27 March 2013

Yet Another Blog Post About Women in Software

Why say more?

Last week, the Internet burst forth with wild, bizarre vitriol that one dear friend of mine called "Donglegate."  Since I wasn't in attendance at this conference, and since I had exhausted myself chatting with folks about it on Twitter, I didn't think I'd have anything further to say.

But then I saw another follow-up post, this one by Bob Martin, and I felt frustrated. It's not bad:  It does come to a reasonably healthy conclusion that "we need to make the women feel welcome." I agree, but still there is something subtly off-kilter in his use of "we." "We need them" he tells us.

Now, I hope never to live in a world that is so politically correct that we're all walking on eggshells, wary of a lawsuit because we may say something that someone else construes as an offense. Also, I'm not one who subscribes to some form of "blindness" (gender-blindness, color-blindness) as policy in the workplace, resulting in some utopian collaborative environment. Yet I'm also hoping we can do better at preventing archaic bigotry from creeping back into our industry, and our society.

My Computer Science/Engineering college friends, who mostly graduated around 1989, get together for a reunion every five years. I'd say that about 20-30% of them are women.  The last reunion, in 2009, included a tour given by the current ACM student-chapter president. She told us that only about 1% of her Computer Science graduating class was women, and that this was in-line with a downward trend across the country.  That's way down from when I was ACM student-chapter president, 25 years earlier. 

That's just insane.  Why has the industry changed for the worse? 20-30% representation during the Reagan era was bad enough, but 1% in the Obama age is ridiculous.

This is a subset of my dearest old college friends. This looks almost like a Good Old (White) Boys Club. Yet I can tell you there's a lot of diversity represented in this picture alone: 20% women, 20% gay, 10% Buddhist, 20% atheist, 20% (or more) Christian, 10% Jewish, and about 60% overweight. ;-)

Why "We" don't need "Them"

Apparently even President Obama has generated some bad press recently by saying "...when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives..."  Granted, I take this quote out of context to emphasize it, but there's that "us and them" wording again.

The trouble with Bob Martin's and President Obama's choice of wording is that they define the uniqueness of women as it relates to "us" (presumably, us men). The basis is our actual physical differences. And, yes, men differ from women (and for some issues that's very very important), but those differences are entirely orthogonal to the issues at hand: Equal assumption of inherent technical abilities; equality of employment and pay, opportunity and training, safety, respect, dignity, and freedom.

Gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income and affluence, religious affiliation: None of these equate to better programming skills!  All things being fair and equal, given a randomly selected cross-section of the population of software developers, the percentages should reflect the same approximate ratios as the general public.  Approximately 51% of the U.S. population is female.  So something is obviously wrong with a college CSE program that has only 1% female graduates. I don't think this is an NAU-only issue, or an Arizona-only issue. And whether or not you believe the government could or should intervene, you will hopefully agree that there is something off-kilter here. What Would Deming Do?

Teams and organizations need diversity.  Not to meet some government quota, or to make one individual happy, but in order to have important input from people who think differently.

If you read that and think "Oh, Rob is saying 'women's intuition' is critical for success" you are not grokking me, at all.  You would then be falling back on categorization based on attributes (real or anecdotal) that are orthogonal to the skills required to be a great programmer.  I'm not saying that women will notice X or Buddhists will notice Y.  I don't know what they'll see, and you won't know, until it happens.

We cannot predict whose intuition or intellect or experience will shine on any particular day.  A group of great programmers with very little diversity is missing out on that chance spark that occurs when unique people in dialog spot something pivotal (a feature, a design option, a technology, or a blending of technologies) that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

We don't need them!  We need us! All the diversity inherent in our U.S. culture is there, ready to be used in synthesis.  In science, in technology, in business, in politics:  Multiple, diverse viewpoints give us more perspectives, and often provide the insight to try something that no one else has thought of yet.

What can we do?

Here are some things I try to encourage in myself, and in my clients' workplaces.  "Try" is an important word here:  The perfect is the enemy of the good.  I suggest we all strive to do better by trying these out for 30 days. We all make the occasional mistakes.

Check your compass.

Remember, you choose your actions.  Do they really align with what you believe represents appropriate moral action?  Do you hold a double-standard for others?  (Well, cut it out.)

The government makes laws, but doesn't program your Moral Compass. My Moral Compass may look very different from yours, and I may respond to an ethical dilemma differently than you would. (That does not mean that mine is broken, nor that I want to try yours out, thank you.)  Despite our differences, you may notice many similarities.  I've noticed that most every Moral Compass seems to contain The Golden Rule.  (Mine has it written this way: "Don't do to others what you'd rather they didn't do to you. If you do, they will!")

Notice your audience(s).

Be aware of, and take care of, your audiences, both intended and circumstantial.  Can the children at the next table in a crowded restaurant hear your lewd joke? I may laugh, but I'm also going to feel embarrassed for you, and uncomfortable for their parents.

(I'm no prig:  I have learned to enjoy Family Guy, because I'm often surprised by just how far the writers will go.  Yeah, I do find myself repeating the mantra "It's just a cartoon. It's just a cartoon...")

Laughter is mostly a reaction to surprise. But trust me:  You are not that funny.  I am not that funny. Bob Martin is a great public speaker, and he is not that funny.

Besides, people can turn off the TV, but they may not be able to (or want to) escape a conference keynote.

See bigotry as a systemic constraint.

To assume that a person or group is somehow wrong, lesser, or incompetent because of something they are or believe (versus, say, how they act towards others) is counterproductive. Think of it as a constraint to the flow of value. When the team looks at it that way, it removes some of the political and cultural discomfort that comes with talking about emotional topics.  You're simply addressing it as you would any other systemic waste.

Celebrate Diversity!

Like the popular bumper-sticker suggests, but perhaps expanding this idea beyond the person in the car behind you. ;-)

By "celebrate" I'm not suggesting you throw a Cultural-Awareness party each month and force the "minorities" to stand up and talk about "their" culture.  (I think that was the plot of a sitcom episode...or was it a client???) I'm talking about personal, quiet (and heartfelt) celebration: Delight in the diversity of your teams.  Hire based on necessary skills, team-fit, and a well-rounded education or set of life-experiences. Alter the working environment to be more inviting (or at least less uncomfortable) for various groups.  For example, nursing rooms: How many large corporate offices still don't have daycare or nursing rooms?!

Give your System 2 (analytic) brain a chance to catch up.

Notice actual differences in people where they appear, and quietly acknowledge any personal discomfort. Notice when your intuitive System 1 mind falls back onto stereotypes as a poor approximation for getting to know someone. Then do something about it:  Reach out and communicate with those who differ from you. Exercise your tolerance muscle.

Listen with tolerance.

Every peaceful encounter with someone who is different is an opportunity to learn. You learn about them, they learn about you. You learn from them, they learn from you. Trust that the extra effort to get to know someone on your team will eventually "return dividends," either in business or in life.

You don't have to change your mind about your long-held beliefs simply because the other person believes differently, but encourage yourself to imagine what it would mean if their beliefs made sense. The goal isn't to prove them wrong, even in your head. It's to appreciate the astounding variations that exist in our human minds and our cultures.

It's scary, but tolerance is a key ingredient for peaceful co-existence with neighbors, across the ocean, across the street, across the political aisle, or across the gender-divide.


Try to be less easily offended. Imagine how much easier life would be if folks were less prepared to be offended by the words of others, less anxious to be the next victim, less interested in wealth through litigation, less conditioned to "save face."

When someone says something that is insulting to you, consider:  Do they really know you? Did they know you'd be offended?

Speak up.

You don't have to bottle up your response to an insult.  If you're offended, let them know:  "Your comment makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps you weren't aware that others can hear you?"

Then, at least the first time, give them the benefit of the doubt. "Escalation" is not the road to a peaceful resolution. (It's the plot of every "reality" show.)

Caveat: If you feel sincerely threatened, walk away, remove yourself from immediate harm, and contact a trusted third-party.

Two tweets for dessert

Soon after "donglegate" I "tweeted" the following suggestion: 
And Liz Keogh tweeted the following:

Update 08 Oct 2014 (in honor of Grace Hopper):
Tech careers are just "not interesting to women" some conservative straight white males have told me.  It just occurred to me that I have 1st-person access to data that suggests they're relying on a fallacious argument.  The data right here...in my brain.

I teach challenging high-tech courses to hundreds of developers each year, in different regions, companies, and corporate cultures.  I notice some trends in the population of participants.

Alas, I haven't been tracking this data in a spreadsheet (maybe I'll start!), but I have noticed that a very low percentage of participants in my technical courses are women.   (At most 10%.)

Okay, let me say for the moment that I buy the argument (I don't, by the way) that perhaps biological gender differences really are why women just aren't that interested in software (because, you know, being able to sit on your fat ass writing code was a reproductive advantage for men out hunting on the savannah...how?!)

So, why are there even fewer (2-3%) black men in my tech courses?  See, we can't blame that on biology without speaking from raw bigotry, now can we? (Because science.) Well, misogyny is bigotry, too.  The "other" (numerous equally smart, talented folks who are different from the self-reinforcing majority white male tech population at many start-ups and corporations across the country) is being discouraged, likely in many subtle ways.