Tag Archives: gender gap

Women and geek prestige

This an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. I have some comments on this one at the bottom, but not a real answer.

I’ve seen various mention of trying to increase the respect given for non-coding activities, such as documentation and testing, which seem have a better gender ratio than coding, as a way of increasing acknowledged female involvement in FLOSS. But, while we definitely should give more recognition to non-coding involvement, it seems to me that allocation of respect / recognition simply does naturally concentrate on that which has the longest and steepest learning curves (just as I guess that in running there’s a hierarchy of jogger – runner – marathon runner – hypermarathon runner), and that this route will risk perpetuating a division into “womens’ work” and “men’s work”, with the traditional difference in public valuation. Is this a risk? Is it happening? And if so, what can we do about it?

And likewise, I get a similar impression about scripting vs compiled languages — that, statistically, women (more so than men) tend to prefer languages like python, rather than the languages that they’re implemented in (typically C). Is this a real divide? And does it have risks of getting more female involvement in FLOSS but in a way that some [male geeks] will dismiss as “not the real thing”?

Something I think is worth considering about this question is whether or not the hierarchy the questioner gives is objective. I’d argue that it largely isn’t. The learning curve for coding can be long and steep, yes. But consider documentation, for example. Writing well is a really difficult skill. It’s sometimes not as obvious that you’re acquiring it, precisely because it’s such a very long process and it involves doing a lot of reading and practising other forms of communication as well. A baseline level of skill in writing is also more common than a baseline level of skill in coding, but a high level of skill is no easier — I’d actually guess much harder at the very extremes — to achieve.So we need to be very wary of accepting this hierarchy at face value, both because it buys into the existing undervaluation of certain skills and because it risks continuing a nasty pattern: “if women can do it, it must be easier than we thought, let’s look for something currently mostly done by men and value that instead.”

That said, coding is fun and useful. (Well, for me. But that’s enough!) So is nuclear physics, pure mathematics, electrical engineering, hard SF and many other “male” halves of the gender binary fractal. So we don’t want to cede those to men.

For more of my own thoughts on this, see “Girl stuff” in Free Software, a post from last year from the point-of-view of deciding what to work on as a woman. What do you think? Where’s the balance between creating and properly valuing roles more suited for women’s existing socialisation and more women entering male-dominated and currently highly valued roles?

That’s Ms Linkspammer to you (4th December, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

When linkspammers roamed the earth (23rd November, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

From comments: FoolishOwl on those pesky distractions

FoolishOwl commented:

I looked at Gail Carmichael’s blog post, “Quick Thoughts on Pregnancy and Grad School,†and was immediately struck by how the women commenting on it were in general agreement, based on careful thought about the optimal moment to have children. It struck me by contrast with some “how to be a good programmer†essays I’d read lately, written by men, which emphasized the importance of discipline and concentration on programming, and eliminating all distractions from one’s life.

It’s striking me that the emphasis on monomaniacal concentration only works on an implicit assumption of privilege — that important matters other than programming will be handled by someone else.

I find it all too easy to lapse into such an attitude.

At the risk of asking a Feminism 101 question, what’s a better way to balance these things?

Just a note to start: I don’t think this is a feminism 101 question. Feminism 101 questions are more along the lines of “why is feminism important?” or “why does feminism care about this aspect of society?” This kind of question seems to me to be more of a “how do I live in the kyriarchy?” question, which is a different beast altogether.

I don’t have a completely thought out response to FoolishOwl’s question. It’s something that’s come up a lot in discussions of being a woman in academia and many other professions which have some of the following characteristics:

  • substantial time expenditure needed to master the field;
  • emphasis on it being highly preferable to do a substantial amount of legwork in the field at a certain (young) age;
  • work in the field being at least believed to be benefited by sustained, uninterrupted, quiet, focussed workdays; and
  • expectation of at least occasional, and often frequent, long workdays which are sustained, uninterrupted, quiet and focussed.

Some examples that spring to mind other than programming or academia include medicine, which also has the structured training requirement of very long hours, and especially mathematics where the lore about needing to do your best work before age 25 seems to have achieved particular acceptance. (I’m not inside mathematics though, perhaps this is an outsider’s belief.) Academia and, I gather, medicine, both have an additional structural problem for women who want children, which is that they have a period of what is supposed to be very intense work (postdocs, fellowships, specialist training) that tend to fall right across most intending mothers’ preferred (or only possible) reproductive years.

The immediate question that FoolishOwl’s comment made me think of about programming was, how true is this? I know a lot of programmers, and being able and willing to work more than a 35—40 hour week (which I will note is already quite a privileged thing for someone to be able to do) is a decidedly mixed bag. For some it’s brought them further mastery. For many others, it’s brought chronic injury, ongoing mental health problems, or loss of enjoyment. Most of the better programmers I know aim to eliminate distractions from their work hours, not from their life.

Various questions for you all:

  • did you have a “larval phase” in your geekdom of choice, a period of immersion at the expense of other interests? do you think having one was essential, useful, just fun, or a bit of a negative in the end?
  • do you think this sort of mythos is at least partly gatekeeping, ie, not actually necessary to obtain the skills, but put in place to preserve the mystique and the status of those with the skills?
  • what role has privilege played in your ability to be part of geek communities and professions?

And of course, FoolishOwl’s question: “what’s a better way to balance these things?”

Because it’s me, a note: in general I think the conversation will be most interesting if people discuss the intersection between privilege and geek careers here, or give advice from a non-traditional geek point of view. I have a feeling this kind of question will be very appealing to men commenters, because it’s not specifically about women’s lived experience. But please consider if an extensive account of your geek career will add to thoughts about the intersections before leaving one.

Looking to the past

It’s an oft-voiced suggestion that rather than looking at the bad things that happen in our communities, we should focus on the good things. There’s a number of highly successful geek women already – should we not be concentrating on encouraging more of them, rather than scaring people away with tales of thoughtlessness, discrimination and outright abuse?

Let’s draw an analogy. One day, a $20 charge appears on your credit card. You didn’t make it. You report it to your credit card company, who assure you that they take fraud seriously and then do nothing. A few days later, another $20 charge. Your credit card company tells you that such events are rare, unrepresentative of the general credit card experience and continue to do nothing. A week afterwards, another charge. This time your credit card company describes how they’re planning on implementing a brand new anti-fraud system, but that this is unrelated to any events that may currently be occuring and will give no details as to when it’s going to be rolled out. And proceed to ignore any further reports you make about fraudulant transactions.

Would you stay with this company? Or would you take your business somewhere else?

The problem with the “Let’s look to the future rather than spending too much time getting stuck in the present” argument is that it assures people that things will get better without providing a roadmap for getting there. It does nothing to validate their concerns or make them feel wanted within a community. It assumes either that people will stick with a community that doesn’t respond to their complaints, or that it’s possible to construct a community that’s welcome to an assortment of genders, ethnicities and lifestyles without any of those people being represented in the first place.

Ignoring people’s concerns is an excellent way to drive them away from your community. Doing so because of a potential future that’s probably conditional on you having those people in your community is short sighted and self defeating. Ignoring the present doesn’t benefit the future. It benefits the status quo.

How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

It comes up a lot in discussions of women in computer science, women who write code, women in open source. Eventually, someone brings up the fact that women score slightly lower on math tests. Clearly, they claim, this biological inferiority must explain why there are fewer women in math heavy fields.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

I’m a mathematician. I’ve looked at those numbers, I’ve read some papers. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn’t significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.

Want more women in open source? Try paying them.

This is a remix of a post by the same name I made after running a BOF on attracting women to open source.

One of the most interesting suggestions I’ve heard on how to get more women into open source is pretty simple: Pay them.

As someone who loves doing this as a volunteer, I want to protest. Shouldn’t we all be doing this for the betterment of the world or something? But the more I think about it, the more I love this idea.

Think about the challenges women face getting involved with open source projects.

Feeling like they don’t belong? Paying someone is a pretty strong “we want you” signal, both to the woman herself and to others who might challenge her.

Not having enough time because of other life-work commitments? Making it your paid gig makes this the “work” part of that equation, rather than some part that just doesn’t quite fit.

Fewer opportunities for mentoring? Again, having the structure of a company behind you can make it a lot easier to ask for help within a known structure rather than trying to guess the social norms of an open source project.

There aren’t many women? Well, hiring a few is a great way to get the ball rolling, hopefully making it easier for future women. It’s an interesting way to handle the bootstrapping problem.

Paying women to do open source work isn’t going to solve all our problems, but it cuts through a lot of the Gordian knot that’s there. It just might be a useful tool for changing the status quo.

In Malaysia, women are 52% of CS graduates. So what?

Via BJ Wishinsky (@anitaborg_org), via Gerald Thurman (@nanofoo), a post from the CACM blog, Only the developed world lacks women in computing, by Mark Guzdial.

Mark talks about a study that shows that in Malaysia, 52% of computer science graduates are women. Sure, that’s fantastic. But if his headline is anything to go by, I think Mark’s missing the point pretty badly.

  • How did this get generalised from “In one developing country women are in a slight majority” to “Only in the developed world are women in a minority.” Logic fail.
  • Malaysia is around the 28th highest GDP-PPP in the world according to the World Bank, right near Belgium (29th) and Sweden (31st), and has the highest GDP-PPP per capita in Asia. So it’s arguably not even outside the developed world.
  • If we’re going to talk about women in technology in developing countries, let’s talk about literacy. Throughout the developing world, women’s literacy is key to their economic independence. Focusing on one relatively developed country with a high literacy rate (83% of women vs 89% overall) doesn’t actually tell us anything about women in developing countries. (Hat-tip to Nnenna Nwakanma from Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa for clueing me up in this regard.)
  • We need to consider the status and remuneration of women in IT, too. In Malaysia, women earn only 80% of what men do for the same work, and their average income is only 36% of men’s (source). Having more women in technology, if that work is seen as low-status and is poorly-paid, is not necessarily a win, nor something we should seek to emulate.

Mark wrapped up his description of the Malaysian study with, “Vivian concluded that the gendering of computing is constructed by the West, not at all inherent to the field.” Fair enough. But that’s not what he brought through to the headline: “Only the developed world lacks women in computing.”

Too many times, I’ve heard this study referred to in a way that says, “The lack of women in the western tech industry is a localised problem,” and implies, “so sexism isn’t as big an issue as you think it is.”

Open Source research ideas

If you had a research team at your disposal to study women in open source, what would you set them doing?

My biggest wishlist item would be to look at retention of women in open source. How long do we stay on individual projects and in the community as a whole, and what makes us leave?

Another one would be to study how financial support for open source work is distributed. Who gets paid to work on open source, attend conferences, has hardware donated, etc? Is there a gender gap? (Might want to study within companies that use open source, but are not explicitly open source companies, for this one.)

Related: Do people mostly work on open source during work hours or leisure time? How do disparities in available leisure time affect open source contributions? (Would love to see this visualised as coloured timelines.)

What Women-In-Open-Source studies would your team of researchers do?

Link Roundup Strikes Back (August 15th, 2009)