On "On Women In Tech"

Tuesday July 09, 2013
I just read the inimitable Lea Verou's "On Women In Tech", and I have a few thoughts.

(Hello, Internet.  Please don't leave ten thousand horrible comments on this post, or on hers.  Please, just this once.)

First, I should say that this essay declined to name any specific efforts.  While that is nice in that it avoids name-calling, it does make it a bit more challenging to construct a specific argument.  So, I apologize for the over-general nature of some of my arguments here, but perhaps it's for the best so we don't get involved in mud-slinging over particular personalities or particular groups.  However, I do have to say that there are of course some groups that are more effective than others, and not everything I say applies uniformly.  But I do believe it's generally true.

I really wanted to like Lea's piece.  As someone who is (trying to be, at least) actively involved with outreach efforts, I feel like sometimes those efforts can have a very self-congratulatory vibe, and they could use a bit of honest criticism from within.  This is especially important because much of the "criticism" of feminism comes from … well, let's say, "unsympathetic sources", since I'm sure that if I'm more specific than that I'll activate a particularly unpleasant sort of internet hate machine.

As Lea herself acknowledges, there is a real problem with a lack of women in the software industry.  Women are still hugely underrepresented.  Women-in-technology groups propose a variety of different solutions to this problem.  As someone attacking a solution to a real problem, I feel like Lea faces an additional burden of proof than someone arguing in favor of such a solution; but her criticism falls short in a very important way: a lack of data.

Generally speaking, women-in-technology groups gather all kinds of statistics on both the problem as well as the efficacy of various solutions.  And make no mistake: many of the proposed solutions that Lea doesn't like – women-only or women-preferred events and groups, increasing the visibility of women in leadership roles, and both banning sexualized content from conference presentations and publicly communicating that it has been banned – do work. Whenever I've spoken with my friends who fit (to greater or lesser degrees) into the stereotype that Lea paints of a women-in-technology activist, they know what they're talking about.  Moreover, in the context of Python groups of various stripes, they have the statistics to prove that the things they are trying to do work.  It's important to keep in mind that each of these activities addresses a different audience; not all women are the same, and different sub-groups need different things to get involved.

To Lea, and to other women who have read her post and immediately identify with it, one thing that you may want to consider is that these efforts are not about you. As a woman already excelling in the field of software technology, attracting your interest and participation is not as important to these groups as attracting new people: if you want to increase participation, you must, as a simple fact of arithmetic, get those who are not already participating to participate.  This may mean women in the field who just don't participate in the community for some reason, or it may mean getting women into the field who aren't in it at all.  That means those women won't be like you in some important characteristics; for example, in aggregate, women do identify with their gender more strongly than men do.

Despite her distaste for such efforts, I first came to follow Lea on twitter explicitly because of a "women in technology" effort.  I followed her after making a conscious decision to diversify my (unfortunately still mostly male, unfortunately still overwhelmingly white) twitter stream.  As a result of that decision, I found a list of prominent women in web technology, where I came across her twitter handle.

Am I continuing to be her follower today just because she's a woman?  No, of course not.  She's an entertaining character with a lot of very interesting stuff to say about a variety of technology - browser front-end issues, mostly centering on CSS - that I don't know a lot about.  As a result of her tweets I've read several of her presentations and I'm much better informed as a result.  This knowledge has been useful to me both professionally and personally.  (And, maybe, if she doesn't completely hate this post, it will have benefited Lea as well.)

This is just one example of a general pattern - if, when we notice a glaring lack of diversity, we make an effort to seek out and include members of an underrepresented group, we frequently find that they have something just as interesting to contribute as the existing over-represented group, if not more so. By simple virtue of being different on one axis, we often find that they are different on other axes as well, and therefore have a more interesting point of view to contribute.

(I feel the need to stress that this is not to say that "all women are X, and therefore if we get more women in technology we will get more much-needed X".  That's reductive and probably factually inaccurate for any given X you might select.  The point is that if you pay attention to lots of people you haven't previously been paying attention to, you will, almost by definition, learn new things.)

The point is, I did not follow Lea because I had a "quota".  She did not claim a spot on my twitter stream that was previously occupied by a better-qualified man.  I just made an effort to follow more women and discovered that there were many interesting people I'd somehow missed out on.  And this worked out quite well for me as now I follow more interesting people.

Wherever efforts like this are made by institutional groups - conferences, for example - to ask an underrepresented group to participate more, to give a second look to applications from that underrepresented group - that accusation, "quotas", always tends to quickly follow.  Usually it comes from members of the over-represented group who didn't make the cut, complaining that they're being excluded despite being "more qualified", but the fact that Lea is herself a woman doesn't make her claim about "quotas" any more true.

Generally, the attempt to include female speakers in a conference program is not enforced via a "quota", unspoken or not; there are usually more than enough qualified female speakers, who are, for one reason or another, either (A) not applying, or (B) being rejected by a flawed "objective" selection process.  The fact is that it is very, very hard to tell whether a speaker will give a good talk or not, even subjectively, in advance.  There is basically no objective metric, so we can't say that we currently have a pure meritocracy, since we can't even agree on what merit is, for conference speakers.

Additionally, myriad cognitive biases influence our judgment.  For example, in an often-repeated story, blind auditions radically (50%) improve the chances that a woman will be selected in an orchestra.  Is this because all conductors are knuckle-dragging misogynists?  Well, okay, some are, but for the most part, that's probably not the reason: it's just that we – both genders in many cultures – are primed, since childhood, to regard woman as less capable, and repeated scientific analysis has shown that that bias creeps into our thinking in all kinds of contexts.

(An aside to the dudes in the audience: if you want to be an ally to feminists, the thing to do is never to say "well I'm not a sexist, I would never let gender influence my judgment".  It's to say "I know my judgment might be compromised in ways I can't control, so I'm going to take steps to ensure that doesn't negatively affect anyone".  A good general rule for privileged classes of all types.)

However, even if women were, for some reason, less qualified, and an actual quota were needed to get women on stage at technical conferences, it would still be worth it.  Let me reiterate first though: the women who apply for talks are not generally less qualified, and such quotas are generally not necessary.  One reason that you really don't need a quota for this particular role is that experience is not really a factor in giving a good talk; in fact, it can work against you.

Both of my two favorite talks from a recent technical conference I attended (sorry, no links, since I'm not going to subject the speakers to any fallout from this article, if there is any, but I'm happy to give you a link if you get in touch) were by women who were relatively new to the community about being relatively new to the community.  Of course many members of the old boys' club gave great talks too (myself included, or so I'd like to think) but there's also always a few talks we've heard before, and always at least a few where the speaker just reads the bullets on their slides about some boring thing like the open source YAML parser that they wrote, while standing motionless and staring down at the podium.

The reason that even quotas would still be worth it, if they were necessary, is that, for the next generation of potential hackers, it is very important that women in roles of technical leadership be seen as normal.  Children very quickly pick up on social cues; this is when they are establishing all those pernicious cognitive biases that I mentioned previously.  Lea herself points this out, saying "If you don’t meet many technical women, your brain tends to pick up the pattern".  In fact the entire final section of her article is about "starting early", and addressing young girls rather than adult women.  It's worth noting that stereotypical "women in technology" programs are, of course, already doing this; it's not an either-or proposition.  But in order to convince young women and girls that this is a normal, sensible thing to do, they need to be able to visualize themselves being successful, and that means there need to be visible, successful older women in the industry.

Finally, let's examine a claim that Lea makes:

"It’s not our industry that has a sexism problem, our society has a sexism problem."

While our society clearly does have a sexism problem, it's possible that our industry does in fact especially have a sexism problem.  So, does it?  Let's go to the numbers; the United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains this handy list: "Employed persons by occupation, sex, and age".

According to that list, the total number of employed men in the USA over 20 is 73,403,000, and the total number of employed women over 20 is 64,640,000.  That means 53% of the workforce is male, which is a 3% bias (disregarding, for the moment, issues of pay equity).

Now let's look at "Computer and mathematical occupations".  The number of men in those professions, 20 and over, is 2,834,000.  The number of women in that same group of occupations, in that same age range, is 972,000.  That means that 74% of this workforce is men, which is a 24% bias, or eight times the bias for general employment.  So: yes, our industry, in particular, has a sexism problem.  But, perhaps comparing against general employment is unfair; let's look instead at management, a famously unfavorable field for women, which sports 9,823,000 over-19 men and 6,167,000 over-19 women, or 61% men, or an 11% bias.  In other words, computer technology is over twice as hostile to women in the USA, statistically speaking, than the historically unfair field of management.

In closing, I'd like to say that, despite some obviously substantial disagreement, I think that Lea has some good insight into aspects of the unintentional negative consequences that some of the strategies that outreach programs for women in technology have.  I hope that in the future, she'll return to the topic without resorting to the tired clichés about quotas, political correctness, "it's society, it's not our industry", and falsely equating the consequences of male and female sexual objectification.  There are still many good unanswered questions that she raises, like:

  • How can women avoid being seen as unduly concerned with things like language and propriety, while still drawing a firm line around unacceptable behavior?
  • How can conference organizers ensure that they're not overzealously including talks from women that aren't up to their usual quality standards?
  • What should we do about the perception that women are being unfairly selected when, in fact, this is almost never the case?
  • How can we get the message out to men who are unused to seeing women at their professional events that loudly apologizing only to the only woman in the room for using profanity is probably worse than using profanity in the first place?
  • How can the women-in-technology movement avoid alienating women who are interested in technology for technology's sake, and explicitly because they don't want to be involved with annoying social stuff like being an activist?  What's a good protocol for identifying that way without being seen to repudiate feminism as a whole?
  • How can we get naive but well-meaning men to stop treating all women as ambassadors for their gender, with all the baggage that implies?
I hope that in the future, Lea, and others who agree with her, will take some time to dig deeper into the realities of the women-in-tech movement, and perhaps work with those already in said movement to provide better answers to these questions.  It seems to me that there's more agreement than disagreement here, and that much of what she dislikes is a caricature of the movement, not its essence.