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.