On Women in Tech

Posted on March 27, 2015 by Richard Goulter
Tags: ,

So. This is a topic I see come up at various times.
Broadly, tech/STEM/etc. has many more men in it than women, and so naturally there we need to make efforts to remedy this.

This post has also been a post which has been sticking around in my “Draft” pile for a while. Figured I should get it off the shelf sometime.
This post is also quite long. There may be mistakes. Hopefully no one’s forcing you to read it.

If you’re wondering whether anything here intends to offend or not, then of course it’s meant to offend. Probably you, personally.

The Problem

I don’t think the topic of “representation in tech” need be only about gender. I doubt tech has a good representation of class/race, also. But since the rallying cry I hear is always “we need more women in tech”, and attention/effort for other underrepresented groups is rare, I’ll stick to this.

Anyway, let me take a moment to consider the statement “there aren’t a lot of women in tech”.
The assumption as to it being a ‘problem’ is potentially problematic itself.
Because the underlying assumption of “gender ratio should be 50/50” is awfully difficult to be consistent about, (is it problematic that there’re more women than men in university?); and the accusation is that this is said about positions of power or prestiege (e.g. need more women in higher paying positions), rather than with an indifferent lens.
(It’s fine, I think, to say “tech is high paying and so it serves women’s interests to be more involved in tech”).

Part of this question is about perspective:
Commonly, “why aren’t more women in tech?”. Given that there’re more women in university than men, it’s probably more pertinent to ask “why aren’t more men doing not-tech?”.
Similarly, “why are there so many men in tech?” or “why are there so many women in non-tech?” could also be asked.

Regardless, it’d probably still be interesting to ask “why are there so few women in tech?” (without necessarily presuming there should be more women in tech).
If the answer is “because many women choose to do other things”, then perhaps that there’re less women in tech is an example of women’s right and ability to choose. (If we’re willing to suppress this, and consider that maybe we know better than women what’s good for them, then Ashe Schow’s modest proposal isn’t so unreasonable, right? – At least, “stop fucking studying sociology, then” is a common enough response I hear regarding woman & tech in university).
But I guess what’s more interesting is what obstacles there may be for the women who do go into CS. Since there are some women in tech, it’s apparent that the obstacles aren’t total / insurmountable. (e.g. that there’s no rule saying you can’t enroll in a CS course if you’re a woman). – But if there are obstacles which prevent people from entering tech for arbitrary reasons, it’s going to be worth getting rid of those obstacles. (Because more people in tech = awesome, because tech is awesome. Though, I think if you ask the Art guy, he’ll say Art is awesome, etc. so..).

– If women as a whole do prefer to study things other than CS, I understand the next tactic to take (by a certain class of people) is to call this “societal/patriarchal oppression”, and then figure out what ways we should change society so as to get more women into CS.
– This is slightly different than considering what obstacles there are for the women who enter into CS now.
It’s also not very respectful of women’s choices; i.e. women aren’t really “respectable” unless they behave the same way men behave. (Or, these women deciding what they want to do are obviously not choosing correctly).

I’ve seen the response “there need to be more people in tech; more of those people need to be women.”
For example, here:

“How many more Snapchats do we need?” Reynolds asks. “What we need are apps that are going to solve world hunger, medical issues, and environmental problems.”

That’s right, folks. If you have a penis, you surely can’t write an app to solve world hunger.
– Let’s not restrict anyone from entering, sure. But if you’re going to say there’s a need for more of a certain group, your reasoning had better be good. (‘fewer role models = less inspiration or motivation’, which sounds sensible, is less sexist).


– I was fascinated to come across this from CMU which discussed the question.
A couple of takeaways would be that the guys entered into CS because they enjoyed tinkering around with computers; the girls entered because for the purpose of harnessing tech for some purpose. All entered into CS with the misunderstanding that CS was ‘just programming’. Girls entered into CS with no prior experience, and initially they underestimated their ability.
– I guess not much changes in 20 years. From my experience as a tutor of an Intro CS course, I’d remark that prior experience can be a hinderance to learning. (i.e. if the hobbyist picks up the bad habits, and isn’t able to adapt to pick up the good habits). I’d also remark as a CS Undergrad that estimation of peer ability is going to be overestimation. (Generally, it’s easy to assume that everyone knows what you know, and that you’re the only one who doesn’t know anything your friends know).
But what interests me further is this takes the question away from an “oh those sexist white men in the patriarchy” narrative to a “how can we better market and introduce CS so as to make it more accessible for women”. (Though I guess this comes from the “women don’t know they need to be in CS” perspective).

#FeministHackerBarbie and CS Culture

KnowYourMeme has, as usual, a good detailing of this.
Someone noticed a Barbie-as-a-computer-engineer book which featured a ditsy Barbie. (Y’know. There’s a lot of hoo-hah about representation of women. The notion of ‘this is harmful for girls’ gets passed around an awful lot. e.g. Caroline Kitchens discussing GoldieBlox).
So the feminist was upset at the political nuances of a toy, particularly one which propagated/enforced an unhealthy stereotype, and we get #FeministHackerBarbie.

Sure. But what’s amusing is the followup I saw on my Twitter feed: #FeministHackerBarbie ‘fixed’ the Barbie by having her be an expert.
But more significantly, above and beyond portraying Barbie as a capable and competant woman, she always did things The Right Way (TM), and almost exclusively #FeministHackerBarbie was complaining about someone else’s incompetency.
– Perhaps to the feminists, calling women stupid is bad. The sin of calling the folk in tech ‘stupid’ here invoked the greater umbrage. Feminism met CS culture, and CS culture jumped at the opportunity of mocking the incompetent.

– And this is relevant because it’s an example of CS culture.
There are two very important points to make here:
Firstly, when I say above it’s good to remove obstacles for new entrants to CS, I generally agree, but I have mixed feelings about “don’t be a dick”. (#FeministHackerBarbie is a dick. Not in a “it’s a powerful woman, and that’s scary” kindof way, but in a mocking and belittling lesser people kindof way).
Secondly, the notion of ‘imposter syndrome’. (The feeling that everyone else is much better than you are, and that you’re an imposter among them since you’re not as good).

“Don’t be a dick”

This one I have mixed feelings about.
Moreso because despite what I may say about CS culture and it’s inherent relationship with “being a dick”, I’ve a lot of love and respect for my peers.

Jeff Atwood had a similar thought. Heh.

You’d tend to think there’s no room for discussion about this; you’d think “being a dick” is a bad (and unwelcoming) thing to do, and so any line of thought could start and end with “being a dick is bad, just stop.”.
But even in popular culture, the “genius hero” is often enshrined as a dick. Dr. House is a supergenius doctor, and a major jerk. Sherlock as portrayed by Benedict Cumberpatch is another example. – Even in wider internet culture, it’s not uncommon to see examples of the “smart” people mocking the “dumb” people; e.g. for bad grammar in particular (which perhaps falls close to the dickishness in CS culture).

Programmers love arguing over the most useless of things. The more useless a subject is, the more likely a programmer is willing to argue about it. e.g. which text editor is best, tabs vs spaces, and version numbers are famous examples of this. And yet while these things are useless (mostly), ‘argument’ is still fueled by righteous indignation that one’s own way is better, and the other person is being an idiot for not seeing it.
I don’t think this in and of itself is so bad. But I mean that this “disrespect” is par for the course.

And, you see, there’s a pedantry about all this behaviour; pedantic by training (if not by nature), since the programming languages are formal, so even minor typos and bad grammar, unlike in English (for the most part), are not insignificant. – e.g. Binary search can be difficult.
It’s not so much being a dick because CS folk are nasty, so much as any normal “you hurt my feelings” just isn’t relevant when discussing algorithms and programming. – And just like wider society’s intolerance for typos/bad grammar (which is fine if you’re a writer, but overzealous otherwise), there’s a kind of “intolerance” bred for the inefficient. Or the stupid. (e.g. “Why would you do it that way?”).

Since contributing program or suggestion better be good, you’d better take the time to make sure anything you contribute is of quality.
– e.g. Ben Orenstein’s Expert Level Vim talk. Maybe using the word Expert is just hubris. Maybe it’s that Vim users (ought to) hold an attitude of always looking to improve. But the comments are like ‘This “expert-level vim” is really “first-hour vim”.’. (That, or from people who clearly don’t know enough to call him out on this. But this is a Ruby conference, after all).

For myself, while it’s certainly surprising to find out there’re things I know that some of my classmates don’t, it can be downright disappointing that students attending a “I’m-so-smart-me” prestigious course wouldn’t know fundamental programming/development concepts. Mocking incompetence is bad, sure, but where there’s expectation/demand for some level of competence, then unreasonable inability is an affront.
Of course, there’re many things I’m quite incompetent at. It would be awful if I claimed to be competent in any such area. And so I’d hate to ask a stupid question if I gave the impression that I otherwise knew what I was talking about.

– If I write the above in favour of “being a dick”, it’s because it seems self-evident that in a discussion about being friendlier, “being a dick” can be negative.
But the negative impact of this dickishness is much more insidious than simply “people aren’t nice to each other, and that’s bad.”.
While intolerance for incompetence may drive people to work harder; it’s surely damaging that people aren’t so willing to admit mistakes, or limitations in ability.

– Perhaps another way of rephrasing the problem is “I may be a dick, but you can’t deny I’m effective.”; and characters who live this motto (like Dr House, or recent renditions of Sherlock Holmes) seem to be popular enough. - And I’m not exactly sure what to make of that.

‘When Nerds Collide’

Since I began writing this post, @maradydd’s “When Nerds Collide” came up on my feed.
The author deals with an insidious aspect of this conversation; I would phrase it as the “social justice” movement’s incursion into “tech culture”. (I suppose the “social justice” movement would describe it as giving power to the oppressed / displacing bigotry..).
In any case, the author proposes by the end a “hey, here’s what you could do so that there’d be less backlash.”, after discussing reasons why the “identity politics” of the incurring isn’t going down so well with a culture which values ideas & proofs so highly.
It’s a fascinating read on the issue. There’re some pretty choice quotes/ideas in the piece.

Imposter Culture

So, again. #FeministHackerBarbie is super pretentious/elite about everything she touches.
Fun as that is, it reminds me of “Imposter Syndrome”. - Which is along the lines of “Of course you’re the one idiot who has no clue what they’re doing. Maybe if you ‘pretend’ well enough, no one will notice.”.

Then so long as you never appear to be stupid, no one will know you’re an imposter.
So, appearing “stupid” is bad.
– That’s a batshit insane ethos to hold in tech culture. When you acknowledge there’s something you don’t know, maybe someone else can inform you about what you don’t know. (Or, given how social CS culture is, you can look it up on your own). - Rather, it’s surely unhealthy to feel an “imposter” when you’re par-for-the-course; to feel an “outsider” when others can immediately relate to your experience.

And how this relates to “women in tech”?
It’s intimidating to the students entering into CS, especially if they’re not one of these “hackers” / of the culture. It’s surely no wonder in the aforementioned CMU study the girls’ underrated their ability.

Maybe the above isn’t really a “problem” if it only involves people’s feelings being hurt; perhaps instead people should just put on their big-person shoes and get over it?
Maybe. But I can’t help but thing a culture which doesn’t allow for making mistakes also isn’t all that great for creativity and productivity. (..and individuality, at that.).

There’s a common anecdote of I think something those who don’t program probably don’t understand about computers/programming: “How do you solve this problem? Google it, try the whatever comes up. If that doesn’t work, repeat from Step 1.”. (When you understand the tools you’re using, you don’t need to do this; but when learning tools, it’s unusual to think of anyone doing it any other way.).
I mean, like. If CS is as “world changing” and beneficial as it promises to be, then those who might be discouraged by “but programming is hard / not something I can do” probably need to be told that’s bullshit. (Some problems are hard. But perhaps also programming is so easy that it makes more problems when programs aren’t made in the “right way”. Hmm. cf. “A Generation Lost in the Bazaar”.).

– Maybe it’s nice for CS to have so much ‘elite prestiege’ about it. (Because what could go wrong about telling a society of people who value ideas how smart they are? It’s sure to improve character!). I’m a little concerned to see that the requirements for entry to study CS are becoming so high. - My classmates point out that they wouldn’t have been allowed in on such a restriction. (One such classmate, as a weekend project, decided to reverse white/black on their LED watch. It takes a skilled and willful individual to do such a thing; it’s uncommonly impressive, I’d say. And his grades weren’t so great in high school.).

Newer post Older post