Don’t mention the war

Over at Livejournal, angelbob is gathering anecdata:

A friend recently said… that as a woman working in technology, she wouldn’t recommend that other women enter the field. She’s a system administrator… I’m not going to repeat her reasons here. Rather, I’d be very curious whether other women working in technical fields, especially system administration and/or programming, felt the same way. Anybody care to comment?

I find this is a bit of an elephant in the room in “women in technology” discussions, and so I (bravely! like John Tierney, no doubt) want to talk about it. It probably applies to “women in science” discussions and so on, I just don’t follow them as much.

There are women, quite a few in fact, in technology careers who suggest other women don’t enter them. They usually find this is a unpopular opinion in the harming the community direction. Often some of their major critics are other women, especially women who are running recruitment and outreach for the field. The argument generally goes like this: the major thing that will fix sexism in this field is more women! So if we stay silent and take the sexism bad with the geeky good for long enough, sexism will solve itself. By encouraging women to stay out, you are basically furthering sexism in this field. QED.

Let’s pick this apart. First, purely as a practical matter, even in the forthcoming geek feminist utopia, some women will be talented programmers or engineers or mathematicians but will choose to spend most or all of their life in a different field. The human endeavour is not a zero sum game, we have not “lost” someone when she becomes a nurse or a musician.

Second, we don’t want to be denying women’s experiences. If a geek career was hard, unpleasant and not ultimately worth it for her, she should say this, and if it was related to her being a woman, it makes sense to recommend against it for other women. It’s hard to hear this if you are among the women who passionately love their geek work and want to share the good news, but those of us who are more in the advocate line surely do not want to spread the message that if women so much as hear negative experiences about geekdom they’ll all flee. If women’s interest in geekdom comes at the expense of lying to them and denying other women’s negative experiences, then the cause of women in geek careers isn’t worth it. Women can listen to passionate detractors, passionate advocates and people somewhere in between, consider their own experiences, and make up their own minds.

And lastly, women do not in fact bear the responsibility of ending geekdom’s sexism, and even if we did, we couldn’t. It is, in fact, ultimately down to the most powerful people to bear the bulk of the burden for changing the social environment. Having a field become 50 or 75% women has some effect on the stereotype effect, but it is not a magic de-sexist-itising measure.

How about you? If you left a geekdom or a geek career, or are a passionate critic of it (and aren’t we all, since pretty much any criticism is subject to the tone argument) have you been told not to discourage women, or that you are undermining the work of advocate women?

24 thoughts on “Don’t mention the war

  1. Mackenzie

    I’ve got a little 10 year old cousin who’s really bright. I gave her a Linux laptop and told her I would teach her to program one of these days. Last time I saw her, I was telling her about why my computers are named Ada and Betty and hers is Grace Hopper. This included telling her that “there are some boys who think computers are boy stuff and that girls can’t do it, but we’ll show them!” Her response was an excited “yeah! We’ll show them!” So I think it is possible to mention that sexism exists and be encouraging.

    1. Mary Post author

      It is possible, but I don’t think it’s required. If your experience was bad enough that you left a job or a field, it might be possible to mention the sexism and still be encouraging, but should you?

      1. Amanda

        “it might be possible to mention the sexism and still be encouraging, but should you?”

        Definitely. When we fail to discuss the sexism that permeates the STEM fields, we run the risk of isolating women that do experience it. It’s unfair to minimize the issues we face in our fields and to deny that a lot of the time, to work in these fields is to be a pioneer. And it’s unfair to judge someone for not wanting to take up that mantle.

        I feel similarly about bicycle riding. I want more people to ride bikes and encourage them to do so, but also talk about the risks and issues city riders have when interacting with traffic. Bicycle riders are safer on the whole the more bike riders there are on the street, but it also can take major infrastructural and policy change from those in power to better assure our safety. Similarly, I think it can become easier to be a woman in STEM fields the more other women there are, but change also needs to happen with those that hold and act on sexist attitudes and those in positions of power.

        1. Mary Post author

          I think you read my answer the other way around: I didn’t mean to say “be encouraging, fail to mention the sexism”, I meant “mention the sexism, possibly to the extent of failing to be encouraging.” (More among adult-to-adult or adult-to-teen conversations, admittedly.)

          That’s essentially the point of the post: that discussion of the sexism is often limited by women themselves or people advising them, that discussion of the sexism has to stop as soon as it seems discouraging. But I think that’s silencing. The sexism should be talked about even when it is discouraging.

  2. Nightwalker

    It depends on the age of the person I’m talking to and which particular tech field they want to go into.

    To a child, you do as Mackenzie says, and tell them that the boys don’t think we should play, but we’ll show them.

    To a teenager, you tell them that sexism exists, but that shouldn’t stop them from pursuing further study, because study is always worthwhile even if you don’t follow it into a career if the sexism at the post-school level scares you off. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being techy in your spare time without it being a career if you think it will be too much of a fight you don’t want.

    To a university student, you give specific examples of the sexism you’ve encountered, and the battles you’ve fought, and why you still think it’s worthwhile or not depending on the number of spoons you have left that day. And you point out that for every arsehole who talks to the boobs and talks over you in presentations that there is another person who doesn’t care which bits you have, it’s the brain inside that counts.

    I haven’t given up on my field yet, but even if I did, I think I’d still want to be encouraging, but I would always be honest. This is what we have to face, and it’s not fixed yet, but if you don’t mind (or hell, even want) the fight, do it. Don’t just mention the sexism, detail it.

    1. Mackenzie

      And when talking to university-level students, tell them what you did about it. When there was a problem with a student at my school making sexist remarks, one of the female professors took me aside and told me some war stories and how she’d handled it. She was that student’s advisor, by the way.

      1. Restructure!

        What I wrote is slightly different, though, as I’m talking about female geeks who talk about increasing gender imbalance instead of sexism to appeal to the masses, not specifically because they think that increasing gender imbalance will automatically fix the sexism. Talking about sexism makes male geeks defensive, so they talk about gender imbalance instead.

  3. Eivind

    I think there’s no benefit from trying to hide negative experiences.

    First, you’re not doing anyone a service if you portray a job as nicer than it really is, and someone ends up being miserable in that job as a result.

    Second, it’s hard to -fix- a problem without being aware that there -is- a problem. I work in a company with a majority of men (around 25% women), and I can honestly say that I don’t know about any sexism. But if anyone -did- experience it, I’d sure as hell want to know about it, I can’t do anything to fix a problem, unless I’m aware that the problem exists.

    Some women work in technology, but for various reasons would not recommend it to others. It’s just a fact. Besides, it’s nothing special to technology. Some women work as nurses, but would not recommend it. Others work as teachers, but would advice others to steer away.

  4. Krissy

    Something that is worth pointing out is that there is a big difference between “not recommend” and “discourage”. Not recommend often is more on the side of “I wouldn’t push young girls in that direction if they were otherwise not showing major interest” whereas discourage often looks a lot more like “Even if they show interest I will tell them it’s a bad idea.” All this stuff is complicated. :)

  5. Sarah

    Being the friend who angelbob is referring to, I’d like to make a couple of points…

    1) though he didn’t restate my reasons, if you’re interested, I did state some of them in the comments to the post – my username is dangerpudding. I also, farther on, stated the differences in how I’d handle that situation and encouragement with a child vs with a peer.

    2) I was pretty clear that this was about not encouraging someone who wasn’t already interested – I’m not in any way actively discouraging people, nor am I interested in being anything but totally supportive of people who are really interested in the field.

    Also, it’s interesting that there’s an assumption here that someone in this position will have left the field. I’m a sysadmin, right now, sitting in my office. That office is in a specific workplace that I chose because of it’s higher female population (30-40%), it’s more female and family friendly work policies (40 hour work weeks really are standard, 22 days/year vacation – in the US, it being entirely ok to miss work to meet my – or my families – personal needs, among others). I love my job – I love being a sysadmin, I love what I do. I’ve loved many of my jobs. That doesn’t change my experiences, the things I’ve heard and witnessed, or my opinion on this matter.

    Until we actually change policies and behaviors, no, I don’t feel that I could encourage a woman or girl I cared about who wasn’t already determined to take the steps into this field. I don’t think it is right for me to ask her to take the high chance of reducing her personal happiness to raise the number of women in the field. And, as the last 10+ years have shown, putting up with it and hoping it will change isn’t working. What will work? I honestly don’t know.

    1. Mary Post author

      Thanks for the extra info. I did sort of assume that I was talking about someone who left the field: not as a prescriptive thing, as in, if you don’t like it you should leave. That I don’t mean. It’s just that I’ve mostly personally seen this discussion from people who have left, so it was them I was picturing while writing.

  6. Melinda

    It’s pretty unfortunate but historically increasing the number of women in a field has, in some cases, backfired, leaving the field devalued. Librarianship is a pretty good case in point, but there are others.

    I’m in my early ’50s and been in this field for nearly 30 years, and while this may be an artifact of the kind of work I’ve done it seems to me that the situation for women in computing has actually deteriorated quite a bit, and I’ve wondered why.

  7. Addie

    I am glad that you posed this question. I think the distinctions here between “not recommending” and “discouraging” are important.

    I am a developer who has probably had 80% negative experiences during my time in tech. The 20% positive have oddly been enough to keep me in the field, as well as the feeling of being in an industry that empowers me (there isn’t going to be a lack of demand for my skills anytime soon, and that’s important to me). But I think the reasons I stuck around are unique to me and in a lot of ways sound quite masochistic. Because of that, it’s hard to actively recommend tech to women.

    I was lightly suggested into tech by my own father and my own “sticking with it” was mostly an internal decision from there on out. I have been in a couple situations where I actively sought out help from female technologists and have been let down. I do think this colors my experiences; I have consistently thought back on all I’ve been through due to my choice of career and thought “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.” For me, the field has been a desert of isolation, exasperation, and social maladjustment with tiny pocket oases of geeky fun, intoxicating problem solving, and fantastic new friendships thrown in amidst the starkness.

    I think about it this way: if I HAD been actively led into tech by an advocate or two instead of just light suggestion and self-will, would I be resentful towards those people for actively pushing me on when the experience has been so unpleasant at times? Possibly. As a result, I find it really hard to actively encourage tech to people. This doesn’t mean I discourage – but it does mean that in the couple instances where people have wanted my insight, I’ve been extremely honest about the bipolar nature of my feelings for the field – there are pockets of the best of the best you can ask for here, but among all that is quite a bit of misery.

    That said, I haven’t been in situations where I’ve seen a promising young woman and have had the opportunity to either encourage her / leave it be. I think I would love to see that woman in tech, with the different levels of disclosure about its problems that were listed in prior comments. But would I give a friend who was just lightly considering the field the same level of encouragement? Absolutely not – I’d tell them to proceed at their own risk.

    It’s definitely a complicated matter. I don’t think those of us who aren’t actively encouraging women to be in tech are doing so because we don’t want them in the field or don’t think they’re capable. I think a lot of it is because we still see the field as so toxic that it’s hard to encourage friends and peers into what could be a lot of misery. I am thrilled and excited when I see women who are into technology and interested and trying the field out. I also completely understand and support when some of these women decide to bail. And a lot of this is because, indeed, this should not be just a matter of solely women doing the job of diversity recruitment and retention – one woman telling me that I really should stay and perservere when the 30 men behind her could care less about me ultimately just rings hollow.

  8. FlorisV

    As someone working in the field of developing software solutions (which sounds more expensive than what I do really is), here’s what I think is important to mention.

    This transcends the sexes. It is about what kind of person you are. Are you a person that is very social and loves to talk to as many people as possible? Would you never be able to bear a working day in which you haven’t talked much at all?

    Then it is simply unwise to become a programmer, male or female. A lot of work is solitary.
    You have to work together but between request and delivery you work pretty much on your own. I would never disencourage women to become a computer programmer. It can be a lot of fun. But you have to be a person that can accept a certain level of isolation.

    1. Restructure!

      Who are you? Are you a man? You’re completely missing the point of this post.

      The part I like about programming is not having to deal with/socialize with people, because people are sexist. But I have to interact with people anyway.

      Maybe the post isn’t explicit, but many women in tech would not recommend other women going into tech, because there is a lot of sexism in the male-dominated industry. It’s not because “women like to socialize”.

    2. M

      At first, I honestly thought you were a spam bot, because it looks like you picked up on a few keywords in the post, then inserted a reply that contains the same keywords but doesn’t relate to the post in any meaningful way. And then I realized you left no link on your name, which would sort of defeat the purpose. So I guess you are a real person…

      I don’t mind isolation. Actually, I’ve suffered from some pretty intense social anxiety since childhood, and although it’s gotten better, I still get less stressed out if I only have to interact with a few people — and the same people — each day. It would probably be more accurate to say that I *enjoy* some extent of isolation, just as I enjoy many of the intrinsic aspects of software development. Sexism is not an intrinsic aspect of software development, and I do not enjoy it.

      I’m not really a ‘detractor’. I love coding, and I love that I have a career coding, and I love that I have so far managed to avoid workplace sexism in my coding career. I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon. But I’ve seen some of the ugly side of tech, too, through university, online, and other communities. And I refuse to lie to women or trick them so that they’ll go into tech. If people want me to tell women that tech isn’t sexist? Gladly, just as soon as tech stops being sexist. Then I’ll tell everyone.

    3. Mary Post author

      FlorisV: the comments policy for this blog states that it is not a 101 blog. Your comments in moderation asking women to:
      * explain to you personally how they’ve experienced sexism
      * explain your own personal theories about why women are numerically under-represented in programming
      are not acceptable here. Many entries on, and resources linked from, this blog document sexism in geek communities and there’s been an entry within the last two weeks with links to the research literature on women’s representation in STEM. Do some reading around here before commenting further.

  9. Alan Bell

    Couple of angles on this. If you are a woman thinking of discouraging other women from getting involved in the technology community based on your own experiences I would encourage you to consider that your experiences go back in time and the experiences of the person you are talking to will go forward in time. Things may, or may not, be changing in whatever field the conversation relates to and the past may or may not be an indicator of the future. It would be a shame to drag the past into the future by not considering this (of course if your considered opinion is that nothing is changing, then go right ahead). Secondly, please don’t let the people who are trying to change things for the better hear the conversation (unless you want them to lose interest, in which case go right ahead).

    1. Sarah

      I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but my opinions are based on the fact that I’ve seen things get worse, not better, over the time that I’ve been in the field.

      Also, as has been stated several times in the comments, “not encourage” is very different from “discourage”.

      Secondly, please don’t let the people who are trying to change things for the better hear the conversation (unless you want them to lose interest, in which case go right ahead).

      And this? This isn’t even a little bit ok. If what’s wrong isn’t obvious and talked about, then it can’t be fixed – if you don’t know what to change, you can’t change it. Telling those who have had negative experiences not to talk about them (even if only in some places), is *never ok* because it continues those negative experiences.

      1. Alan Bell

        That isn’t entirely what I said/meant. Sure, negative experiences can and should be discussed and corrective and preventative actions taken, I don’t disagree with that at all.

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