Thread by request: the year of whining about women in tech

Addie writes in an earlier linkspam:

Violet Blue wrote about the women-in-tech issue today and although I normally love her, the implication that nobody has been able to accurately answer her question really bothers me, and leaves room for the commenters to speculate wildly. So much fail in the comments. Would love some GF insight.

What insight do you have, folks?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

26 thoughts on “Thread by request: the year of whining about women in tech

  1. M.

    I haven’t seen a really excellent response to her questions in the blogosphere — but to be fair, I don’t spend that much time here. If I remember correctly, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and someone at Feministe (Jill?) tried to address this a few times over the years. I remember thinking that they seemed to have a solid background feminist and legal theory respectively, but that they didn’t know enough about the tech sector to really pull it off. They tried, though, and they did pretty good jobs for people outside the industry. I just wish they could have put it in terms my guy friends would get.

    The only people I’ve seen tackling them successfully have been academics. If I remember correctly, Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science: Tenth Anniversary Edition and Has Feminism Changed Science? by Londa Schiebinger are the places to start. Both focus on science, but they have enough references to computing history and the modern tech sector to be worthwhile. To this day I photocopy some of those essays and pass it out to my guy friends who just don’t get it (yet).

  2. jac

    In response to the question “why should there be more women in tech?” I put forward a thought experiment:

    I find it interesting to contemplate where the industry will be in a few decades time. Whether all or half of the potential talent is participating in the industry will make a huge difference to what’s possible.

    I ask you to think of all the IT workers you know of. Picture them in a hierarchy. Imagine you have arranged them from most skilled/talented/gifted to least. Now imagine that some catastrophe has eliminated every second one. *

    Half of the people you think are barely competent are gone, half of the brilliant innovators also gone, half of everyone between; gone.

    Now imagine what it looks like to heal that loss. It’s pretty easy to replace the people at the lower end of the skill/talent range, but at the top, it’s much harder. You’re probably best off to “promote” people up the hierarchy to fill the top spots, as you’ve lost access to half the finest minds in the industry, and horizontal transfer from other disciplines makes poor role-fits, not to mention that you’d be depriving other fields of their brightest minds. The healing re-shuffle might work okay, but the loss of half the intellectual potential in the IT industry would probably be palpable for generations.

    How much worse off would the IT industry be if this catastrophe were applied across the board?

    Further: imagine the ramifications of this catastrophe if it were applied retroactively, and the loss of talent happened thirty, forty, fifty years ago? All those people vanishing, all their unique insights lost, all their work never coming to be.

    Today, for whatever reason, about half of the IT talent pool is being eliminated from participation. In case it’s not already obvious, I will state explicitly that this is a problem because the impact of the loss of potential this represents for the field is as great as the loss described in the thought experiment above.

    Okay, you might say, IT has done okay so far without all this deliberate inclusion of women. Some things that one person worked out would have been solved by others sooner or later. But imagine how much more advanced we might be in IT (and other technical fields) if half the brilliant minds over the centuries had not been excluded through condescending assumptions about the ability of women, fashions dictating appropriate occupations and especially through expectations that women are to see to domestic and reproductive duties which free men up to to do “important work”.

    Just consider for a minute (if you usually don’t) that it’s true that women are as intellectually capable and technically adept as men, and mourn with me the loss of all that talent and potential.

    Today, this year, this decade; we (or really, mostly men working in IT) get to make the decisions about whether, thirty, forty, fifty years hence, the field of IT will be drawing on its full potential by removing barriers that exclude women from participation.

    *I am aware that there will be women in the sample of IT people, but please permit me this gross simplification for the sake of the experiment.

    1. Restructure!

      This is excellent.

      I think the underlying issue is that most people can’t imagine that women are as intellectually capable and technically adept as men, so concerns about the underrepresentation of women are seen as “helping women” and/or lowering standards.

  3. Dorothea Salo

    Somehow I don’t feel much need to spend mental effort debunking what is an obvious silencing tactic.

    Sorry, Violet. You can’t shut me up. You’re not the first to have tried, either.

  4. the15th

    Wait, why are we engaging with this question? Why are we allowing her to define “it’s the right thing to do” as a cop-out answer? Consider for a moment not just tech in general, but basic scientific research in those fields, the kind that companies don’t do much of anymore because it’s not instantly profitable and that our public sector is disinvesting from. The number of jobs is, if not fixed, close to it. Increasing the number of people who try to go into that kind of research, either by ending discrimination or encouraging more interest, creates a situation where only a very few get jobs, and a lot of those jobs are poorly-paid postdocs. The next generation will figure it out, and fewer of them will go into science and tech fields in the first place. Unless the people who don’t go into tech because of the jobs crisis are the ones who aren’t as good anyway, we haven’t really gained anything in the sense Violet Blue means.

    End discrimination because discrimination is wrong.

    1. jac

      On huge problem with “do the right thing because it’s right” arguments is that they do not carry any weight where the focus is on what’s profitable rather than what’s right.

      The author of the article under discussion is not a lone voice, they are asking a question that IT managers, employers and other industry shapers are asking: “What’s in it for us?”

      We can fluff around being outraged at the lack of egalitarianism this implies, or we can face the reality that the IT industry is infected with corporate culture of “profit before all else” and point out the very real advantages to broadening the talent pool by including women.

      If we want them to stop asking this stupid question, we need to answer it so profoundly that they feel stupid for asking it. It will take time and repetition, but I can’t see an effective alternative. If we ignore them, they won’t go away.

      1. Carla Schroder

        I’d like to think believe that jac, but if reason actually worked against bigotry, there would be a whole lot less bigotry.

        1. jac

          But reason *does* work and there *is* a lot less bigotry.

          If you are resolved to throw away approaches that are not an instant 100% cure for bigotry, be sure to stop using the ‘discrimination is just wrong because it’s wrong’ argument, too.

          Using logical arguments against bigots is not perfect, and it’s not an instant fix, but that does not mean we should abandon it as a means of combating illogical bias.

          Even if it’s impossible to change the minds of the bigots themselves, countering their propaganda with logical replies for the benefit of the ‘audience’ is absolutely necessary if the spread of their beliefs to impressionable minds is to be curtailed.

        2. Carla Schroder

          “But reason *does* work and there *is* a lot less bigotry.”

          LOL, do you really think so? You must not live in the US.

        3. jac

          I don’t live in the US.

          But I don’t live in the 1950’s either. I can hold a job after I’m married and everything!

          There *is* a lot less bigotry. Reason *does* work.

  5. dillene

    Agree that this is largely a silencing tactic. I would also argue that we need more women in the tech sector for the same reasons that we need more women doing everything else: 1) this discrimination is unjust by nature and should be eradicated by purposely and actively including parties previously discriminated against; and 2) technology, like everything else, will improve faster by having more people engaged in it rather than fewer people.

  6. Kate

    If you’re a woman, do you want to be a lesser than? Do you want to make less money? Have less power? Be dependent on the other gender for all time? If so, then don’t worry about the ratio of women in tech/ engineering.
    Women need to be in tech because tech is a position of power and money and it’s wrong to exclude women from that position.

  7. Bruce Byfield

    I don’t see the need to answer a question like this. It’s enough that some women want to be more involved in tech, and that doing so isn’t illegal or unethical. Female sufferage didn’t become a reality because everyone was convinced by a cost/benefit analysis that it would be a good thing for society. The same goes for all the improvements created by second wave feminism. They happened because they are a natural extension of the rights of the individual that modern industrial society is supposed to be based upon.

    More importantly, if you do provide an answer, those who demand it are only going to pick it apart, say it’s not good enough, or else find another reason not to support it. Challenges like this are rarely made because the person who makes them is open to being convinced. Instead, challenges are made to shut you up, or to distract you with irrelevancies.

    Under these circumstances, why let your opponents set the agenda? You’re never going to convince them, so why make the mistake of playing their game?

    1. Alice

      “Don’t let your opponents set the agenda.” I find myself telling people this often. I know of too many campaigns that waste significant time reacting to the opposition, whether it is developing slogans to counter their slogan, press releases to counter their press release etc. It is enough sometimes to disprove their ideologies through example.

    2. jac

      Again you’re making the mistake of making a moral argument where the industry, the economy, the system you need to convince doesn’t register “fair” only “profitable”. The people in the system are looking for employees and investments in the here-and-now, not ethical challenges for the ages.

      And it’s not comparable to suffrage. Come on. In that situation, there was a law preventing women from voting. There is no law preventing women from working in Tech, so the comparison can be trivially dismissed by the people you are trying to convince.

      Motivating the tech industry to actively make the cultural changes required to bring about equal access to tech roles in reality as well as in law will take more than a “because it’s the right thing to do.” argument.

      When taking active steps to do the right thing puts a company at a temporary competitive disadvantage, it’s not going to happen *unless* there is a long-term advantage and the company in question has an eye to the long term.

      The question is; does the tech industry want to have access to the smarts of the entire population, or only half of it? If it wants the smart women out there to consider, study, persist with and participate in tech, they’d better bloody well stop treating anyone with breasts as p0rn with clothes on, or the tea-lady, or a tourist, or there to provide them with dating opportunities. Further; they’d better stop assuming that women in tech aren’t as capable, aren’t as worthy of being taken seriously enough to train or promote or send to a conference, would love to take that PA role that’s being offered. And they’d better stop concluding that the “best fit” for their team will be a male because all the existing members are male and then theorising that there are so few women in tech because women just aren’t good at/interested in tech.

      When people ask “why should we go to any effort to fix something that ain’t broke” silence is not a useful response. I am astounded at the number of replies in this thread in which people declare that this question is a silencing tactic, and announce that the appropriate response is…. silence.

      I think that’s an own goal. To be silent is to appear that the question has stumped you. Silence is taken to mean “I don’t have a good answer to that; your premise is true.” The person asking that taunting question is seen to have won, is seen to have ended the discussion by proving that you. have. no. point.

      For crying out loud, people! Just answer them. Answer them pithily, answer them often, make it clear that their question is daft and trivially answerable. Demonstrate to any watching that there is a simple answer to that question, and that even if they don’t agree with you, they need to find a new question, a new argument to support their belief that the IT industry is Just Fine without the participation of half of the brilliant minds in the population.

      It’s not rocket science.

      If the cultural changes are not made, the tech industry will (continue to) suffer. Relative to industries which do include women, relative to places where women do participate freely in tech… sections of the tech industry which remain hostile to women will (continue to) suffer.

      If you want to bring out the big-guns of shame and offense with a side serving of cultural imperialism, point out that by maintaining a culture which excludes women, the tech industry puts itself on a level playing field with cultures which don’t let girls attend school at all.

      We ‘whining feminists’ are, ironically, inviting the tech industry to leave behind a medieval/1950’s style attitude toward sex and gender and join the 21st century where utilising the potential of all of the human resources available is the greatest competitive advantage of all.

    3. Carla Schroder

      I think you’re right, Bruce. Talk is cheap, and this particular issue is as old as the hills. There is value in helping people to clarify and articulate their own thoughts. GFB has been very useful to me in this regard, by giving me a vocabulary and concepts to frame my own thoughts and experiences.

      You’re 1000% right about “if you do provide an answer, those who demand it are only going to pick it apart, say it’s not good enough, or else find another reason not to support it.” No kidding, like all the little feces-throwing Linux monkeys who just can’t admit that an actual woman might have some idea of what her own experiences are. I think it’s worth expressing a clear, unambiguous position (“discrimination is wrong, diversity makes us strong, and you are a backwards sexist poopyhead”), but engaging in any kind of debate over the same old crud that’s been rehashed to death is a waste of time. Better to steam ahead and accomplish something concrete. Let the chimps natter; we have work to do.

      1. Carla Schroder

        Though there is a simple answer to “Why should there be more women in tech?” Because many of the ones who want to be here have been chased out, and many who might have wanted to give it a try were obstructed. How? Many ways, starting from childhood, by means both subtle and blatant.

        The next question is should girls be encouraged towards tech careers? Sure, why not, just like boys. As someone said here long ago, a lack of diversity leads to a lack of imagination. I would add a dearth of sane moral values as well.

  8. spz

    If a woman must be twice as good as any man to survive in the IT industry, you’re likely employing some mediocre guy even though you could have gotten some woman who was one-and-a-half better.

    Is that a concise enough answer? :)

    1. Bruce Byfield

      “And it’s not comparable to suffrage. Come on. In that situation, there was a law preventing women from voting. There is no law preventing women from working in Tech, so the comparison can be trivially dismissed by the people you are trying to convince”

      See? This is why you need to be careful about responding to criticism.

      I could argue that the sufferage movement was not simply about law but social attitudes, but no doubt I would only get a response disagreeing with my interpretation, and get drawn into a discussion that did nothing to help anyone.

      It’s only an analolgy. If you don’t care for it, choose another one and move on.

  9. AMM

    There’s another reason for diversity in tech that I haven’t seen mentioned:

    By excluding people of group X from tech, you are also any insight as to how group Xers may see your product.

    For example, my impression is that the people who produce computer games are overwhelmingly male. I also have heard that many? most? computer games turn most women off. If 50% — or even 10% — of the writers were women (and didn’t feel they had to apologize for or hide the fact that they are female), the industry would have a built-in resource for recognizing when they are alienating half of their potential customer base. Isn’t the potential for doubling your sales worth a little consciousness-raising?

    (For “women”, you can substitute any traditionaly excluded group.)

    1. Pavlov's Cat

      That’s great, except that women (or any traditionally excluded group) are not a set of identical clones connected by a hive mind. I won’t necessarily like a game because it was written by a woman, just like I don’t like every book that was ever written by a woman. There is no such thing as ‘what women like’, and no other woman speaks for me personally on all matters of taste. I don’t find that computer games have some overwhelming ‘maleness’ that puts me off. I find some of them sexist, some of them childish, some of them in conflict with my personal values and feelings and some of them simply not to my taste. Sadly, having more women writers probably won’t actually deal with any of that.

      1. quartzpebble

        Groups are not monolithic, certainly, but this discussion is reminding me of stuff like the HP face-recognition software that did not recognize non-white faces that came out a couple of years ago (iirc). It seems like working with a more representative selection of people might (at least) remind designers/developers that a wider variety of people might be in their target market as well, at least when it comes to very glaring issues like that one.

        1. Pavlov's Cat

          I don’t disagree with you there, but I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that there must be more women in field X because they will know what all other women want and will enable field X to sell to women. It’s partly because I don’t like the idea that women would solely be recruited as a way of manipulating other women into buying stuff they probably don’t need, when it would be nice if they got to do stuff they want to do based on their talent. But it’s mostly because I’m just plain uncomfortable with the notion that there are things women as a collective want that are totally different from the things that men want and that men will be incapable of understanding. Seems far too ‘Men are from Mars…’ for my liking.

      2. AMM

        That’s great, except that women … are not a set of identical clones connected by a hive mind.

        I don’t know what “identical clones” has to do with anything.

        It’s sufficient that group X has enough experiences in common that result in them responding (on the average) differently to certain things from the dominant (non-X) group.

        For instance, architectural firms that don’t have any disabled people on staff find that they need to recruit people with a variety of disabilities to vet their plans if they want to build a building that is actually accessible to disabled people. Experience shows that if you get a group of non-disabled people to design stuff for disabled people, they will make mistakes that are invisible to the able-bodied but painfully obvious to the disabled.

        Outside of the tech industries, companies have learned that if they want to get more Mexican-American customers, or black customers, or whatever, they need to work with people from those communities who will help them understand what will appeal to or alienate those customers. And those that don’t often end up making embarrassingly stupid and public blunders.

        By contrast, the tech industries are dominated by white males, and especially by white males who are if anything proud of being obvlivious to the experiences and perspectives of people who aren’t like them. The only surprise is that people who aren’t white, or aren’t male, or aren’t geeky, still want to buy the crap they churn out.

        Since I’m not a gamer, I’ll leave the application of this to gaming to other people.

        1. Pavlov's Cat

          I don’t know what “identical clones” has to do with anything.

          Ok, I’ll try to clarify. Your comment seemed to me at least to be stating that having more women write games will mean that there will be more games that appeal to women, and that in not having women writers, the games industry is missing out on the target market labelled ‘women’. My point was that there aren’t ‘games that appeal to women’, because we’re individuals.

          Experience shows that if you get a group of non-disabled people to design stuff for disabled people, they will make mistakes that are invisible to the able-bodied but painfully obvious to the disabled.

          I entirely agree. But I’m not sure how being disabled has a parallel with being a female gamer.

  10. Deb

    “You’re doing it wrong” is derailing no matter how much couching one does. In this particular instance, I can’t imagine why those of us advocating for more women in tech would change our goal (or pretend to change it?) to “improve the bottom line for a handful of corporations.” The goal is a more just society where women are treated with respect in their chosen field. It’s great if those very different goals dovetail but I would still advocate for more women in tech if somehow the opposite were true.

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