Saturday, November 15, 2014

Women in tech: Woman Up!

A lot of energy is spent thinking about the problem of "women in tech". Sometimes the problem is described as "women in science", "women in math" or "women in STEM". But the problem is the same.

The problem is that women are underrepresented in the science and technology fields. Both in academia and in industry.

Gender ratio in itself is not sufficient to make the situation a problem. Gender imbalance within one sector or another is nothing new - what makes tech special? ("Tech" from now on an umbrella term for science, math, STEM, etc)

Tech is special because of what it controls. Tech obviously controls the capabilities it allows - for example, having a math background tends to make one rather decent at calculations. But tech controls a few things that are arguably more important - a great deal of money and power, and something that may accurately be described as "the future".

Let's take a look at the subject from several different perspectives.

Baby based bets

At a very young age, boys and girls are nudged into specific roles. This may occur via very direct manipulations of a child's environment - what toys they are given, what sports or other activities they are sent to on a regular basis.

Often the nudges are not so clear. It is simply the child being a witness to how each parent behaves around one another and their peers. Additionally it is responses the child receives when the child expresses interest in a particular role.

An interesting thing happens to the "macho man" roles - firefighter, astronaut, policeman, soldier, lumberjack, carpenter, etc. As the boy matures, they soon disappear as realistic options. They are not seen as serious considerations as the roles either are not a "career" or they are high risk for little pay. Life as a soldier, for example, typically never leaves the boundaries of a video game console.

In certain "bro" circles, it's quite clear how the career path for men is focused. A gigantic pay stub is in many ways preferable to a gigantic phallus, as it has more practical purposes and its existence is easily proven in a socially acceptable manner.

Do roles for women face the same social pressures?

Campus provides evidence to show how women may not be facing the same questions.

It appears where men are asked : "Where is the money in that?", women face : "How would that align with being a mother? How is this consistent with attracting a mate?"

Women make up the majority of people with bachelor's degrees, by a wide margin - 60% of U.S. bachelor’s degree holders. This is important to note, as having a degree is strongly correlated with the possibility of a career in tech fields. It isn't impossible to be the dropout that goes on to shake the foundations of the tech world, but it is not a very likely scenario.

While women need a degree for a future in tech, perhaps the problem is that too many are choosing to get "a degree". On campus there are some vocation-oriented programs that are filled with women - nursing and education come to mind - but there are just as many departments that are the embodiment of the first-world privilege of studying whatever you find mildly interesting.

Nearly all degrees are disconnected from the "real world" of accomplishing tasks for money. But it is unfortunately not the tech field that is entirely divorced from caring what major a student chooses - in fact the choice often solidifies whether or not an individual will ever enter the tech field.

The women that dismiss tech - choosing nursing, education, "a degree" - are avoiding something undesirable about the tech sector. For the purposes of this discussion, let's avoid the rabbit hole of personal preference - that is, let's assume that women aren't avoiding tech because they "simply don't enjoy it".

What are the negatives of tech?

Perhaps the "feminist" critics are correct when they say women avoid tech as it is something nearing a misogynist boy's club.

On the other hand, maybe tech is a future that is not viewed as stable. Not seen as consistent with motherhood or work-life balance. The tech track is immediately a more expensive upfront investment, both in tuition money and time, that may not pay off if the woman later finds herself merely hoping for supplementary income with reasonable hours.

The question often asked is "Why are there so few women in tech?" when instead it may be "Why are there so many women in the humanities?".

Who is going to challenge the legion of women making arguably unfeminist choices?

It's a clash of feminisms - is it less feminist to challenge the choices of a young woman or less feminist to choose to avoid a high powered career track in the first place?

Those in the business of blasting tech as a misogynist marsh would say that we need not be too bothered with nudging women into tech is the real crisis is that they drop out of the sector in later life. The usual suspects are to blame - in short, women are lonely figures within tech that simply do not receive the support that men take for granted.

To some extent this must be true, but at some point the idea that someone spends over a decade to eventually be undone by gender politics is to deny that women are unique.

A woman in her late thirties, having put in a massive amount of time and energy into creating a few new humans, may have the "problem" of having a mediocre career in comparison to her husband. The idea that at this crossroads in her life the sexual harassment simply becomes too much to handle is an insult both genders from several different perspectives.

Leaving tech at this moment is not questioned. Unless, of course, you're a man. Despite some leaps forward, a dad relaxed about his career is still an endangered species. For as much as women lack an understanding support network in tech, men lack one if they choose a role in the home.

Yet the departure of the woman from the tech industry nonetheless becomes another datapoint in the sea of bogus statistics that drown any sort of critical thinking on this subject. A symptom of a conclusion everyone has already arrived at. Tech is "toxic".

Some people have it worse, and this matters

It is quite simple to derail discussions by stating "others have it worse".

It often comes up in discussions about feminism. It is quite clear that the concerns of women in wealthy nations are not as life and death as the challenges faced by women living in developing countries. A woman living in relative comfort in a "progressive" city with a complaint about treatment in the workplace can be trolled by a comparison to the daily life of a woman living in an extremely conservative culture.

Sometimes the comparison has some merit as many people are guilty of exaggerating the crimes of their neighbors - especially when discussing events flippantly shared online. However many times the comparison is merely a distraction from the topic.

In the case of women in tech, the wider context of women's career choices is fair game. It is not a derailment to consider what women are choosing if not tech and what the workplace looks like outside the tech sector. If women think tech is a bad fit, what do they find is a better fit?

To be clear, the workplace is a terrible place.

Consider the workday of a nurse working with a critical ill patient that chooses to verbally abuse her. Imagine staffing a retail outlet completely alone and facing the risk of being violently assaulted for the cash in the register. (Trigger warning: Very upsetting content, no matter who you are)

The jobs many women find themselves in. Waitress, Barista, Bartender, Chef. Lawyer, Paralegal. Receptionist, Office Admin, Analyst, Trader, Realtor, Saleswoman.

It's a lot of roles that do not sound like a cakewalk, and we have not even started listing the roles people often assume to be especially problematic. Think singing, modelling, stripping - and so on.

In this world, someone has the cojones to write a miles-long essay about how women do not join the tech sector for fear of the suffocating misogyny. Can this be serious?

Behavior more condescending to women than believing they crumble when challenged by a few "brogrammers" is witnessed when the brogrammers themselves wholeheartedly throw their weight behind this patriarchal mollycoddling.

The avalanche of concern typically begins when a woman voices an opinion about the tech industry. Say, for example, what jokes are appropriate in a conference setting. Men of all kinds will line up to get their ally cookie and defend what is now the "feminist" opinion against a backlash of "misogynist" criticism.

In a sense, the "true feminist" opinion is voiced first by the woman that is hurt the most.

It's not feminism. It's not critical thinking. It's just defeatist identity politics. It's victimhood.

The missing link for those that cast tech as sexist is documentation of a considerable population of homo sapiens that chose to leave tech to find a similar role elsewhere to escape the "toxic" environment. Real comparables are hard to come by.

Choosing to become a stay-at-home mother, self-employed writer, painter, musician is not necessarily an indictment of the tech sector. It definitely says something about work at modern corporations, but there is little to say specifically about science and engineering.

Someone needs to leave engineering at Oracle to join a similar corporate behemoth in another sector - for example, a bank, an insurance company, a retail giant. Also sufficient would be someone dropping from their startup to be a middle manager in the tourism industry. A position that is not conceivably one's "dream" or a widely appreciated trek through life would be an apples-to-apples comparison of how women are actually treated in the workplace.

Until that day, it may be assumed that many valid criticisms of tech are often broadly applicable - which means things are actually worse than they may seem when criticism is wound up within a community of bloggers focused in their own business.

This does not excuse tech, but it changes how we may communicate tech to youth thinking about investing a good part of a decade for just the chance to be gainfully employed in a tech job.

Instead of giving the young women the idea that working in tech will make them a warrior princess fighting the old boys club, tell them that they will rarely have to deal with any random sexist customer - people in retail or business have to deal with that.

A long standing icon of women in the workplace has been "Rosie the Riveter". Rosie is an image burned into our consciousness like any other example of war propaganda, but the appeal of Rosie goes beyond simple wartime patriotism.

What's not to like about Rosie's role? Independence, clear definition of success, building tangible goods, fair compensation, a critically important product and a work environment absolutely free of politics. Now, all these assumptions can be said to be the product of a vivid imagination (a lot of wartime jobs were not so rosy)  -- it is simply what most reasonable people would hope for Rosie.

"Rosie the Riveter" is a role that was always an unrealistic fantasy for the vast majority of women -- the key question is, what is our ideal picture of a rewarding and respectful career inclusive of women? What role today is closest to building that goal?

In the big picture, tech is not perfect -- but given certain criteria, say a Bechdel-like test for the workplace, it may win.

Ban the humanities

Issues concerned with women in tech need data. Numbers can easily demonstrate a gender gap. The gender gap within tech fields is largely contained within engineering and computer science. It turns out that women are not even close to equal representation within computer science classes.

... in the United States.

Yes, it also turns out that all analyses of this gender gap are incredibly narrow and focused on western nations. The fact is that women are generally winning education in developed nations. Women easily make up over half of the population enrolled in colleges and universities at any given time in several countries. And this has been the case for decades.

On any campus today, it may be accurate to suggest that there is perhaps one faculty that is not majority women. There are many theories as to the causes of this crisis - one is that the eighties was a decade worse than we previously imagined.

More interesting is that there is an entire world of data waiting to be explored and explained. If rich countries are keeping women from tech, how awful must all the unenlightened nations be when judged by this measure? It must be a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions - there must be a charity dinner organized for this as soon as possible. Right?

In this case, the intuition of many would be wrong. Women make up 70% of science and engineering students in Iran . India also has a higher percentage of women in engineering than the United States. Pakistan has low enrollment of women in engineering, however women make up 80% of medical students - completely inverting the gender ratio in that discipline in a few short years.  Such a figure is unmatched in the United States, where women do not make up even half of applicants to medical school. Compared to gender ratios in science in many countries, the United States and the UK lose out to countries like Turkey and Estonia.

The data indicates that something may be wonderfully warped in the wild wild west. Women are thought to have more money and freedom to do what they want. How could they find tech less accessible?

Perhaps the problem is not actually accessibility - it could be that the problem is choice. It may be no coincidence that in many countries that crush the United States in women's engagement in technology schools also have limited options in the arts and humanities.

It's a straightforward explanation - as hard as it is to be an earning novelist, polemicist, actress or poet, it must be doubly so when not supported by having a language as popular as English as a first language and some generational wealth in the bank. One does not absolutely need wealthy western societies to function as consumers of one's foray into the free expression of singing, dancing, acting and writing, but it definitely does not hurt.

Tech grants people globally transferable skills. Tech is also desired by even the most retrograde cultures and governments. Strangely enough, there are places that allow some women to study engineering but prohibit them from driving themselves to class.

It is the kindest explanation to Americans, typically number #1 in everything, as to why they are not miles ahead in the metric of gender ratio in tech related degree programs. It is also the easiest to explain to individuals, as to suggest to a person that the reason that they are in their career path is that they were manipulated out of the tech sector by being a puppet to patriarchy is not a great way to make friends.

It even may be a demonstration of what some might brand a "white privilege". In that it is ultimately a privilege to have the ability to spend money and several years of one's life studying only the most abstract and individually focused subjects.

The reason that people dislike this explanation of the "women in tech problem" is that it is assumed that this gives the status quo a free pass and that there is not anything gendered in our approach to life paths. The message of many is that men like engineering, women like the arts - and everyone should do what they enjoy, right? So be it.

However if women are finding other things to do on campus, we can wonder why men are not similarly distracted. Colleges and universities should probably not be places where one group of people find sacrificial study while another finds lucrative vocations. It is simply false to assume that university is made up of rational actors following their passions. University is a mass of young people making crucial decisions based on incomplete information about roles, the world at large and even what their desires and skills are.

There is not a simple fix, especially when it's a debate when even suggesting how how broken things are. But it is also not clear that we must be in a constant state of despair about where we are at today.

 Kicking out the meritocracy of creeps

While tech may be better than most, it is clear that tech does need to change.

Among all the criticisms of tech coming from feminist and "feminist" sources, probably the strangest one to digest is the criticism of a "meritocracy". It just also happens to be the best critique, as it wonderfully illustrates some of the reasons tech can be an awful profession or field of study.

As one example of the "meritocracy" discussion, consider when a company named GitHub created a rug with the subtitle "United Meritocracy Of GitHub". First reading of anyone with a problem with such a statement may be - what exactly could be the problem with a meritocracy?

The problem is not the idealized dream of a meritocracy. The problem is plainly that many men (and women) believe they already exist in one or are on the cusp of creating one. Tech is littered with people that think their academic and professional success is an objective measure of their value as a person.

If they are not smart, how did they get an Ivy League education? If they are not productive, why are they paid so much? And so on, the reasoning goes.

It is difficult to accurately describe the soul-killing process that is working with a small army of entitled special snowflakes that believe that the world would be better if only more people would submit to their leadership in study, design and development.

Grading within academic and corporate structures does very little to nullify or blunt the impact of jerks within tech. Explaining to a jerk that they are mediocre is a nearly impossible task - as the jerk truly believes any scheme that would rank them lower than anyone else as flawed and beneath them.

Adding to the problem is the legion of "creatives" that think they have god-mode superpowers within the modern economy. Being in high demand means they do not need to ask the government to provide them any labor protections - in fact, any structure resembling a labor union is immediately derided as curtailing all the innovation they are about to rain on the world.

Beyond disdain for government oversight of consumer and labor relations (Uber is the current poster child manifestation of this hatred) is the idea that one is uniquely able to make a go of it on one's own at any time if one so desires. The concept of a "startup" is so infectious that it may not be an exaggeration to say that the majority of young engineers and programmers believe their garage to be a key part of their Plan B if working a normal job within a suffocating corporate bureaucracy is at all unsatisfying. Bureaucracy in this context can be interpreted as an environment in which verbal or written interaction with other human beings using full sentences is a requirement for project success.

The dream is naturally to become the spirit child of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. A picture of success like any other, except this time even more edgy and authentic!

The plan is often about as good of an investment of time as forming a rock band with one's best friends and hoping a few Metallica covers recorded in a dimly lit basement will the the first of an incredible sequence of events that climax with millions of fans and cash beyond imagination.

It is important to remember that every field, despite all assumptions and appearances of rationality, is populated by a large number of people with their heads firmly up their own rear end. A larger cranium often only means the individual in this condition is in a less treatable state.

While Supplies Last

The comedy of women in tech is how the battle for territory might be a victory in a lost war. The question is about how tech, our society, and our economy will evolve and what we think success would look like.

When it comes to data concerning gender and jobs, it can be assumed that we're looking for the right things in the wrong numbers. The mistake is made continually.

Right now, it's all but taken for granted that tech will see growth. It's booming. For people under 40 years of age, it may be hard to imagine tech going anywhere but up, up and away. And in some way, it must.

The larger problem is that the next generation may be set up to fail - gender ratio in tech be damned. Programming might be tomorrow's typing - a skill learned to be barely functional in a ho-hum low-pay job. What is thought of as technical roles can be expected to change drastically - today's judgment of what is exiled a "technical" skill is going to be thought of as painfully shortsighted. The idea that youth had to explicitly opt-in to learn specific things instead of the subject being a compulsory part of high school is going to sound absurd.

Which part of the tech pie belongs to women does not matter when the pie is defined arbitrarily and the failure is one of absolute numbers. For example, if half the men in computer science classes decided to drop out right this second, it may appear to be a win for economic justice and gender equality. If it's true to say that we need to push more youth through tech, we should be concerned with the proportion of youth overall that choose the tech track. Pushing this number up may push the "equality" metrics down in the near term, but it would be a pitifully irrelevant concern when held in view of the big picture.

Illustrated more bluntly, what are men doing if not tech? Sitting on their couch and hoping for a resurgence of American manufacturing? Getting shot at in Syria? Dealing drugs to supplement income? Living as crazy survivalists in remote areas and fantasizing about the next economic collapse? One would hope that these people would be instead upsetting a gender balance in engineering.

Another problem is the question of value and debt. The United States is arguably selling its youth a completely bogus investments - four year degrees funded by non-dischargeable loans. Buying a house in the lousiest part of Florida may be more educational and profitable than many choices within academic institutions today.

Finally, what may result is that the tech may find some way to fail. The Apollo Program did not make us all rocket scientists, Detroit did not make us all machinists and mechanical engineers, the explosion of finance did not make us all day traders. Similarly, Silicon Valley's charm may wear off quite rapidly as it reaches a natural ceiling, leaving us to wonder how to cut and paste critiques of tech into the next workplace drama.

Ultimately women are smart enough to be champions of technology. Improving early education and being straight with all youth about options and expected results - especially results related to money and lifestyle - can only end in success. Honesty will build motivation. Filling out half-baked surveys that tells an inordinate number of students they are destined to be astronauts or playwrights is a tragic and damaging waste of time.

We have the ability to encourage involvement in tech from all people, without condescending hypotheses of why specific groups are doing something else followed by a train of anecdotes.

Raise expectations, delete excuses.

Women have got this.


  1. There are three points in this which I think need to be taken together along with background information to provide a larger contextual theory for this:

    1. You suggest that instead of asking why there aren't many women in engineering and compsci we should perhaps be asking why there are so many women everywhere else. As you said the data shows women are dominating education at virtually all levels and in virtually all areas save a few engineering/compsci related degree programs.

    2. You also point out that there is an enormous pressure on men to find a job that will provide a stable high income "career". This is clearly supported by research showing men prioritize high pay above everything else... including their own safety, as evidenced by the staggering disparity in workplace fatalities and overtime.

    3. Finally you also point out that women face similar pressures to find a job which provides a healthy work/life balance and is potentially compatible with motherhood. We have research backing up this one in particular, showing that women overwhelmingly prioritize flexibility and work/life balance over pure paycheck size.

    There is a larger context missing here though, one which underlies the entire "tech hates women" line of argument: Nerdshaming. American society is utterly steeped in anti-intellectualism and hostility towards those perceived as intelligent, educated, and particularly "nerdy".

    This virulent strain of bullying is taken to another level entirely by those social justice advocates who have invented such slurs as "neckbeard", complete with practically minstrel level offensive physical caricatures.

    Young women grow up being socialized to despise nerds through their childhood and adolescence, and as they enter adulthood have that further compounded by excoriating screeds about how nerds are not only gross losers but also woman-hating misogynists whose fields of interest are terrible gauntlets of harassment and toxic abuse.

    Women aren't being driven out of tech, tech is a ghetto that non-conforming men are driven into.

    1. You just made up that stuff about "neckbeard". It dates back to 2003, and had nothing to do with "social justice advocates".

      But how do the obviously antisemitic caricatures of Anita "Jewkeesian" factor into your thinking here? And when did advocating social justice become a bad thing, precisely? I missed that memo.

      "Neckbeards are commonly associated with hipster stereotypes and Internet addicts who frequent websites like 4chan and Reddit."

  2. Why do we focus on the handful of subjects where there is an imbalance favouring men? Women predominate in practically every subject in higher education, especially in the humanities, social sciences and medicine. And the 'crisis' is only limited to a subset of STEM fields: in biology there is near parity in most disciplines. It's now well known that women graduate at higher rates, achieve better grades at all levels of education, drop out less frequently, and this year in the UK a *third* more women than men made University applications. The growing difference between men and women is the widest of any socioeconomic gap, even eclipsing the gap between rich and poor. The fact that men thrive in a small number of fields should be celebrated, but instead we get hundreds of outreach initiatives and mentoring programmes targeted exclusively at women in science and tech. In spite of this growing inequality, there are more than 50 all-women's colleges in the United States, including some of the top liberal arts universities in the world. In contrast, there are about 5 men's colleges, (these are all religious seminaries). There is a growing gender problem in education, but it's not in STEM.

  3. I think Tech gets special notice that women aren't in it since Tech pays more and/or has more prestiege; so, the lack of women in Tech is upsetting as opposed to, say, a compulsory National Service for men but not women is typically not as upsetting.
    And that's fine. I think.

    You note a conflict as to which is more "feminist"; coercing more women into studying Tech, or letting women do whatever they want. - I think here by "feminist", I'd examine it as "stop telling me what to do! Let women have liberty in their choice". Thus the 'conflict' is "Stop telling me to study Tech!" vs "Stop telling little girls what they should be. (That Tech is something Women Don't Do". - I suspect which is better depends on whether you think gender is a purely social construct which oppresses women (e.g. Tech is something Women Don't Do), or whether you think the gender differences arise from the freedom to do whatever (e.g. in more oppressive countries, Tech is a necessity more than an option). I suspect the former is more likely adopted by the feminism of mainstream media; the latter more adopted by women.

    Regardless, I think it's still better to tackle why women don't go *into* Tech as a matter of choice (rather than your analysis of why women leave Tech; I guess fearmongering of how bad the industry is doesn't stop women entering other industries?). But, it's lame to merely say "women don't want to go into Tech, so we can't get more women in Tech since it's their choice to not do it".

    I mean, I suspect the reason why men go into Tech isn't purely for the money so much as also because they enjoy tinkering with cool shit. I think this model of "boys like playing around with knick knacks, girls care about people" would apply for many. (It's believable to say Silicon Valley enjoys making cool apps more than apps which solve problems and make the world better). So I think exposing more girls to Tech early on will help for some, if those girls also enjoy playing around with the kind of problem solving Tech involves.
    I think the current narrative is that people in Tech are nerds; and this contributes to why women mightn't want to go into Tech. (Why be a nerd when you're capable of doing something world-improving without the social stigma?). - Rather, I think that if we can rely on the identity that many women care about "people problems" (whether this is an oppressively constructed identity or not), then a better way to coerce women into Tech is to pitch the narrative that Tech can be a viable vehicle with which they can make the world a better place.

    - That said, my understanding is minorities are also underrepresented in Tech. (If women are 60% of undergrads in the US, and the majority in most faculties.. I'm not sure this same statistic applies to, say, minority races). Perhaps the focus on why women are under-represented in Tech is a little narrow.