December 13th, 2011 | Information Technology
As with most Internet debates, the heat to light ratio in the ‘Women in Technology’ discussion is rather poor. The problem is that we never actually get to have a single, complete discussion without it turning into a related one.
Here are a few of the points that people seamlessly pivot between during this discussion, followed by my idea for a way forward.
- Women Aren’t Able To Do The Work
- Most Women Don’t Want To Do The Work
- Women Are Feminized Into Not Liking Tech
- Women Who Like Tech Are Pushed Out By Neanderthals
- Pointing Out That Women Generally Don’t Like Technology Is Harmful
- Women Are Valuable To Technical Teams
- Women Should Be In More FOSS Projects and Startups
- A Path Forward
This is a short post, so I’m not going to dignify this one with any data. The data say this is false. Women have been shown repeatedly to have the cognitive ability to be top entrepreneurs, engineers, developers, etc. For any questions, see Marrisa Mayer. There is plenty of data showing that men are more cognitively extreme than women, meaning there are likely more brilliant (and dim) men, but this applies more to theoretical physics and retardation than FOSS and tech startups.
This seems highly supported by data and I believe it likely to be obvious to anyone not suffering from something like the moralistic fallacy, i.e. someone who wants this to be untrue and therefore fights it at every opportunity.
If you talk to most women in the United States, or heck, in the world, I think the chances of finding one who would like to spend her time programming in her spare time, or living a startup life, are extremely low. And I mean low compared to asking men the same questions. Yes, there are female programmers, but how many love it compared to men vs. doing well at it because it’s a job? How many want to do startups and live, eat, breathe something technical and stressful 24/7? Well, we have a few indications: first of all, only around 1-5% of open source developers are female. For startups the numbers are very similar.
It seems obvious to me from both data and anecdote that most women simply don’t like technology nearly as often as men. And even if they get into it, they get good at it and can thrive but are less likely to obsess about it and take it home, contribute to FOSS projects, and subject themselves to the stress of startup life. This also seems quite natural based on human evolution, which studies are showing as well.
I urge anyone female and highly technical (Yes, I know you’re out there) to do two things: think about how many female friends are like you compared to how many women you have met, know, and are your friends of friends, who think you’re quite the exception. Secondly, keep reading because I’m probably not concluding anything like what you think I am.
This argument says, “Society forces girls to play with pink dolls, and keeps them away from math, and that’s why they grow up and don’t like technology.” The counter argument here, which is backed by data, is that girls naturally prefer certain things without conditioning, and that boys prefer other things. Trucks, dolls, war, babies, etc. The argument can be made that being a highly technical tinkerer and FOSS developer / hacker / startup entrepreneur is one of those “male” things.
I tend to think both are happening to some degree, but with more weight on innate desires due to evolution. But I will certainly not dismiss anyone saying that there’s a feminization influence in society that inclines women towards certain roles, jobs, and careers.
This is the “men treat me differently, don’t respect me, challenge me too often, discount my ideas, make stupid jokes, assume I’m an idiot”, etc. narrative. A number of threads over the years, and at least one personal friend has given me this perspective, and I absolutely believe it to be a real phenomenon in many cases. I’m not sure how anyone can who is aware of his/her surroundings with experience in these fields can deny this.
My answer to this is two-fold: 1) if you know anything about culture, male-female dynamics, beta male issues, etc. you should understand that there is potential for weirdness when a room full of life-long intellectual men are introduced to a female teammate. There are issues with wanting to court her, wanting to be too nice, wanting to punish her in an arena where he has the power for once, etc. Basically, a number of bias layers get overlayed onto the situation so that it’s difficult for things to be normal at first.
And yes, I know there are some teams of men that look right past gender and barely notice and everything is fine. Not all men in technology have these issues, and not all women experience problems, but when it happens nobody should be surprised. This doesn’t mean ignore it, or pretend it’s ok (naturalistic fallacy), but it means you look foolish by being surprised beyond the first time it happens.
Second, I don’t believe this type of negative treatment, which I totally accept does happen some percent of the time (see above) accounts significantly for the lack of women in these fields and positions. It’s part of it, but not most of it. This is a complex sub-point that thirsts for data, but that’s my opinion based on everything I’ve observed and consumed.
It’s hard to refute this. I think it’s absolutely true that some lesser minds will come to the conclusion that because most women don’t like tech, it must mean that the women who do like it aren’t as good at it. That’s highly unfortunate, but we should resist the temptation to silence an explanation of a phenomenon based on it being uncomfortable, or based on the fact that some will draw poor conclusions from it. We should address the poor conclusion, not try to suppress the facts that an idiot improperly used to get to it.
Some take the position that women add something special to teams as a function of simply being a woman.Recent studies have shown that adding women to brainstorming sessions improves the output significantly. I don’t see how someone can oppose this at this point, given the data available. Male-heavy teams seem very likely to benefit by adding a woman to the mix — even above and beyond what the woman brings in terms of skills and talents. There is, by the way, a bit of irony in the fact that it’s due to a fundamental difference between men and women.
This does not follow. The problem is with the word should. Should according to who? Nature? Human Resources? Intergalactic Justice? Who determines how many males should be in certain fields, or how many females should be in others? The problem is that the concept of “should” fundamentally hinges on all the questions above and requires the context of those answers.
So let’s assume you somewhat or mostly agree with what was said above. What conclusions can we draw from these positions, and what prescriptive guidance can we extract from those conclusions that will produce the most benefit for everyone? Here is my summary of the overall situation and how we should proceed:
- It is true that most women don’t want these FOSS and startup jobs that they’re under-represented in.
- It is also true that there are some that do.
- We should be doing everything we can at the education and societal support level to ensure that women who are interested in math, science, engineering, computer science, etc. are not discouraged from pursuing those fields.
- We should simultaneously realize that many of the forces in society that discourage women from doing FOSS or startups or Wall Street trading have been in place for tens of thousands of years, and we shouldn’t conflate the observation and acknowledgment of natural human tendencies within women with evil. Most women aren’t interested in technology, most women eschew overly intellectual pursuits in order to attract men, most women want to have children around their 20s or 30′s, most women want to live stress-free and provide stability for those children. We cannot blame this on men or on evil; it’s evolutionary psychology and it’s harmful to reject truth on the grounds that it’s uncomfortable.
- The fact that this is what ‘most’ women do means nothing. There are millions who do something different, and they should not be mistreated based on preconceived notions that have are often plain wrong. To do so is primitive and backward and it needs to stop.
- That being said, if men raise eyebrows because a woman is the only woman in the room working on the Linux kernel, or pitching a startup, or working 28 hour days on a trading floor while screaming their heads off, they shouldn’t get upset and quit the field because of it. It is noteworthy because it doesn’t happen often, and the sooner women get over that fact the sooner they’ll be able to ask that men get over it as well.
In sum, we should acknowledge that the natural forces that make men and women different lead to differing gender ratios in the workplace while simultaneously building the progressive education and intellectual frameworks to function as if these forces don’t exist at all.
This way when these tendencies do manifest we’re not surprised and we don’t pretend they aren’t present or that they’re something to be ashamed of, and when someone is the exception (as millions will be) we as a progressive and enlightened society ensure they face no resistance on the grounds of what women “usually” do.
This is the only correct way to proceed. Anything less is barbaric — either due to rejecting uncomfortable truth on behalf of emotion or due to using nature to perpetuate discrimination. The sooner we adopt this approach the better it will be for everyone.