Re-post: Don’t mention the war

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, I’m reposting some of my writing from 2010, for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on the 10th June 2010.

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?

Update for the re-post: the specific case angelbob was talking about was that of Sarah/dangerpudding, who discussed it publicly on his entry and on our original one. Sarah’s individual case isn’t the central point of this entry but might be interesting for some readers.

5 thoughts on “Re-post: Don’t mention the war

  1. Dorothea Salo

    There’s some collateral damage to the don’t-discourage-anyone tactic that I haven’t yet seen mentioned: the women who run into sexism without expecting it, are thrown back on their heels, and go looking for validation of their experience and a way forward — but don’t find it because everybody is busy keeping mum and hoping it’ll get better if they do.

    And yeah, such a woman perhaps sounds pretty naive, but I was her, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

  2. robotprincess

    One potential problem I see with simply looking towards increasing the numbers of women in geeky fields is the question of what happens if those fields eventually become dominated by women? A lot of fields (like secretarial work, for instance), seem to lose status when they become dominated by women. If we didn’t live in a generally sexist culture this wouldn’t happen, but since we do, it does.

    So my fear is that if the computer/tech fields became dominated by women, they’d simply become lower-paying and lower in status, which is not what we want. What we want is not necessarily to dominate those fields, but to have better representation and a comfortable environment for everyone, and also for those fields to retain their status and for pay rates to remain competitive. For this to happen, I think sexism needs to be fought on other fronts than simply increasing the number of women in those fields.

  3. Kim Curry

    This post is timely for me. I’ve been getting into outreach in bigger and bigger ways recently, with my professional organizations and training and such. Stepping out of my previous “show up and do whatever the organizers need” roles, and starting to be an organizer myself.

    (Plug alert: outreach is also one of the purposes of my blog and twitter activities, and therefore the education and searching that brought me here.)

    So I’m working on outreach, and trying to encourage students, especially girls, to consider STEM careers…

    …about the same time that I’m hitting speed bumps in my own career.

    I’ve been starting to wonder if I’m being hypocritical.

    Or perhaps it’s just the environment… or the differences between environments, since I changed jobs and relocated.

    Most of the women I talk to seem to recommend more of a “duck and cover” approach. Do good work, promote yourself, but don’t suggest / point out problems in the system. Let’s just say that is not my natural response.

  4. Pavlov's Cat

    I have a mechanical engineering degree, and now work as a science teacher. For years I’ve felt guilty about this decision, feeling I was letting other women down by not struggling on in a career where I wasn’t welcome, but these days I’m pretty sure I made the right decision for me. Other people have made good points on the subject of whether increasing numbers in a particular job is going to fix things. I don’t know about that myself, but I feel pretty sure that my own participation would have ended badly for me, and that my failure would have been a stick to beat other women with. And I quite like teaching, as it happens.

    I do get students asking me why I’m not an engineer, and I wonder how much of the truth to tell them. I end up giving different answers at different times to different people. I still haven’t quite got that part figured out. I think it’s important to be honest with people about their chosen direction, so they can be prepared if they do go for it or make an informed choice not to. At the same time, not everyone is me and they might not have the same experiences. I don’t really know how much the problem was institutionalised sexism in general, how much was that my behaviour didn’t conform to that of the sort of woman who might be allowed to succeed, and how much was just me personally. Sorry, this comment is more questions than answers really.

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