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 Friday, October 12, 2012
On Equality

Recently (over the last half-decade, so far as I know) there's been a concern about the numbers of women in the IT industry, and in particular the noticeable absence of women leaders and/or industry icons in the space. All of the popular languages (C, C++, Java, C#, Scala, Groovy, Ruby, you name it) have been invented by or are represented publicly by men. The industry speakers at conferences are nearly all men. The rank-and-file that populate the industry are men. And this strikes many as a bad thing.

Honestly, I used to be a lot more concerned than I am today. While I'm sure that many will see my statements and position that follows as misogynistic and/or discriminatory, let me be the first to suggest quite plainly that I have nothing against any woman who wants to be a programmer, who wants to be an industry speaker, or who wants to create a startup and/or language and/or library and/or framework and/or tool and/or any other role of leadership and authority within the industry. I have always felt that this industry is more merit-based than any other I have ever had direct or indirect contact with. There is no need for physical strength, there is no need for dexterity or mobility, there is no need for any sort of physical stress tolerances (such as the G forces fighter pilots incur during aerial combat which, by the way, women are actually scientifically better at handling than men), there really even is no reason that somebody who is physically challenged couldn't excel here. So long as you can type (or, quite frankly, have some other mechanism by which you can put characters into an IDE), you can program.

And no, I have no illusions that somehow men are biologically wired better to be leaders. In fact, I think that as time progresses, we will find that the stereotypical characteristics that we ascribe to each of the genders (male competitiveness and female nuturing) each serve incredibly useful purposes in the IT world. Cathi Gero, for example, was once referred to by a client in my presence as "the Mom of the IT department"--by which they meant, Cathi would simply not rest until everything was exactly as it should be, a characteristic that they found incredibly comforting and supportive. Exactly the kind of characteristic you would want from a highly-paid consultant: that they will stick with you through all the mess until the problem is solved.

And no, I also have no illusions that somehow I understand what it's been like to be a woman in IT. I've never experienced the kind of "automatic discrimination" that women sometimes describe, being mistaken for recruiters at a technical conference, rather than as a programmer. I won't even begin to try and pretend that I know what that's like.

Unless, of course, I can understand it by analogy, such as when a woman sees me walking down the street, and crosses the street ahead of me so that she won't have to share the sidewalk, for even a second, with a long-haired, goateed six-foot-plus stranger. She has no reason to assume I represent any threat to her other than my physical appearance, but still, her brain makes the association, and she chooses to avoid the potential possibility of threat. Still, that's probably not the same.

What I do think, quite bluntly, is that one of the reasons we don't have more women in IT is because women simply choose not to be here.

Yes, I know, there are dozens of stories of misogynistic behavior at conferences, and dozens more stories of discriminatory behavior. Dozens of stories of "good ol' boys behavior" making women feel isolated, and dozens of stories of women feeling like they had to over-compensate for their gender in order to be heard and respected. But for each conference story where a woman felt offended by a speakers' use of a sexual epithet or joke, there are dozens of conferences where no such story ever emerges.

I'm reminded of a story, perhaps an urban myth, of a speaker at a leadership conference that stood in front of a crowd, took a black marker, made a small circle in the middle of a flip board, and asked a person in the first row what they saw. "A black spot", they replied. A second person said the same thing, and a third. Finally, after about a half-dozen responses of "a block spot", the speaker said, "All of you said you saw the same thing: a black spot. I'm curious as to why none of you saw the white background behind it".

It's easy for us to focus on the outlier and give that attention. It's even easier when we see several of them, and if they come in a cluster, we call it a "dangerous trend" and "something that must be addressed". But how easy it is, then, to miss the rest of the field, in the name of focusing on the outlier.

My ex-apprentice wants us to proactively hire women instead of men in order to address this lack:

Bring women to the forefront of the field. If you're selecting a leader and the best woman you can find is not as qualified as the best man you can find, (1) check your numbers to make sure unintentional bias isn't working against her, and (2) hire her anyway. She is smart and she will rise to the occasion. She is not as experienced because women haven't been given these opportunities in the past. So give it to her. Next round, she will be the most qualified. Am I advocating affirmative action in hiring? No, I'm advocating blind hiring as much as is feasible. This has worked for conferences that do blind session selection and seek out submissions from women. However, I am advocating deliberate bias in favor of a woman in promotions, committee selection, writing and speaking solicitation, all technical leadership positions. The small biases have multiplied until there are almost no women in the highest technical levels of the field.
But you can't claim that you're advocating "blind hiring" while you're saying "hire her anyway" if she "is not as qualified as the best man you can find". This is, by definition, affirmative action, and while it does put women into those positions, it doesn't address the underlying problem--that she isn't as qualified. There is no reason that she shouldn't be as qualified as the man, so why are we giving her a pass? Why is it this company's responsibility to fix the industry at a cost to themselves? (I'm assuming, of course, that there is a lost productivity or lost innovation or some other cost to not hiring the best candidate they can find; if such a loss doesn't exist, then there's no basis for assuming that she isn't equally qualified as the man.)

Did women routinely get "railroaded" out of technical directions (math and science) and into more "soft areas" (English and fine arts) in schools back when I was a kid? Yep. Studies prove that. My wife herself tells me that she was "strongly encouraged" to take more English classes than math or science back in Junior high and high school, even when her grades in math and science were better than those in English. That bias happened. But does it happen with girls today? Studies I'm reading about third-hand suggest not appreciably. And even if you were discriminated against back then, what stops you now? If you're reading this, you have a computer, so what stops you now from pursuing that career path? Programming today is not about math and science--it's about picking up a book, downloading a free SDK and/or IDE, and diving in. My background was in International Relations--I was never formally trained, either. Has it held me back? You betcha--there are a few places that refused to hire me because I didn't have the formal CS background to be able to select the right algorithm or do big-O analysis. Didn't seem to stop me--I just went and interviewed someplace else.

Equality means equality. If a woman wants to be given the same respect as a man, then she has to earn it the same way he does, by being equally qualified and equally professional. It is this "we should strengthen the weak" mentality that leads to soccer games with no score kept, because "we're all winners". That in turn leads to children that then can't handle it when they actually do lose at something, which they must, eventually, because life is not fair. It never will be. Pretending otherwise just does a disservice to the women who have put in the blood, sweat, and tears to achieve the positions of prominence and respect that they earned.

Am I saying this because I worry that preferential treatment to women speakers at conferences and in writing will somehow mean there are fewer opportunities for me, a man? Some will accuse me of such, but those who do probably don't realize that I turn down more conferences than I accept these days, and more writing opportunities as well. In fact, regardless of your gender, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of online portals and magazines that are desperate for authors to write quality work--if you're at all stumped trying to write for somebody, then you're not trying very hard. And every week user groups across the country are canceled for a lack of a speaker--if you're trying to speak and you're not, then you're either setting your bar too high ("If I don't get into TechEd, having never spoken before in my life, it must be because I'm a woman, not that I'm not a qualified speaker!") or you're really not trying ("Why aren't the conferences calling me about speaking there?").

If you're a woman, and you're thinking about a career in IT, more power to you. This industry offers more opportunity and room for growth than any other I've yet come across. There are dozens of meetings and meetups and conferences that are springing into place to encourage you and help you earn that distinction. Yes, as you go you will want and/or need help. So did I. You need people that will help you sharpen your skills and improve your abilities, yes. But a specific and concrete bias in your favor? No. You don't need somebody's charity.

Because if you do, then it means that you're admitting that you can't do it on your own, and you aren't really equal. And that, I think, would be the biggest tragedy of the whole issue.

Flame away.