Woman in technology

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.

Affirmative action

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.

The Twit-storm

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.

hProof that no good deed goes unstoned http://j.mp/c37Dev what a d-bag #jsconf

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?

@voodootikigod maybe they think that giving special treatmeant to someone based on sex, color, age, ect instead of merit/randomness is wrong

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?

@jdalton would love to hear a better way to increase diversity so conversely the CS profession is not dominated by a single gender?

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?

@voodootikigod as long as there are no barriers for them, and I can't think of one, I don't see a 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?

@jdalton having to like dick jokes, having no peers, having ppl make sexist jokes & grope you .. definitely not barriers, nope.

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.

@rmurphey last time I checked right click view source didn't ask your gender.

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.

@jdalton and your point is? my point is: attending & fully enjoying a conf as a woman is weird & i don’t blame some for needing incentive.

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.

.@rmurphey women like you @stubbornella & @amyhoy are well respected in the dev community. is respect not enough for acceptance?

Getify, it sure helps, but it is only one small piece of a larger puzzle.

205 thoughts on “Woman in technology”

  1. GREAT post. Really well done. There is no one great developer than can do it all well. I feel it takes a team. And while members of that team need to have things in common, they also need to be different. Lets face it, different people from different walks of life…see things well differently!

  2. WOW…Nicole that was awesome. I find some of the men’s comments extremely humerous, but I grew up in a house hold with that exact same attitude. I have 5 sisters and one brother, and a father that felt there was no reason any of us girls should go to college. He owned a construction company, and all of the girls could scrap out a house faster than the guys on his crew. I could frame a wall in by the time I was 16, and tape and texture a room or run the wire and put in the outlets. But because I couldn’t hang the sheet rock, dad said “I should use my brain for a job, go be a receptionist ect until I was married.” Well, 200,000 in student loans later (because I couldn’t get a scholarship guys– even with a 4.0). I have undergrad degrees in psychology and math and graduate degrees in Software Engineering and Database Technoligies all with gpa’s no lower than 3.8.

    Yes I gave birth during finals week with all 3 of my children, and I still managed to thrive. I had math prof’s that would subjectively grade tests and my points would always be lower than the football players that I tutored. I had Pascal teachers that didn’t give women A’s because their code was always “shabier” than the guys and ended up with an A-. But probably because of the way in which I grew up, I just took it as a challenge and kept right on going.

    I have learned over the years that I have to work harder to prove myself, I’m not a me, me, me person. I love coding, I love the puzzles and business processes. I was a tech before I was a programmer, and I’ve been in IT for over 20 years. I have taught my 14 year old son both how to build a computer and how to code in Jave, C# and C. I will also teach my 5 year old daugher and my 4 year old son. I think the problem solving ability should be a gender neutral concept. :-)

    I have been blessed with wonderful bosses and not so wonderful bosses. I have always been paid less than my male counterparts, and no I don’t think it’s right or fair. But keeping that in mind, I still make more than my chiropractor husband LOL, and I try to keep a since of humor about it. With that said, as bad as the economy is, and even with the restriction that I place that I will only work from home, anytime I have been umemployed, I have found a job within 3 weeks of searching.

    So…what I would like to see is more female coders out there. But part of that is selfish, I would love to be able to discuss new ideas with other women that understand that I can cook dinner, redirect children and still come up with ideas that have merit, and that actually understand what the hell it is I’m saying. :-)

    Your article brought out some really good points! I hope to see more women that can look past or fight thru the subjective sexism so that a more rounded IT field as whole can emerge. Women have a unique perspective, as many of us have heald the jobs these applications are written for, and we have the added bonus of being a little more empathetic to the end user.

  3. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons has a dog looking up at a cat in the tree. The dog says, “Okay, you can come down, but only if you agree to be a dog.”

    To Daniel Miessler’s comment about how it’s just that CS fields have more masculine traits so women choose not to participate, I think Daniel isn’t aware of just how deep of a problem he’s describing. Why do programming fields tend to select by masculine traits? Why is it that games are mainly hunting, first-person shooters? Could it be that women are not part of the creative process, the decision making process?

    Men are de facto definers of the male-dominated micro-cultures by merit of the mere fact that they had the initial exclusive. The fact that women don’t like to play macho workplace games isn’t an excuse, guys. Squatting rights may define the reality, but they don’t justify how that affects people who come later. What if these cultures were defined by men and women. What if? Until then, I’m afraid we’ll continue to see this discussion arise every few months (alas, every few months).

  4. As a male librarian I have felt a tiny taste of what it is like to not fit in with my professional peers (who are largely women), and I definitely feel like active encouragement of difference – especially at conferences – is to be lauded. Thank you for your thorough and reasonable take on this issue.

  5. Thanks so much for this post. I think it is hard for many male programmers in the field to understand that there is everyday bias that makes it more difficult for the female programmers.

    The biggest one for me is the lack of a female role model/mentor in the workplace. And I have to agree that I am my own worse enemy. I have no abilities in judging my own skills accurately

    I would also like to add my favorite sexist remark — when I tell people that I am a web developer they immediately assume that I am a designer. No way could I be a programmer.

  6. Nicole,

    I’ve been coding professionally for 12 years. I’ve only had the pleasure to work with a female developer 3 times in those 12 years and each time I was better for it. This past year, I decided to go and get my undergrad in Computer science. The first year, we had 5 females in the course. By the end of that year, we had 1. I’ve asked the females who left why they dropped the program, and unfortunately the answer was the same “After I got into it, I figured out that computers just aren’t for me. I don’t dig the geek stuff that much.”

    This makes me wonder, quite honestly, how many females share the same ideology – how many females just aren’t interested, compared to ones that are.

    I would wholeheartedly like to see more female scientists/engineers/developers in the field.

  7. Courageous post.

    I am an attorney so please trust that I understand the obstacles in traditionally male-dominated fields. We lawyers are a stodgy group and if you peek at portraits of partners at large law firms, it is reminiscent of staring at photos of our founding fathers.

    But the one thing I disagree on (and I cannot believe I’m even writing this) is the need for affirmative action (at least as the policy is understood in the US). I am both black and female and have likely reaped some benefit from affirmative action policies. However, while I am not yet prepared to join Ward Connerly in abolishing affirmative action, I am convinced that it is, at best, a short-term solution with long-term adverse consequences.

    In the short-term, affirmative action policies can open doors for under-represented groups (women, minorities, disabled, etc.). But, I believe that the long-term impact is more divisive as you clearly see in the comments to your post as well as have experienced in your own rise in technology. I graduated from the first magnet school in Nashville. I had earned enough AP credits prior to graduation to eventually be able to graduate early from college. There were only 101 students in my class so the expectation was clear that all of us would attend the most selective universities in the nation. I had classmates who were accepted into nearly every Ivy League school. I chose the University of Michigan and, thankfully, it also chose me. But this did not stop a high school “friend” who had also applied but was not accepted into Michigan from saying to me that the only reason that I got in was because I was black. I had two choices at that point-beat his a** (I am a defender of what is just so I have beat down many a bully in my day) or do what I did, which was simply say-okay as I packed up my life and rolled out to Ann Arbor.

    And there have been many other instances where my credentials, my ability, my intellect, and my talent have all been questioned. Although I find it irritating, it does not hinder me from speaking up and trying my best to be both seen and heard. For many women, however, as you indicate, the mere belief that affirmative action is in play, is sufficient to silence them. I have witnessed it first hand with many of the successful women and people of color I know. The long-term adverse consequence of this is that when people from disadvantaged groups attain success in their respective fields, they go silent. They, like you, put their nose to the grind to prove that they are worthy of being there. They try not to draw too much attention to themselves (which could explain why some talented women don’t volunteer for speaking engagements in tech or to work on open source projects) because they are just so damn happy and relieved to be there.

    Instead I would advocate that we skip the affirmative action and focus on empowering the women, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups who are already in positions within leading, cutting-edge and innovative organizations to recruit, mentor and create opportunities for others. This rarely happens now because of the baggage that accompanies the label.

    You have obviously paid your dues and earned the respect of your industry. The next step is to work with others in your industry, men and women, who want to support you because they respect your work. I know that we cannot do this alone but I am a firm believer in not asking for permission to be who I am and to do what I feel my skills and talent allow. And affirmative action feels too much like asking for permission.

    I wish that I had already figured out a viable alternative but I haven’t, which is why I can’t yet bring myself to vote against affirmative action policies. But I would love to brainstorm with others about a better long-term solution and one that will not result in just a few chosen people breaking through the barriers. There is a tipping point and we need to do more so that you aren’t the only woman at the table.

  8. Not sure I buy all this. I have worked as an Electrical Engineer and Computer Programmer for 20 years. Known several Ladies in the industry. Some good Developers Some bad. Several were friends. One is really close, known her for 20 years. They never told me about any frustration with the work environment that we all did not feel.

    I also have friends who are nurses, and a physical therapist. They say that there are challenges to a female dominated field but they did not feel subject to unfair standards.

    Firemen, Police, Engineering, Programming, EMS, etc. are all fields dominated by men. We are not born with a blank slate. Do men have a natural ability, or is there really a better approach to education in these areas? It will take DATA to figure it out.

  9. One “code cowboy” trait I think needs to be added is: It’s not about being élite per se, but rather to make an explicit point of being so – and of others NOT being so. Differences is what matters (as long as it means I’m better, that is).

    Also, I agree completely with the commenter (whose nick I failed to find again) pointing out that the biz is competitive to men as well. The “code cowboys” appear all over and we all have to participate in the “pissing contests”. I can buy the fact that women have to work extra hard in many cases (though I try hard to counter that where I see it), but that does not mean that men get away for nothing. It might just be that we are more prone to “flaunt” our own excellence (think peacocks ;)

  10. Tone? Respectful?

    Is referring to a field which may be or is male dominated a “sausage fest” being respectful?

    I find it curious that when women complain about men or being treated unfairly (as they see it) they frequently bring penis into the discussion in some intended slight.

    Maybe Freud was right.


  11. I’m a bit confused. I am a male professional software developer and I also dislike the attitudes/expectations/behavior you classify as “code cowboy”. In fact, I’ve left jobs where these were the norm because they are just bad development practices in general. But I never expected anyone to remove these barriers for me, or to subsidize a career change because I didn’t like them.

    I agree with Kyle:

    “I honestly think the real focus of scholarship programs, and of blog posts and discussions on this topic like this, should be to help encourage more women of merit to set aside their assumptions and their fears and assertively put their ideas and skills out there for the community to recognize and reward.”

  12. Let’s stop putting each other in boxes. Men and women have far far more in common than we are different. Let’s focus on that.

    There are fewer women in tech because it is not marketed to them. Often it would not even enter their heads as a career choice. The place that changes is in school (high school), where they can be given the option (preferably by a suitable role-model in the field).

    Men in tech, believe it or not, like having women in tech. I met my girlfriend studying for my masters and defer to her when it comes to low level algorithm, and she defers to me for system level stuff. She’s not good at one thing because she’s a girl and I’m not good at another because I’m a guy… we just are.

    Also stop bashing “sausage-party” behaviour. There are no girls around, we are going to act like a bunch of guys. What would you rather? Introspective musings? Self interested pop-philosophy?

  13. Two stories, to illuminate where I’m coming from:

    During my time in the Air Force, I was privileged(?) to serve under an officer who clearly didn’t deserve the position. The position required a minimum score on a standardized test, but in the interest of promoting minorities in the profession, “bonus points” were added to the test scores for being, in this case, a woman and an african-american. The result was to put someone in charge of the system that controlled ICBM targeting who could not manage to understand that the terminal in her office was *not* a trainer, but was in fact talking to the actual system that would control just what areas on the planet might suddenly cease to exist.

    My wife had a four-year degree in accounting with 5 years experience and was working on her CMA. She sent her resume to Robert Half, and was given to their representative that handled bookkeepers. We thought that strange, so the next day I called in, with her resume in front of me, and after answering questions from her resume, I was immediately given over to their accountant rep.

    From the second, I came to the conclusion that anyone who says gender discrimination doesn’t exist is a fool, plain and simple. Sorry to be so blunt, but the facts are in front of your face and if you can’t see them, then you’re probably part of the problem.

    From the first, I gained a distrust of affirmative action programs. But, I’m rational enough to realize this brush doesn’t paint *all* AA programs, just badly-designed ones. And from what I can tell about the Google scholarship mentioned in this article, it’s not targeted at admitting people to a field that can’t do the job; it’s targeted at getting people of a particular class that *can* do the job to come participate in a conference. And that’s a horse of a different color.

    John Medina’s book “Brain Rules” shows a scenario that leads to lower levels of female participation, which appears to be based upon differences in the brains of men and women, and computing in general and OS in particular exhibit nearly every single hindering behavior he notes. If I may interpret some of his observation, he observed that while both male and female brains interpreted “I win” as a positive, only male brains seemed to interpret “you lose” as a strong positive — the girls were interested in seeing who else succeeded, while the boys were interested in seeing who failed. The approach of the schoolgirls seemed to be “I’m smart and you’re smart, too.” while the boys seemed to home in on “I’m smarter than you.”

    As for the question about female OS maintainers, I can start with webchick, a Drupal maintainer. Last I checked, Val Aurora (nee Henson) would qualify, both for her kernel hacking and for her work on ZFS. Margarita Manterola maintains some debian packages. Modesty may have prevented the earlier mention of http://github.com/stubbornella/oocss/network (a small project, true, with only 85 nodes in the network graph, but it counts nonetheless). Then there’s Allison Randall over at Perl. And Sara Golemon at PHP… well, let’s save some electrons and stop the list here. There are enough to prove the lack isn’t because of gender deficiencies, but there are few enough to prove the problem exists.

    I have also seen a woman discover a major security vulnerability in an OS project, and seen the maintainers ignore both the patch *and the problem report*. Guess how many more bugs she’s going to look for and fix? How many times do you tolerate having the door slammed in your face by people that talk meritocracy and act a completely different scenario, before you walk away?

    I went into the list above because the commenter’s tone made me think the point was women weren’t doing (possibly because they weren’t able) those things. They are. But, as the next paragraph indicates, we’re making it harder for them than we should, hence there are not as many as there should be.

    I think it was Fowler who wrote: “I can’t choose whether someone is offended by my actions. I can choose whether I care.” Too many of us have chosen not to care. And *that* is the heart of the issue. If more of us care, the grants won’t be needed.

    Obviously caring too much about it is another problem. But right now the problem is we don’t care enough. We dial it down a bit when we’re with friends, because we want to, because we value them. Why can’t we widen the circle just a little bit value a few more people who might happen to think a little differently than we do?

  14. I would like to offer an alternative view for your first point in the ‘a good developer’ itemization. I don’t believe one needs to like people to be able to relate to or understand them. For myself, understanding people is a lot of the reason that I don’t like them.

    Having said that, I love to help people. In fact, my first love is teaching. One cannot reasonably support a family on a teaching salary, though, as horrid of a State of the Union statement as that is. Programming was the next logical step for me because it combines my desire to help people and my love for analytical thinking, and there is a teaching aspect when training end users.

    At the time I got into programming in the early 80’s it was the abysmal user experience that attracted me. It was clear that programs were written to *do* something rather than to *help* someone. I watched users work almost as hard or sometimes even harder to use software that was in theory supposed to help them do their jobs more efficiently. I also saw that the difference between horrific software and excellent software was often nothing more than the difference in user experience. I knew that was a perfect fit for me, and I have done very well with it for more than 25 years. And, I really love programming.

    One of my very favorite things is seeing my clients and end users faces light up when my deliverable works better than they thought it would, and they can see how much time and effort will be saved. Even after all these years that still gives me as big a rush as it ever has, and is pretty much the whole reason I do this.

    But that doesn’t mean I have to like people to perform my job well. As paradoxical as that might seem it is fact none the less.

  15. First, your presentation at Velocity was great.

    Second, you make a crucial point about role models that (as a white guy) I’d never had to stop and think about before: “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.” (emphasis added if the commending allowed it to be.)

    Because while I can say “Look, I’m sorry people are jerks and programmers in particular tend toward adult-onset Asperger’s, but what do you expect any policy to do about it?”, what I can’t say because it never even occurs to me [white guy!] to ask is “why ever would you be afraid of feeling out of place?” because the suggestion that you can be out of place implies that the narrative of meritocracy (which we like to drape ourselves in as reassurance that our successes are well-earned) isn’t the whole story:

    If somebody isn’t feeling encouraged to do their best because they don’t have a grasp, conscious or otherwise, on what their best can be, then their ability to build and succeed on their personal merits is mitigated.

    Given that, a crucial role for ongoing affirmative action is to encourage early movers in underrepresented demographics to provide other people in their demography with a grasp, conscious or otherwise, of what they might be able to achieve or surpass in the hope/expectation that the (or rather, any given) meritocracy will be expanded and thus more accurate because potentially high-performing people won’t be censoring themselves out of it.

    Anyway, I hope that I’ve properly interpreted at least that portion of what you were talking about because it’s super-lucid to me and is something that a policy (like Google promoting not just a conference to women, but also women at a conference to women) can work to solve for.

  16. Your article was an interesting read but you seem to be mixing software development and computer science education interchangeably. All your statements about what it takes to be a good software developer are entirely correct. I don’t know many Male “cowboy-coders” working as professional software developers. This is a legacy of an earlier time when computers were not significantly abstracted and did require cowboy coders to stay up all night reading obscure manuals and figuring out the system. Fields tend to progress along the lines of Science -> Engineering -> Technical. Software dev is more or less in the Engineering stage right now.

    Now, I’m not denying that Sexism exists, I’ve seen it. I fully believe that women are just as capable as men in the technology field. I believe we don’t see many women in getting a Computer Science education for the same reason I watched about 75% of my first year class drop out before making it to 4th year. People think, “Software is a good job, I’ll just get a degree in Computer Science and I’m set.” Make no mistake, CS is a science, it is not there to train you to be a software developer. You don’t go into Physics without expecting to spend oodles of hours in the lab, late nights etc. Same with CS – though there is a recent trend at some universities to dumb down their CS in order to facilitate these career seekers. I hope the m-f ratio evolves as technology is becoming more accessible, but to truly excel in CS, it is like any other science field. You have a passion and put in the time. CS is a sausage fest, because most of us that survived it were the ones that, at 12 years old, were reading obscure manuals and tinkering and hacking and cowboy coding instead of socializing, playing sports etc. I know several brilliant female Computer Scientists and guess what? They shared the same “cowboy” traits. To put this into context, I don’t know many female physicists, chemists, who did not emulate certain “cowboy” traits in their field. I was friends with one during my time at Uni and we called her the “Lab-Rat” because she spent most of her time there.
    You state:
    “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.”
    That is not the job of a University professor. They explain the theory, you take the theory, explore it, learn it, understand it, make it yours, ask questions when you need to.

    Sorry I get a bit carried away, the stigma that CS is just to train developers grates me. I watched my University systematically remove everything that made it a great science program to facilitate training developers. There are tonnes of IT Tech schools that are better suited for this.

    Now, out of the class room and into the business environment. This is a different story. Cowbody coding utterly fails here. All your points about what it takes to be a good developer are entirely accurate. I don’t believe there is any mental issue separating women from men. I know a lot of good female developers. I work at a company where half the developers are female. The profession is evolving thankfully.

    What can we do to get more women in the field? We need to start young and teach women that is okay to be assertive, it is okay to be confident in yourself, it is okay to take credit for something you did.
    Yes, those that only say “me, me, me” are bad, but really, if you can’t sell yourself, how do you expect someone to buy you? Business environments are highly competitive and by nature selective. You need to assert your abilities. I find that in a lot of fields were there is a perception (real or imagined) of discrimination against women, it’s more often the case they were just overlooked because they did not assert their abilities. This happens to a lot of men as well. Managers are not omniscient. They don’t see all that you do unless you point it out.
    We need women to stand up, succeed, and show the upper echelon that they are just as capable.

    Another thing that needs to be done is increase the interest in the field for women. There is still a stigma of “geek” and that it’s not cool or socially acceptable. Everyone needs a rolemodel to gain inspiration from. We need women in the field to act in this capacity. A lot of it has to come from within. You need to find your own interest in things. This is not something we (guys) can do for you. “What do women want?” F*#k if I know. I’ll be a billionaire when I figure it out!
    It will take a collaborative approach. Both Men and Women need to change in certain ways. Women need to show that it’s okay to be assertive. They need to provide rolemodels for other women in the field, and generate their own interest. Guys did it for ourselves, we created “guy” games that interested guys. Women, you need to tell us what you want!
    Men need to change their perception of women. Part of the problem is the “boys club”. All men are guilty of it. They need to be critical of other men that are acting in a discriminating manner. Guys, you need to ask women what they want.

    Lolz – this was a lot longer than I meant to rant. Anyways, I think the demographic has more to do with interest. Guys know what guys want so we make stuff that interests us. The interest fuels more men into the field and thus perpetuates.

  17. Nicole, I think you have made some very good points here. I would say there is no simple solution to this, but we would need a fundamental change in people’s perceptions. Remember in the olden days how female doctors were looked down upon? No one cares now, and hopefully CS and engineering go the same way. All one should keep in mind is that the person across you is a PERSON, and he/she is capable of anything irrespective of gender.

  18. I am a senior in college studying CS. Gender bias in my major is something I see every day. It doesnt come in the obvious, spoken ways. It’s way more subtle, but it exists in the attitude.

    See, it’s not about whether or not you, sitting right now at your computer reading this article, think women are less qualified then men. Or that a male developer DOESN’T have to earn your respect based on merit.

    It’s about when you walk into a room full of CS developers – say, 25 men and 2 women – The men start at a neutral level in which you neither question or respect their ability, but the women start at a level where you question why they are there, who brought them along or if they know what they are doing.

    It’s about the fact that if a woman sat in the back of a high-level CS class and never asks or answers a question, you would question her ability to keep pace with the class. If it was a guy, you would just assume he keeps to himself or is quietly a genius.

    It’s the innate bias that exists where women have to PROVE their technical chops before being taken seriously at all. Men are assumed to be qualified and are in a position only to disprove their abilities.

    I love my field, but I am constantly having to prove myself.

  19. Great article. I would take some of the thoughts a step further and say that the CS culture lends it’s self to sexism. It started out with men, men who are nerds. These nerds are alienated from women and probably could not even speak with one for the most part and can only comment on blogs. This kind of alienation can lead to a “to hell with them” attitude and therefor “I will treat the few that I have contact with in the way I see bravado guys.” This will most likely lead to a culture of glass ceilings. Its Mad Men for nerds.

  20. Going into the same direction as Ian, I have to say that every time this discussion comes up, I feel a bit torn. Affirmative action sounds so great, but really, aren’t the real issues very much not gender-specific?

    The train of thought almost always seems to be “It’s a jungle out there, and men on the whole are so pushy. We need to support women so they can compete”. Maybe even with the added (in theory great!) idea of “it will be better for everybody, because it will make everybody less pushy over time”. That’s not a gender thing though. I don’t feel competent enough to decide whether men, on average, are more pushy than women (that might very well be); but even if so, affirmative action does not look like a solution to the problem. What you tend to do is put the non-pushy men at disadvantage, while supporting, out of all women, those that are just as pushy as the “average man”.

    On the other hand, if you found a way to actively work against the perceived jungle mentality, you would make the field much more accessible to people that don’t feel accepted in there yet. That will probably include women then, and you killed three birds with one stone: fight the jungle mentality, get women in, and not perpetuate the sexist stereotypes you try to fight, by making out men as tougher and more pushy than women on average.

  21. I have two comments:

    Comment 1:

    “The good developer: Digs the fact that he is making products for people.”

    I think there is also room for people who dive into the problem of inventing algorithms and such without thinking about their practical application in consumer products. However, you don’t have to have an arrogant attitude about it, like the code-cowboy would.

    I dislike code-cowboys as much as the next person because it’s really hard to work with them and their egos. I just think that sometimes the geekery that is low level abstraction programming gets a lot of undeserved flak in this kind of discussions. I think it’s perfectly alright to enjoy writing code for the sake of writing code, regardless of gender. It doesn’t necessarily make you a code-cowboy.

    Comment 2:

    I work for a software development company where there’s probably at least 90% males. There are many different types of people working there. There are code-cowboys, there are shy introverts and there are people that are very collaboration-minded. As always, it is the alpha male code-cowboys that are the loudest and the most obnoxious (and therefore seem to be more in numbers than they actually are). They make male developers question their own skills too. What I am saying is that the code-cowboy is a problem not only for females, but for males too. This sometimes gets lost in the debate.

    Being a guy that has gone to school with and worked with mostly other males my entire life, I can tell you from experience that alpha males are a pain to be around, regardless of field and gender. There’s always going to be a certain percentage of men that are oppressive a-holes to everyone. Maybe it is social programming, but it is my personal belief that the alpha male condition is there from birth for some men.

  22. I love that most (all?) of the dissenters and dismissers are white dudes. You know, because they know better than anyone what it feels like to experience discrimination.

  23. This blog strikes a chord with me. Not only is ego-driven table-thumping cowboy behavior a barrier for diversity, it impedes productivity.

    Women in Engineering have a tough job, and not because of the work. The general attitudes range from patronizing to outright exclusion by many of the more vocal males in most places I’ve worked. As a result, I see many more women move over to management, QA or the product side of the equation. I really wonder if many moved there because they got sick of the “macho nerd” crap. I certainly am.

    I’m looking forward to Engineering departments which don’t tolerate this type of crappy behavior. Sadly, many quietly encourage it with the misguided notion that stereotypical white male jerk nerds make better stuff. I’ve got a good share of ego about my work, but I’ve found over the decades that keeping it in check is way more effective. Getting people on board with an idea (“socializing” for you corporate types), collaborative development, and at a minimum using hard facts to make a point are all superior to the cowboy way.

    Come on guys, stop acting like programming is a martial art. Stop thinking with your hormones, and start using your higher brain functions. It seriously helps you code better.

  24. I never really thought of myself as a female programmer, just someone who codes and happens to be female. I heard a lot of “oh you can’t do physics because you’re a girl.” or “oh you can’t do calculus because you’re a girl.” when I was younger. It bothered me a lot, yes, but I never let it hinder me from doing what I love. I eat, breathe, and sleep code and math, but I also have a lot of hobbies outside of work with somewhat of a social network. I don’t really see a need to choose one or the other.

    It was really different after I got out of high school. College was something else. I was the only female in a classroom of 60 other guys. We were all there to code and beat the pants off each other in Tekken after class. No one cared. It was nice.

    Work’s pretty much the same. Maybe it’s different in the casual game industry, where we can sit and discuss what sort of hardware can run Starcraft 2 properly or how the raid in an MMO went last night. It might be different because I’m the one who loves math the best out of the team (the only two females on the team are the mathematics fanatics. Go figure, right?).

    Well I’ll tell you the advantage of being a female programmer. The women’s bathroom is always empty.

  25. I frequently hear about discrimination against women in CS, and maybe it’s just because I haven’t had to deal with the social dynamic of a big job out in the field (instead, smaller projects, and the whole CS department here at my University), but I really have to say that I haven’t experienced much of an issue with it. Sure, being a woman in a huge group of guys is a bit tough; you feel like you’re getting more sexual attention than you might like, and cultivating close friendships within your area becomes nigh impossible, but none of the problems I’ve faced have been related to discrimination. On the contrary, since I’m a girl in CS and am good at what I do, people acknowledge my talents. I’m treated like a valuable commodity, and awesome benefits are available for me.

    I’m sure that the individual experience varies from person to person, but in my case it’s more of an inconvenience than anything.

  26. Great post. Great responses. I have not read all the responses (150+), but great to see that @fringley has learned something from your post. Unfortunate that @jdalton hasn’t. Wonderful to see allies like @Jamie Flournoy, @John Allsopp . Wish there were more people like them.

    Please don’t change your text based on a @jdalton’s request. Based on an apology, perhaps. Based on him learning the errors of his ways, perhaps. But his request seems like another privileged child, used to always to getting what he wants. This is the exact behavior — not a necessarily male thing or female thing, though it usually falls along those lines — a privileged person expecting someone he deems should be passive (a female) to do exactly what he wants when he wants it. A brat.

    Instead of asking you to not quote his crap, perhaps he should stop spewing it. He doesn’t even seem to find the women he denigrates to be worth following.

    @jquery Sour grapes? Just because someone is successful, they don’t have the right to state how they feel? Are blinders to reality requisite for those who succeed? you make no sense.

    @Kyle Simpson: I know you’re trying, but you’re not quite enlightened yet. Try wearing a skirt for a week. Not that all women wear skirts, but it may give you a bit of insight into what it is like to be made to feel completely out of place – looked at, gawked at, made to feel like you don’t fit in. The comments you receive won’t be the same ones a woman in tech (wearing jeans and a freebie t-shirt) receives, but just knowing what it is like to get comments from people when you’re not even in a conversation with them and what it is like to get comments completely unrelated to your work from those who you used to think were ‘professional’.

    @david wright Yes, in general, women are better at people skills. It’s not genetic. It’s learned. Women are just as geeky. It’s just that they are capable of more than one skill: coding skills and social skills. Women should not need to forget their social skills to be accepted as coders, instead, here is a great place for men to emulate women: male geeks should learn social skills. Men should become more like women, not the other way around.

    So saddened to read that some people don’t even realize that society needs to be changed. It’s not a woman’s role to change the the world. It is everyone’s role.

    Blows me away when men “know” what its like to be a woman, and think women don’t know what it is like to be themselves. Can I recommend some commenters and some quoted people read http://jangosteve.com/post/380926251/no-one-knows-what-theyre-doing Perhaps they can realize that they don’t know what they don’t know, so to the one’s of us who at least know that we don’t know, they appear to be full of shit.

  27. I’ve been a programmer for a long time – but there were many periods in my career where I didn’t actually do any coding, and instead spent a lot of time making PowerPoint presentations, and writing spec documents, project plans, etc. I chose to those things – because explaining and guiding make it possible for us to finish programming projects while delivering the CORRECT product. My job was to literally translate our project goals from “business speak” into something programmers could use, and then to translate the “programmer speak” into something useful and informative for the people that funded our projects.

    So, I wouldn’t take it as as an insult, or a denigration of my abilities, to be asked to go into management, or to spend more time in PPT than C++.

  28. A great article.
    Things indeed seem to be getting worse– when I was in grad school in the late 80s (CS PhD program @ Stanford), my ‘year’ was half women. I think we all felt fairly normal in our chosen field at the time.

  29. Thank you for articulating the challenges you have faced as an American female developer. As a transman, I have had an uncommon opportunity to see gender discrimination from two different perspectives. My frustration with it has only increased as I have been fully accepted as a man and seen previous barriers fade.

    If you haven’t listened to the Hanselminutes episode on “Women in Technology in the Muslim World”, you should find 36 minutes to do so – http://www.hanselman.com/blog/HanselminutesPodcast203WomenInTechnologyInTheMuslimWorld.aspx or http://www.hanselminutes.com/default.aspx?showID=221 it might give you a glimmer of hope that things really can be better.

  30. I find the experiences of transgendered scientists very telling. http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/the-situation-of-sexism/
    They are in a position to evaluate whether they are treated differently by their colleagues when their genders change (but their abilities, of course, remain the same). Bottom line– they are treated very differently.

    I know a male–>female programmer who has some hair-raising stories along these lines.

    [Just as I was about to post this I noticed the comment by @transman above. I bet you have a lot of stories too].

  31. You have made me laugh (out loud many times), even the more misguided comments. So, thank you!

    The best part of daring to write this post has been seeing how many female geeks are out there. We made ourselves visible this week and I for one am deeply appreciating all of you. I’ve added many to my list of grrlgeeks on twitter. (If I missed someone, even if she is you, please message me).

    In case you missed the link, go listen to this video about Egyptian female geeks. It is completely mind blowing.

    That said, I’m ready to go back to coding, so I’ve decided to turn off comments on this post. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and willingness to re-examine assumptions. If you still think sexism doesn’t exist, I wish on you the comments I moderated into oblivion — oh wait, I don’t wish that on anyone.

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