Today a friend of mine brought this article to my attention. It was also shared on Twitter, and you know how those things go. The article is pretty standard stuff; I swear they could generate these things with Markov chains.
A warning: this post will be rambly. Even more so than my normal posts. I have a handful of thoughts on this subject that are only loosely connected, and I’m using this post to publish them all, miscellanea-style.
An extremely quick refresher for those of you reading this on a bunch of rocks: tech has a gender problem. Engineering departments are about 15% women. This is said to be indicative of deeply-rooted sexism that actively excludes women from these fields and roles. The proposed solution is to take various steps across a range of strategies to make these positions more inclusive towards women.
You know what I have always wondered? How will we know when sexism is officially solved? Presumably, there is a problem and we would like to fix it. How will we know when it is actually fixed? What milestones are out there to allow me to wake up one morning and say “our work is done here. Time to move on”?
There is a tendency for people who want to change the world, to be more concerned with the process of changing it than with the result of the change. This is bad. Poorly specified goals, combined with extremely enthusiastic supporters, are the raw materials that bad leaders subvert to do bad things. Even in the absence of sociopaths, poorly specified goals lead to lost focus. People constantly striving for change, without really knowing what they’re changing things into. People spinning their wheels, making no progress, because they haven’t defined progress.
So, just as a prompt for conversation: how will we know when the tech industry is no longer sexist? What are the victory conditions? What is the actual, concrete goal we are working towards?
The article linked above could be handily summarized by its title: “A new study shows how Star Trek jokes and geek culture make women feel unwelcome in computer science”. The assertion here is that a quirky geek culture is off-putting to women, and this causes them to avoid the field of software engineering.
Let’s take a moment to just sit back and appreciate the absurdity of this thesis. Just take it in.
Software engineering is a skilled profession. It requires a special kind of mindset. It requires specialized skills, acquired through rigourous schooling and/or years of experience. When done right, it is a massively valuable force multiplier; a good engineer in the right place can generate over $1M/yr of revenue for their employer. But, it’s easy to do it wrong, and bad engineering can be extremely costly.
In short, it is not something that just anyone can do. It requires smart, talented, driven people, working hard. Most people will not succeed at this. And that’s ok. Why should we expect them to? People don’t expect that everyone can be a doctor, or a lawyer. Why is this different?
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the abilities of female engineers. Every one I’ve met has been just as capable as I am, if not more. This is more than the linked article can say. If you read between the lines, the article’s implications are insulting. It profiles the lives of millennial, college-educated women. These are the nation’s best and brightest. Sent to the best schools, graduating top of their classes. These people will go on to apply at the best employers in the world, making ~$150,000 USD/yr in total compensation at a Google or a Facebook, fresh out of college.
This article asks us to believe that young adult women who are so kick-ass as to be able to do the above, are so frail and fragile that a passion for Star Trek is enough to permanently bar them from this path.
Just let that sink in.
Imagine we’re talking about med school, instead of engineering. Imagine we are profiling women going in to med school. They have perfect grades, perfect extracurriculars. They pull of a perfect entrance essay, and a perfect interview. But then, one by one, they turn to you and say “nope. I can’t do this. Star Trek is just too dumb.” What would your reaction be? Mine would be dumbfoundedness. You can handle studying twelve hours a day for 8 years of your life, but you can’t handle Patrick Stewart’s Enterprise? This is an insult to all the brilliant women I know and work with.
When I went to engineering school, the mechies and civvies would often organize golfing trips. I, being a sparky, preferred to stay in the IEEE lounge on campus and play Smash Bros with my colleagues. To this, the mechies would scoff. “Playing golf is important”, they’d say. And they weren’t wrong. If you want to build a solid career in mainstream corporate (North) America, you have to go golfing. Teams get bonded over golfing. Business plans are discussed over golfing. This Is Just How It Is. When I turned down golfing invitations, the mechies didn’t hear “Simon doesn’t like golfing”. They heard “Simon doesn’t think his career is that important”.
Of course, I work as a software engineer, and our norms are a little different. We don’t wear suits and ties. We don’t go golfing. But just as mechies have their cultural quirks, we have ours. Ours are geek chic. You don’t need to talk about your golf game. You do need to talk about science fiction.
In a sense, this is arbitrary. Outsiders who don’t care for it see it as a barrier to entry, spitefully keeping them out. But it’s more complex than this. Cultures arise organically to bring people together. Engineers don’t talk about Star Trek to exclude non-geeks. They talk about Star Trek because they like Star Trek. It’s a Schelling point to organize around, socially. Culture is illegible. If you go around removing everything just because you don’t understand it, it will collapse. You would think people who maintain software projects would have a better appreciation for this.
I have a personal confession: I’ve never really liked popular science fiction. I had never in my life seen Star Trek before 2013. And believe it or not, this came up pretty frequently in various semi-professional capacities. So I read enough Wikipedia to hum a few bars and muddle through conversation. I watched it, eventually. And everything worked out fine.
The entire discussion above is misframed. Why should there even be one engineering culture to criticize in the first place? Google reports that there’s six hundred thousand software professionals in the States. Do you really think that every single one of those 600 kilopeople has the same superficial taste in media? If they did, that would be cause for alarm.
Software engineering, like every single other profession and social organization in the world, has niches of all shapes and sizes, all over the place. Hate Star Trek? Find the team of six that hates it as much as you do. There’s a hundred thousand of them; luck is on your side.
We talk about this theme a lot here in Status 451, and we do this because it is critically important. People seem to have this unshakeable tendency to universalize their preferences. Star Trek repels and excludes women, therefore there can be no Star Trek or, at best, it must be trivialized. For reasons unknown to me, the idea that there could be multiple cultures running in parallel falls on deaf ears. There’s more than enough people, places, and work out there for everyone to be happy. Why should we impose misery on group A just to make group B happy. Make everyone happy!
Why should we even care about inclusiveness?
We hear about how important diversity is so often that asking this question seems bizarre. Even as I write it, I feel dirty, as if I’ve outed myself as a bigot. But I don’t mean any subtext by this. Just the idea: Why should we care about inclusiveness at all?
Everything in life is going to be biased in one direction or another. Even in a perfectly fair world, there will still be random fluctuations and network effects. Facebook will have a different userbase from Twitter, which is different still from Vine. Why? Who knows. It’s arbitrary. Burrito shops will have different patrons than sandwich shops, which in turn will be different than the shawarma stand. Womens’ studies classes will still be overwhelmingly attended by women. So why is inclusiveness suddenly so important?
Granted, arbitrary barriers are bad for their own sake. Status 451 feels strongly that individual freedom and autonomy is good, and artificial barriers are bad. But artificial barriers are not things like a weird culture. Artificial barriers are things like unnecessary credentialing requirements, which add a literal cost to entry. Things like restrictive protectionist work permitting (the reason why I can’t make double my current salary in California). For the most part, tech is really good on these measures. Because code speaks for itself, a person with an active github account will be preferred to the Ivy League grad who is all talk and no substance. Because all one needs is a laptop and the internet, it is very easy to work remotely from anywhere in the world. We’re not perfect, but we’re far better than comparable professions. There isn’t a hospital in the western world that would hire a self taught highschool dropout as head surgeon.
But just because there is an inequality, doesn’t mean it’s forced, and doesn’t mean it’s bad. This goes back to my question at the beginning. An answer to the question “how do we know we’ve succeeded?” implies an answer to the question “how do we know something is wrong?”. I have a nagging suspicion that most would-be reformers’ instinctive answer would be “when engineering teams are 50/50”. But this is not a good answer. It assumes that men and women both equally want to be engineers. Given how nebulous gender categories are, it is not a good assumption to assume that both groups will be identical in aggregate. It also assumes no comparative advantage. Perhaps it turns out that women are comparatively better at things other than engineering. In that case, we would expect them ‘overrepresented’ in those fields and ‘underrepresented’ in this one. And it assumes no random fluctuations.
I’m a big fan of empowering people, giving them the tools to do what they want and live the life they want to live. I am not a fan of top down social engineering. It is one thing to give someone the tools they need to be a successful engineer. It is a very different thing to demand that engineers change their culture to facilitate a newcomer’s success. Nobody should be imposing their cultural preferences on any group. And if someone has to, I give priority to the people with seniority. They’ve already proven their worth.
So I ask again: why should I care about inclusiveness at all? In a world where all unfair, artificial barriers to entry are removed, then no matter what, however things shake out, we know they were fair. We know they represent what people want, and what people are willing to work for. If I live in a world where every smart, capable, driven female engineer is gainfully employed, and there’s still 4 men for each one of them at the office, where’s the harm? If anything, it sounds like at that point, ‘getting more women into tech’ is coercing women who don’t want to be there to be there. How is this a good thing?
And in a world where there are robust frameworks to facilitate all kinds of people living together, working and playing and communing and living their lives, why should I care how they cluster? In a world where every man who wants a male-only engineering team has one, and every woman who wants a female-only engineering team has one, and every person who wants a co-ed engineering team has one….. where’s the problem? Is it really a tragedy that there are teams that don’t balance perfectly?
I think my question is more reasonable than it first appears. I think, deep down inside, most people agree with me. Why? Because “inclusiveness” only ever seems to apply to certain groups of people. If you’re only concerned about including women, you’re not concerned with inclusiveness. You’re concerned about women.
This is rather personal for me, because myself, as well as many of my engineering friends, are neurodivergent. Many struggle with depression, suicide, anxiety, and bipolar disorders. Many are on the autism spectrum. Many are diagnosed ADHD.
They have been marginalized their whole lives. Essentially every engineer I know was routinely physically assaulted in elementary school and jr. high. Many had parents who couldn’t handle their weirdo status, and ended up emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusing these future engineers. They have been constantly socially excluded. Almost all of them were virgins until their mid twenties (the women, too). They have suffered much, much more exclusion than the upper-middle class white women in tech ever have.
Most of geek and hacker culture falls out of this. Hackerspaces popped up as clubhouses for the socially marginalized, where they could go be weird together. Many of the original successful startups were founded by two or three weirdos who created a space they could thrive in. Geek culture was a place where all these outcasts could come together and celebrate the random esoterica that they were passionate about.
When would-be reformers come along and say “this weird obsession with Captain Kirk is driving women away. It has to go,” they don’t think this is a big deal. To them, it’s just quirky people refusing to let go of their frustrating quirks. To them, it’s an arbitrary barrier to entry for women to become engineers. And, being arbitrary, it is unjust and unfair.
The existing geeks and hackers feel differently. For them, these engineering spaces were the only place where they weren’t excluded and marginalized. They spent their whole lives, suffering social, emotional, and physical abuse, and finally found their own safe space. As luck would have it, society values it, too, and the hackers and geeks have done fairly well for themselves.
Suddenly, a bunch of people are trying to take that away from them. In the name of inclusivity, even! It’s just like high school all over again. The jocks and normals and cool kids are coming to beat us up and take our stuff. Heaven forbid we have one moment of peace.
And for no reason! Because this situation is not symmetrical. If someone comes along and says “that thing you like, I don’t like it. Stop doing that thing,” then at most one person will be happy. But if someone comes along and says “I wish I could be an engineer, but I just can’t stand that thing. I wish they didn’t like it,” this admits a second solution. Let the freaks and geeks have their weird culture, start a second engineering team. Embrace the pluralistic patchwork. Somehow, this is never seen as a viable strategy.
If I could communicate one single thing to the world, contributing my part to engineering culture, it would be this: All of the things that are obnoxious, weird, unpleasant, problematic, about hacker and geek culture, that is what their safe space looks like. If you want to create safe spaces for other people, that’s great! Everyone deserves their safety. But by coming up to an existing safe space, pointing at all the weirdos inside, declaring them problematic, and displacing them to create a safe space for another group, that’s not inclusion. Inclusion would attempt to accommodate everyone. Displacing one group of people to accommodate another is just a culture war. War is hell. We’re better than that.
You gotta remember, this is an ideology that says rape is worse than death but refuses to punish female rapists of male victims.
They don’t care that the women have the same endless choices their male associates do, merely that the male associates have something that the women don’t. Hell, the entire article is trying to make men responsible for women’s decisions.
Ya see, women are oppressed because people mock them on twitter and men are privileged even though 23% of men who report being abused by their female spouses are arrested instead of her due to laws implemented by feminists.
I don’t disagree with you, not entirely, but I’d prefer to tone it down. Just as “men are the ones in power” does not imply “therefore all men have power”, “women are the ones pushing this” does not imply “all women act in bad faith”.
The reality is that most women, like most men, are just regular normal people who are tired of this noise, noise, noise, and just want to live their lives in peace. The people writing articles like this are bad-faith leaders who are cynically rabble-rousing to enrich themselves. Not all women. Just the ones who play along with the protection racket. This is a horrible offense against _all people_ who are affected.
Well said, very well said. I try to do my bit of campaigning against inclusiveness, but it’s a difficult struggle. The general population has never thought much about this, and has been schooled to believe whatever the SJWs say: inclusiveness is good, women are excluded, etc.. Yet these are not general truths. In fact, 30 years of concentrated effort has *reduced* the number of women in software development. Who can blame them? As a woman in software today, you are always under examination: Are you ok? Has anyone harassed you? Tell us about how you have been treated? Subtext: how weird are you for choosing to work in this field? Yuck, no wonder they stay away…
As for being social misfits: yes, you are right: Most of us were physically and emotionally abused throughout school. However, this was a generational thing. In my son’s generation (he is as much of a software geek and gamer as I ever was), this is accepted. Probably there is now some other group getting pummeled, but it’s no longer the computer geeks.
Even in this next generation, the software geeks are still almost entirely guys. So what? As long as each *individual* is free to choose their path, it doesn’t matter whether more guys or more girls choose any particular path. That’s the bottom line, and that’s where we need to fight against the SJWs.
One thing I’ve taken to doing:
Whenever someone starts bringing up “Women make 77 cents on the dollar” in software engineering circles, I turn to everyone and say “ok, what do you make?”. Almost every time I have done this, it turns out we are all paid roughly equally. When we are not, it is due to reasonable differentials. For example: the graphic designer who came in on a graphic designer’s salary, got re-classified as a front-end engineer, and did not get a pay raise. Given how often the rest of us had to do this person’s work for them, I am ok with them being paid that much less.
As an aside: if women are being categorically paid less than men, I would strongly advocate for solving this by providing women with more salary transparency, and giving them resources to help become better negotiators. The first step towards salary transparency is everyone honestly answering “so what do you make?”
“Whenever someone starts bringing up “Women make 77 cents on the dollar” in software engineering circles, I turn to everyone and say “ok, what do you make?”. Almost every time I have done this, it turns out we are all paid roughly equally.”
Ah, so your anecdotal evidence beats a statistically sampled survey.
What is the real number of Muslims that are terrorists?
Marconi, the statistically sampled surveys *also* indicate that men and women are paid equally for their work – it’s just that men work 77 minutes on the hour.
Isn’t the 77 cents number calculated by comparing the mean of all women in all industries to the mean of all men in all industries? Not by comparing same-industry same-experience men and women?
Speaking of individual choice, the problem starts at the age where individual choice is considered OK to ignore. Some people say it is OK to teach girls to be shy, damaging their self-confidence in the process. Some people say it is OK to buy children toys based on gender and ignoring the child’s preferences. Whatever the culture inside engineering is, to do engineering work you need to like to tinker with stuff and you need to have confidence that you can fix everything on the long list of mistakes, and next time these people will say «OK, now that’s a job well done». You can change that part, too, but we already have too much «people will like X» overriding «X doesn’t work and is actively dangerous».
I honestly don’t think that most of this comes from an honest desire to include women. And, really, orthogonal to my main point, but this isn’t even about _women_ not even superficially. It’s about well socialized neurotypical women, which, for some reason, are taken as representing all women everywhere.
But the issue with what ‘women’ is code for aside, I think drives like the one mentioned above come from a desire to post what, I believe, Scott Alexander calls ‘intellectual gang sings.’ See, techies like their weird interests, and taking those away shows power. It allows you to win, to demonstrate your high status. “I can take anything away from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” What greater message of power can there be?
The fact that it is done in the name of some greater good or other just makes the victory sweeter: it’s not just winning over an opponent, but doing so for righteous reasons.
Why do I say that this is not about a honest desire to include women? Because it doesn’t work. And any attempt to test it out in reality will show that it doesn’t work. I teach computer science, and only about 15% of my students are women. That 15% does as well in their studies as the remaining 85% (if you use a test adjusted for different group sizes, obviously) and I’ve purposely blinded myself to gender when grading. And my own (biased) picks for ‘best student of the year’ tend to be about half/half, too. But there’s only about 15% of them. Why? Because as far as I can make out, women _don’t want_ to be in CS. Those that do want, are, and are doing just fine. And can you blame them for not wanting in? Programmer are, after all, insane, and the frustrations that programming (let alone learning programming) imposes are hard to bear unless one is twisted in just the right way.
For some reason more men are twisted in this way. It could be cultural. It could be something else. I honestly have no idea. But there’s nothing you can really do to CS to make it not weird. It’s a job in which you stare at cryptic notation day in and day out and you can’t stop until that cryptic notation and the recondite processes it encodes seem as natural to you as human speech. This will make you weird. No choice in the matter. Weirdness comes with the territory. I’m not American, my native culture is very much not like any Anglophone culture (which you can likely tell by my rather wonky grasp of English), and yet when I meet coders from the US we may not agree on what constitutes good food, good manners, or a good family, but _somehow_ we share this same essential weirdness down to neurodivergency that seems to come up with the rations.
So, no, I don’t think painting math pink is going to solve anything and I don’t think the people who suggest this or getting rid of the inessential weirdness of tech really care that it won’t. I will be a kick in the teeth for a low-status group and that’s all it takes. Various identity activism groups are almost entirely colonized by opportunistic sociopaths who have manipulated themselves into a position where they can indulge themselves with impunity while often reaping not inconsiderable benefits. Rather tellingly msscribe of the legendary msscribe story is now in social justice. As further evidence, may I just point out that pretty much all research about diversity training shows it has an opposite effect, and how nobody seems to care.
You could arrange for everyone to be happy, certainly, it wouldn’t even be that hard to do, but for the originators of these articles that’s not the end goal.
 Not necessarily Star Trek, I find. More that they tend to have an intense opinion on Star Trek which is as likely to be negative as not. That said, there _is_ a techie cluster of pop-culture interests that’s heavy on the science fiction. And why wouldn’t it? These are people who are, almost by definition, fascinated by technology. Why wouldn’t they be interested in literature/media that shares this facination?
 Which famously included command line interfaces which… I just… what?
 If I was a social scientist and, thus, licensed to make this sort of trouble, I’d go to a company and do a sham diversity training session wherein I’d pick a random subset of the employees and tell everyone how different and special they are and how they have to be extra careful when talking to them and see what happens then.
At one level, I get it. I’ve been in tech a long time, and I’ve suffered through all the denigrations of my hobbies such as D&D and Star Trek and Star Wars and videogaming and so on. It’s hard not to take that first paragraph as anything other than a class slur, and then the rest of the piece as scapegoating us for a problem for which everyone in our culture (including us!) is responsible.
And yet, diversity will serve us, and our needs. It makes us smarter. We will come up with better solutions, and those solutions will have more impact if we have more people who aren’t like us on our team. This isn’t me blowing smoke, it’s a solid result with 20 years of research to back it up.
We need to figure out how to find a place where we feel ok about ourselves and our own hobbies AND welcome people to the field who aren’t like us. I don’t think we should bury our hurt feelings, I think we should work on understanding them better. That’s what’s going to lessen their impact on our lives.
On the one hand, yes, diversity is a positive. On the other, is it us (e.g. techies/engineers), or is it the rest of society who effectively has discouraged generations of women from pursuing technical/math/science careers? On the gripping hand (see what I did there?), is the solution for us to change our cultural fundamentals?
That last bit is what (sometimes) it feels like what OP is talking about. Yes, I am absolutely certain there are some bits and definitely many people over the years who have intentionally made it harder or attempted to exclude women. I have the sense that has somewhat changed over the last decade or so, in general. But fundamentally what is that causes women, and specifically young women, to not _want_ to sign up? Is it that society has raised them to dislike what the tech culture (e.g. Star Trek, etc) likes?
That’s where I think much of this research should be, try and look at broader society to see if it’s discouraging women from going into those types of careers, just like the stigma that girls aren’t (shouldn’t) be good at math.
I don’t think assigning blame is all that valuable. I think the valuable thing is to look at the process, figure out how it works, and how to intervene. No, you didn’t make D&D and Star Trek seem really uncool to young women. But remember that the women that slurred you aren’t necessarily the women in the classes we’re talking about. They might be just as scared of getting slurred as you are.
I kind of hate the first two paragraphs of the piece, as it appears to say that liking Star Trek or whatever is the problem. But the last two paragraphs are much better. They talk about the teacher of intro classes, who hold a lot more responsibility for making those classes welcoming than the students do. It suggests not so much taking things away as adding them. Putting in pictures of landscapes etc, along with pictures of circuit boards. Who doesn’t like some Ansel Adams?
How do people with ADHD become engineers? It doesn’t seem to compute for me at all.
I don’t even have real ADHD, because my symptoms got worse, not better after adolescence, and engineering school was a rank impossibility for me, simply because doing tons of boring homework and memorizing lots of emotionally uninteresting data isn’t something I’m capable of doing.
Many employed programmers are substantially self-taught, either having not gone to college or having picked up programming on their own while studying something else (which I believe to be nearly unique within STEM). Programming also requires little intentional memorization; I think most people refer to documentation until they remember, and even my few CS classes were very heavy on projects with only one or two closed-book tests. (This is not, I think, the case everywhere, but I would distrust the results of a memorization-intensive CS program.)
Also, I always found it much easier to focus on programming–I struggled keeping up with homework in most of my classes, but could stay glued to a programming problem for hours without even noticing the time.
Here’s a sample metric. Suppose I find that the graduation rates of women in computer science is about 27% and of men is 54%
How will we know that the problem has been solved?
When the ratio of computer scientists is about 1:2.
We can discuss the merits of the metric or seek refinement but statistically we should find some correlation.
If the argument is that more men get advanced degrees, then sample advanced degrees.
Doesn’t this presuppose that there are no biases to the number of women in tech before college graduation? My personal theory is that the warped, twisted culture in American public schools does a fair bit of suboptimal gender segregation, especially in the industries favored by folks towards the bottom of the school popularity hierarchy.
I guess there are generally two modes of thought in the world. Optimists: Those who think someone else will come along and fix the situation for them. Realistic Pessimists: Those who have had experience observing many situations malfunction, are aware of present risks, and alternate their course in order to find a different outcome.
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