it because they aren’t good enough to understand his level of code.
- Refuses meetings, chats, or any other form of communication.
- Cares more about being perceived as the brilliant-uber-genius than he does about his team working well together.
- Gets into silly pissing contests which boil down to “hehe, my brain is bigger than yours”.
- Finds complex solutions to problems, thus proving his brilliance.
- Makes a lot of mistakes due to lack of sleep, overcaffination, and ego — but thank god he is around to save the day when the bug is discovered.
- Is fairly certain clients, PMs, designers, and really anyone he has to deal with on a daily basis is at least three standard deviations below his IQ.
- Jumps to say “me, me, me!” when credit or rewards for accomplishments are offered.
- Jumps to say “me, me, me!” when opportunities to attend or speak at conferences arise.
The good developer
- Digs the fact that he is making products for people. Likes people and enjoys communicating with them and understanding how they think. Can put him or herself in other people’s shoes and reliably imagine how they might react to different parts of the UI.
- An excellent problem solver who takes into account all aspects of a challenge when designing a solution – including human elements like maintainability and usability.
- Shares credit with the entire team or entire internets. Recognizes that no solution evolves in a vacuum.
- Applies consistent effort and recognizes that working in a way that promotes long term productivity will yield better results.
- Respects the members of his team, including those who aren’t engineers.
- Manages projects so they don’t require super human feats of sleeplessness to meet deadlines.
- Has a life outside of work, other interests, friends, and family — they love code, but they love lots of other things too. If you don’t understand how this makes them a better developer, see item #1.
- Amazing capacity for abstraction and creative thinking.
Women may be less likely to be a code-cowboy, but they can be amazing developers. We are not trying to give anything to anyone that doesn’t deserve it, but instead, to counteract the subtle prejudices that leave women feeling invisible, excluded, and unrecognized for their accomplishments. Now, with that in mind, let’s look at the twit-storm I found after leaving a seven hour mediation session on Saturday. I’ll put my comments inline since I was unavailable to tweet that day.
The doofus that started it all:
RT @googlestudents Google grants for female computer scientists to attend JSConf 2010 // this is disgusting.. i hope there is one for guys.
This stinks of jealousy. Why not be happy for the female students? Why rain on someone else’s parade? Something good happening to someone else seems to disgust fringley. Frankly, it comes off as childish.
Moving on… this is when the storm began to brew.
Voodootikigod has the longest twitter name in the universe, and he makes a good point, we should remember that Google has good intentions and perhaps not be quite so disgusted. Fringley, I’m talking to you.
Special treatment for women with no merit?
Jdalton makes a good point. No one wants to feel like they got where they are because of what is in their pants. On the other hand, he assumes those women didn’t deserve to be sent to JSConf. Why should he assume that? In fact, the website says quite the opposite, the women must “have a strong academic background with demonstrated leadership ability.”
I resent the notion that women are inferior and that is why they are getting grants. Google is correcting for women being less likely to stand up and say “me, me, me!”, not for their technical skills or development prowess.
Thinking that I got where I am because I’m a woman and got special treatment (rather than on my own merit) is a painful and insidious form of discrimination. You have to be thick skinned to make it in a field where this kind of thing happens frequently. YES. It happens frequently.
What I’m trying to say is that women face a special challenge in tech because their male counterparts, when feeling jealous, will tend to pin female geek’s success on their gender. We face another problem, when we begin to wonder ourselves, and doubt our own abilities. This is the last refuge of the bigot indeed.
How can we attract more women to the field?
Yay! I like what voodootikigod says here. I saw Maria Klawe speak at Yahoo! about “Gender, Lies and Video Games: the Truth about Females and Computing”. She said that CS is the only science where the participation of women is getting worse not better. We have a problem. We’re geeks (supposed to be good at problem solving). So let’s figure it out!
I think we should look at:
- Video games are largely made by and for men. We need to be willing to rethink the genre completely, bust things wide open to make video games appeal more to girls.
- CS education works best for people who already know how to code before they begin. CS teaches the theory behind a practice in which they assume you already have some skill. Women are less likely to already know, because they don’t play video games as much. In addition, code-cowboys among their classmates are likely to judge them harshly for being a beginner. Are psychology majors expected to already know how to psychoanalyze patients before their first semester?
- CS education also focuses a lot of effort on puzzles and very abstract concepts when practical applications where you can see the why and how might work better for women (and a hell of a lot of men). I like yummy algorithms, but we could make CS education more accessible by putting them in context.
- Women are less likely to jump up and say “me! me! me!” They are far more likely to wait to be asked to participate. We don’t need women to be different than they are, we just need to invite them in a way that works. Hell, I spent 8 years coding CSS before I ever spoke about it to anyone. The first time I spoke at a conference, John Allsopp contacted me to ask if I would do it. I never would have submitted a proposal. You might say that I should have, but I would counter that I shouldn’t need to act like a dude to get respect.
- Women don’t have female role models. Now, I don’t mean that we need to have deep tear-filled conversations about the perils-of-being-women-in-technology. I would like to talk to geek women about geeky stuff, not about being a woman.
- At Velocity Conference this year, they had a girl-geek lunch. It was awesome! Just a note, they also had tons of women speakers and lots of female attendees. For a deep-geek conference, I was very impressed. Actively seeking female speakers does not mean accepting lower caliber. It means accepting that women might not submit proposals, but they might agree to speak if you ask them nicely. They might not be *famous*, but they may well be amazing innovators, skilled at what they do.
- Could we do something like MIT did? They commisioned a giant study, measured everything, and found that women were in fact being discriminated against. Their offices were smaller and had fewer windows, their pensions unpaid, they had unequal access to MIT resources. The study painted a grim picture, but then, with true MIT efficiency, they then set out to correct it. Well worth a read, especially if you think we are all just being sensitive. For the record, the ones that stay in the field are absolutely *not* being sensitive. ;)
- Recognize the need for work-life balance. Most women still have primary responsibility for children and home. Women need to be equals at home first, but perhaps companies can make it easier for them to get access to awesome childcare and flex time.
- We need affirmative action to correct the problem. However, other developers need to recognize that the benefits of affirmative action go to women of merit. Not just people who happen to have a vagina.
Problem? What problem?
Um, dude, if your site was loading in 18 seconds but you couldn’t think of any reason for it, would you decide you didn’t have a performance problem?
My experiences with sexism
I don’t usually share this stuff, because I’m not thinking about it most of the time, but these things happened to me:
- I had a manager tell me I should stop writing code and focus on powerpoint and management, areas he found to be more in line with my talents. Was it because I’m a woman? I don’t know, but it does make me wonder how many women get pushed into management too soon, before they’ve had a chance to prove their technical chops.
- At one company, I had to change desks because people kept asking to schedule appointments with a VP who sat nearby. Even after changing, they would walk past two guys to ask me. Someone suggested hanging a sign, “I’m not a secretary.” I was in a new job and I just wanted to fit in and code cool stuff not hang signs announcing things. There were only three women out of hundreds of engineers on my floor.
- A guy whose opinions I usually trust said to me that he believes women’s brains are fundamentally different and that we aren’t wired to understand code. He then said I’m an exception because I’m smart, but I’m still doing something which is against my nature.
- I once had someone tell me:
That guy only wants to work with you because he wants to sleep with you. None of your ideas are that interesting, I’m just saying, don’t get mad, it is the only possible explanation.
Ow. I might never get over that one. It still stings a year later. I don’t want special privileges, but on the other hand, it is easy to see how I’m facing a special kind of discrimination that probably wouldn’t happen to a man. No one is going to assume that a man is on stage because he looks good in a skirt.
Did the guy want to sleep with me? Maybe, we’re human and those sorts of things can come up. It isn’t a big deal. What bothers me is the notion that if he wants to sleep with me, he is completely incapable of evaluating the merit of my ideas. Thus, even if I am granted the privilege of working with him, it says nothing about my skill, intelligence, or capacity for original thought. It is all about my sexuality.
- All the ridiculous, but potent, self-doubt that goes along with being a woman-in-tech. I really am my own worst enemy. Maria Klawe calls it “impostor syndrome”.
- A client asked to have a male coworker on a call with me, though he was several years my junior.
- I was asked to speak at a conference. A guy whose talk was rejected said “you’re so famous, I wish I was a hot girl.”
Where have all the women gone?
I’m so sorry that rmurphey went through these things, and I’m very glad she stayed in the field because we are all better for it.
Maria Klawe also said that even the best women in a CS program are far more likely to drop out than the worst guys. When asked how they think they compare, these women consistently rank themselves far below their actual skill level. This means women aren’t good at judging their actual skill level or comparing themselves to others. They need mentors and a leg up, to help them do it. Women are also less likely to pester their boss until she finally relents to send them to a conference. Again, we need to actively invite talented women.
When Harvey Mudd changed their CS program admission criteria to accept a broader range of people, and stop selecting for the socially-challenged-uber-nerd, they found that everyone’s grades improved. It benefits everyone to have a diverse group of people in our field.
Jdalton, you had made some good points, but at this point I’m less impressed. Are you really claiming that gender discrimination doesn’t happen? What we have here is a complete failure to empathize.
And this is part of why it is great to meet Rebecca and other girl geeks. It is tiring to feel weird and stand out all the time. Ultimately, what we want is to stand out for the quality of our work. In order to do that, we need to eliminate some of the obvious gender inequities and find ways to rebalance the flow of new engineers. I believe this will make our products better, our work life better, and our conferences better. We have to be willing to really change things to make CS fit women better… it shouldn’t only be the women we are trying to change.
Getify, it sure helps, but it is only one small piece of a larger puzzle.