Lea’s Pensieve*

On Women in Tech

Most people who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know what I think of most “Women in Technology” (WiT) initiatives. For those who don’t, here’s the gist: While I recognize that they mean well, I think most of them (not all!) are actually doing more harm than good to women in tech. This post is an attempt to explain my views more extensively, at the risk of getting lynched by sexists and feminists alike. Since it’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a while now, it ended up being pretty lengthy, so prepare for a long read.

(Most) WiT initiatives considered harmful

Speaker quotas at conferences

I still remember the first web development conference I went to. There were only two female speakers and their talks got the worst reviews. It was glaringly obvious that one of the reasons they had been invited was to fill an unspoken quota. Did that make me feel better as a woman in tech? Absolutely not. It terrified me. It became one of my worst fears when giving talks. I always feel I have to try extra hard to prove I’m not there because I’m a woman, but because I’m a good developer and I have something valuable to teach. It was the driving force behind my presentation style, my focus on going deeper in the technologies I talk about, my penchant for surprising people with things they didn’t know. I can’t say it turned out bad for me. I do get enthusiastic reviews after most technical talks I give. However, the quota failed miserably in its original intention: To inspire me by seeing other women on stage.

Note that by no means am I suggesting that a female technical speaker is not going to be as good. I’ve seen some pretty amazing female speakers over the years, such as Nicole Sullivan. Heck, I’m female and a technical speaker, so that would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it? I’m only saying that prioritizing gender parity over skills can end up getting the exact opposite results. Overcoming bias against women is one thing, going to the other extreme and becoming biased against men is another, and is also sexist.

I often get invitations to speak at conferences which cite wanting more women on stage as one of the reasons for inviting me (thankfully not as the main reason, but still). Of course, I understand where they’re coming from. If you know you’re going to get a lot of bad press if you fail to have enough women, you are going to prioritize gender in the traits you look for in a good speaker. There are conferences that were forced to cancel because of this, which set some pretty scary precedents and serve as cautionary tales for most conference organizers. It’s human for them to react in such a way, but it still makes me uncomfortable. I want to be invited for my skills as a developer and a speaker, not because I happened to be born with a vagina.

On female role models

I’m tired of being told I will be a good “role model” for other female web developers at a conference. If somebody is a good role model, they’re a good role model for everyone, regardless of gender. I never cared if my role models had dark eyes like I do, why should I care if they are the same gender? It’s equally meaningless. The whole notion that women need female role models springs from the notion that gender is this incredibly important characteristic that defines who you are. I call shenanigans on that.

Also, the WiT movement has given rise to several people who are known solely for being in the WiT movement. I recall a recent discussion with a friend of mine, regarding women in Computer Science she admires. I was very familiar with the first two and had great admiration for them myself: Ada Lovelace, the first programmer and Grace Hopper, the amazing woman who wrote the first compiler, among other things. If someone needs female role models, it should be women like those. But these are great scientists in their own right, and would be role models even if they were male. I was not familiar with the third name, so I asked her what she had accomplished. The reply was surprising: “She fought for women in tech”. Looking her up on Wikipedia confirmed that this was her main accomplishment indeed. Now, I can see how that makes her a great activist, but how does it make her a great scientist? If some of the most well-known women in technology haven’t done much for, you know, technology, what message does that send?

Female-only events

These days, there is a cornucopia of female-focused events: dinners, hackathons, conferences, workshops. Even if it might ultimately hurt me professionally, I always turn down invitations to these. I believe they cultivate the notion that women are these weak beings who find their male colleagues too intimidating. That they need an isolated female-only environment to feel “safe” in and thrive. As a woman, I find it insulting and patronizing to be viewed that way.

Furthermore, if women are segregated in their own little “girl geek” bubbles, how does this help diversity in mixed gender conferences? To eventually eliminate sexism, it’s immensely important that we actually interact, compete and socialize with our male colleagues. It’s important to show that regardless of gender, we’re all geeks and we have much more in common than what separates us. To show that women in tech can be very technical, and that not every woman at a tech conference is a marketer, a booth babe or someone’s girlfriend. How exactly do female exclusive events help in that? Yeah, I don’t see it either.

“I see objectified people”

Ever since the WiT movement started, a large part of it focused on making our industry more “inclusive”. While this sounds like a noble goal, in most cases it concentrated around desperately trying to find examples of female objectification in technical talks, blog posts and even private informal chats. Who doesn’t remember the infamous dongle joke at PyCon which ended up getting two people fired?

The idea behind it is that if there is a photo of a scantily clad woman in a slide deck, women in the audience will think that every straight male there views them as sexual objects and will start feeling uneasy. I have to admit, I don’t fully understand that train of thought. For both genders, there are people we see as sexual objects, people we see as intelligent and skilled, and even people we see as both. I don’t understand how the way people view the woman in the photo affects how you think they will view yourself. It seems like a bit of a logical leap if you ask me.

The picture of the topless chippendale mentioned below

That said, I do think it would be good if this was more gender balanced. I understand how pattern matching in our brains might yield an unfavorable perception of female intellect if we mainly see sexualized women everywhere. So I tried an experiment. In my 2012 O’Reilly Fluent keynote, I insidiously included a photo of a topless chippendale among my other perfectly innocuous slides. I was curious to see if the reaction would be similar to what happens when the genders are reversed. There was a bit of an awkward laugh, but nobody out of the 1000 people in the audience really bat an eyelid. There were even several people who got what I was trying to do and praised me for it. The only person who complained was …a woman that wasn’t even in the audience!

This whole culture breeds an idea I despise and is way more harmful to gender equality than objectification: The notion that women are humorless, easily offended fragile flowers that men need to be extra careful around. The idea that we’re different, and men need to take extra steps to account for that otherwise they will be shamed, often publicly. Who wouldn’t want to avoid that kind of cognitive overhead?

I recently experienced another example of this culture. In April, I was at a developer conference in Vegas, hanging in the speaker’s lounge. I was the only woman there at the time, but I hadn’t noticed. A few guys were having a conversation, in which I wasn’t participating because I was working on my slides. At some point, a guy said “fuck” and then he turned to me to apologize, because I was the only woman in the room. Did I mention I wasn’t even taking part in the conversation? He probably thought he was being courteous, but by doing that, he basically singled me out. Suddenly, I was not another developer among many, I was the only woman in the room. I felt different, the odd one out. By trying to be inclusive, he made me feel much more excluded.

I’m not doubting the fact that such things do make some women feel uneasy and excluded. However, we need to keep in mind that today’s adult women were not raised in a vacuum. They grew up in the same patriarchal society as today’s adult men, and carry the same heavy baggage of several preconceived notions of gender. For example, many women subconsciously carry the idea that sex is degrading for them and therefore sexual references make them feel uncomfortable. Men, on the other hand, subconsciously believe that sex is empowering and are perfectly comfortable making such jokes. This duality is very deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious and the fact that rape is still pretty common only solidifies it. Unfortunately, most women fail to see the effects of patriarchy in themselves. They believe it only affects men and only they should change. However, if we ever want to achieve a truly gender equal society, we first and foremost need to fight the sexism within, and that applies to both genders.

Is sexism in tech a real thing?

I’m merely advocating that most current WiT initiatives are not helping. I’m not saying that sexism doesn’t exist, in tech or elsewhere, even if I might not agree with everyone’s view of what constitutes sexism. For example, I was recently at a dev conference in Waltham, MA, where speakers were not wearing badges. When I asked for some water, an attendee advised me to “pretend I’m with the conference and get a water bottle from the conference buffet”. I could assume he thought I wasn’t with the conference because I was female or because I wasn’t wearing a badge. I know many people who would have assumed the former, but I found the latter a much more plausible explanation. Occam’s razor, people!

There are however some pretty unambiguously sexist behaviors, and I’ve experienced a couple examples myself. A guy once said “I never thought a woman could write such advanced JavaScript!” and thought he was complimenting me. An old friend once told me “Come on, you can’t say that the fact you’re a pretty girl didn’t play a role in your professional success!”. And the list goes on, although I have to admit, mine is not a particularly long list. I’ve heard some way worse horror stories from other women and I have no reason to doubt them.

However, I can’t say that I’ve experienced more sexism in tech than outside the industry. Quite the contrary. Engineers (yes, including male ones) are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met. It’s not our industry that has a sexism problem, our society has a sexism problem. In many cases, a lot of what we consider sexism is just pattern matching gone wrong: If you don’t meet many technical women, your brain tends to pick up the pattern. It even happens to women and I know a few who were brave enough to admit it. Instead of shaming people, it would be much more efficient to change the pattern in the first place. Which brings us to the next section.

Is it futile to try and get more women in STEM?

Absolutely not. It infuriates me to hear people use the tired old line that “women just aren’t interested in engineering”. However, I don’t believe this is going to happen with quick fixes, like the ones most WiT initiatives are focusing on. You can either get good results, or quick results, but not both. The reasons that most women today are seemingly not interested in STEM go way deeper. This SMBC comic perfectly illustrates the point I’m about to elaborate:

Boy toys and girl toys

Have you ever been in a toy store recently? There is the “boy toys” aisle, promoting action, building stuff, doing things. And there there’s the pink aisle, full of dolls, miniature stoves, washing machines and plastic tea cup sets. Most “girl toys” prep girls for very traditional female roles: being pretty, cleaning the house and taking care of babies and other people. Given how most girls grow up, it’s a miracle we get female engineers at all!

Furthermore, in children’s books, movies and ads, women are depicted as a less capable minority. Women are half the population, but only 1/4 of characters in family movies. Even those women are almost always in supporting roles while the main hero is male. The only chance women get to be the protagonist in children’s movies is the old tired princess trope, in which the girl is also ultimately saved by a guy. There are entire blogs devoted to this phenomenon, and if you’re interested in the issue, I suggest you take a look, especially if you’re raising kids. How is this related? It’s well established in psychology literature that our perception of our potential greatly affects what we can accomplish. Confidence plays a very important part in professional success, and girls growing up today aren’t taught to be confident, except when it comes to seducing men.

Most WiT initiatives target adult or teenage women. However, by that age, most of the damage is done. Yes, there will be some women who are receptive, perhaps women who were always interested in those fields but didn’t get the chance to look at them more closely, so these initiatives will yield some results. However, they will never manage to achieve gender parity, or anything close to it, until the underlying cause goes away. Of course, that will take years of concentrated efforts, so it’s not as attractive for aspiring gender equality activists.

You want more women in STEM? Start early. Teach your girls to be creative, to build stuff, to develop analytical skills. Teach them that they can be awesome. Tell them they’re smart, praise their skills, not just how pretty they look. Try to keep them away from toys and media that perpetuate a traditional view of women. Educate other parents. Yes, it will take at least a generation, but I’m confident that done right, the results will be more significant than all these female-oriented events put together.

PS: And for those of you that want something quicker, please stop calling them “girls”.

1 year ago
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    I personally believe this applies to any field that women are a minority in. However, I agree with the final though of...
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  5. giosensation reblogged this from leaspensieve and added:
    Lea’s lucid take on the whole women in tech frenzy. A great read, as usual, and lots of food for thought. «It’s not our...
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    excellent post
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