Meritocracies and Women

I wrote my first program around 32 years ago (granted it wasn’t much of a program – I was pretty young!).  So I’ve can talk a bit more about computer history than most.

Right now, in all areas of computing, whether they be gaming, open source, or information technology, and no doubt others I don’t have personal experience with, there’s a problem: everyone I talk to is a guy. For instance, at work, I work on a team with 6 other guys. My boss is a guy. In fact, every boss in my management chain is a guy. We do have a woman on our board. One woman.

Open source is similar. I’ve been active in several open source projects. But I’ve never received a patch from a woman or sent a patch to a woman (yes, I’m making assumptions of gender on the basis of names, so I could be wrong, but probably am not).

But, back to my opening sentence – I’ve been in computing for a long time. I learned about routers, DNS, network cabling, ethernet hubs and switches, etc, from one of my school district’s IT managers – a woman – who made time for an annoying kid interested who was interested in computing. My first boss, at my first computing job was a woman. So was my boss at a second computing job. So was my boss at my third computing job. And so was my boss at my fifth computing job. 15 years ago. I’ve only briefly (for a couple of months) worked for a woman in the 15 years since then. The first 10 years of my work life was pretty much all women, with the exception of one two year stint working for a guy.

15 years ago, the department I worked in was probably 30% women. Today, it’s 0%. That’s a pretty huge change. And lest anyone think I think my company is anti-woman, I actually think it’s one of the least sexist places I’ve worked. Even so, the numbers don’t look good today. Why are there no women at this company I think is probably pretty decent towards women?

What us computer people like to think is that computing – including gaming, open source, and professional IT work – is a meritocracy. If you are smart and work hard, you’ll get rewarded. If you don’t, you’ll be gone. And, for many guys, I believe this is the case – it does work that way. And it used to work that way for women. When someone brings up the lack of women today, inevitably a man who thinks we have no problem with sexism today in computing will do what I did above – talk about the women role models they had, the women who taught them computing, supervised them, and worked along side them. The problem is that the next generation, I fear, won’t have these women. And the other problem is that these women are almost always in the past tense.

I don’t know what happened to the women. But I do know that the meritocracy doesn’t exist, at least not for 50% or so of the population – actually, probably less – a lot less.  I won’t go into how many of my coworkers are white, although I will say I don’t know that the numbers have declined in such a startling way for non-whites as they have for women.  At one point, MOST computer programmers were women.

I’ve heard all sorts of theories to explain how my field doesn’t have a sex discrimination problem. I’ve heard, “Women just aren’t interested in computing.” Perhaps, but the “why” needs to be asked, particularly when they were the backbone of many computing operations not that long ago. What has changed? What hasn’t changed is the ability of women to understand the technical requirements of computing – they understood it fine at the dawn of computing and through the 70s and into the 80s – even somewhat in the 90s, we saw plenty of women working. But that started dropping off at the end of the 90s and has fallen significantly today. I don’t think this can be explained by “math is tough” (see this pdf about wrong assumptions about women in STEM fields).

I don’t think most discrimination is intentionally committed to hold back a minority class, at least not the type of discrimination I see (I’m not saying that doesn’t happen – and it is horrible when it does). No, it’s not a sign on the door that says, “Women need not apply.”  It’s not the post-WWII days when women’s jobs were given back to men:

No, it’s not that kind of discrimination.

What the meritocracy means is that people are rude and aggressive to each other when they think the other’s idea is bad. Men are taught, socially, you respond aggressively back and defend yourself, or you’re a wimp. Women are taught to submit, or their “bitchy” and a “nag.” So who do you think does better in this? Of course being a rude asshole has nothing to do with ability to understand and do technical work – but I’ve seen this in plenty of open source projects, gaming, and professional work (yes, in professional work).

It means that social events outside the office involve drinking. I’ll note that too often rape victims are told that, if they drank, it is their fault they were raped – but even after sending this message (“It’s okay and safe for guys to drink, but women who drink will get raped so it’s their fault for drinking”), we somehow think they’ll want to participate in drinking parties just as much as men do later in life! Because it’s really safe to be around a bunch of drunk men. So the choice is, for someone uneasy about being around drunk men, “Don’t be a team player” or “risk rape” for trying to have a good time. And when they aren’t “team players,” that’s apparently the bad decision.

There are other problems – hours beginning computer professionals are expected to work, types of team building activities, subtle discrimination in school, family friendly policies, etc. And of course there are plenty of men affected by companies that expect all computer people to enjoy aggression, competition, drinking, long hours at work, etc. But sometimes these “great environment” perks impact women more then men.

To many of us in computing, getting a chance to learn and meet people at a conference is a wonderful perk! A good boss will pay your way! Unfortunately, even here, women face problems. If you’re a woman, maybe a board member of a really important open source organization, you might be sexually assaulted at your organization’s conference – and then told it was your fault (she got some pretty awful comments about how she brought this attack on and it was, essentially, her fault). This is a reward to your good employees – a chance at being raped. I know plenty of women go to conferences and have a great time, but I’ve never heard of a guy getting sexually assaulted at a computer conference. It’s definitely not unheard of for a woman to. And I suspect if a guy was assaulted, the reaction wouldn’t be, “You wore a skirt, what do you expect?”

It’s far more than this, though. I can’t list everything, and I certainly don’t understand all the ways we subtly make it clear that computing is no place for a woman. But I can spot a problem. And we have a problem.

Instead of pretending we have a wonderful meritocracy, maybe we can try to be polite to each other and encourage people who are interested in growing, but have wrong ideas (I can’t think of any of my mentors who treated me like I see too many young up-and-coming programmers treating me – thank God!). Maybe we can actually think about the team building activities we do and think, “Is this something everyone – even people who don’t want a competition or an aggressive experience – will enjoy?” (I know plenty of women would be fine with competitive, aggressive team building – but plenty aren’t, and plenty of men aren’t, either).  Maybe you need to think about what it means to be coworkers and a “cohesive” team – does it mean everyone should be “one of the frat boys” or does it mean “we respect each other, help each other, and grow each other?”

But even more than listening to me rant about this…you can try something that would be effective: you might try listening to an actual, you know, woman. You can find plenty of their stories online and offline about why computing is and isn’t welcoming to them. And then you can think, “Are the things that aren’t welcoming so important to us that we are willing to create inequality?” It’s not about not being a sexist pig. It’s about recognizing how actions not intended to be sexist or discriminatory can in fact disrupt our meritocracy.