The fairer techs

Ages ago, Brian Kelly blogged asking Are there too many male speakers at events?, and asked on Twitter:

Are conferences dominated by male speakers? Evidence from 15 years of #IWMW – but should this inform policy? http://bit.ly/HJN1dJ

At the time, I replied:

DEFINITELY dominated by male speakers – but I’m not convinced positive discrimination is the solution… >>

<< bit long to explain in 140chr but I will try to find time to write a response in comments or blog! :)

As you can tell from the date on Brian’s blog post, it’s taken me a ridiculously long while to find time! However, better late than never (I hope), this is that longer reply.


First, let me say that personally I don’t feel put off, excluded, intimidated or threatened as a result of the predominance of men at IWMW (and, let’s be honest, most other geek events). That’s not to say that other people are wrong to feel that, if they do (and I believe that some do): just that I can’t personally speak to that experience, so I’m not going to try. I’m also not claiming to speak for all women, all geeks, or any other subset of society that I might belong to; and I’m certainly not claiming to represent the views of my employer (though I certainly hope they won’t take exception to anything I’m about to say!).

Having said that, the gender disparity is something that I notice: not just at conferences but in my day-to-day job. I’m the only woman on my team; it’s not unusual for me to be the only woman in the room at meetings; and I’ve been asked to be on more interview panels than I might have otherwise, to even up the gender balance. This pattern is repeated across the wider University: at my last very rough count, approximately 200 of the 600-odd IT staff the University employs were women (ironically, a higher proportion than I’d expected!); our internal annual conference for IT staff at Oxford University is always attended by more men than women (unsurprisingly, given the ratio above), and has only had one female plenary speaker in its 15-year history; IT staff social events are always male-dominated, too; and while anecdotally I’ve observed that web-focused events seem to have a slightly higher proportion of women than general IT events, it’s only a small increase if anything.

Wherever this debate is happening, there seem to be two key questions:

  1. Why are there fewer women than men here (wherever ‘here’ is)?
  2. What can we do about it?

One answer to the first question is probably simple for any reasonably technical values of ‘here’: there are fewer women coders and techies out there, because fewer women study computing at University, because fewer girls choose IT, computing and maths at school. (For more detail on this, see The Myth of Female Software Developers.) I’m not going to go into the question of why 16-year-old girls aren’t choosing these subjects at A-Level (and I suspect the problem goes back further, to GCSE choices at age 13 and even earlier than that), because it’s a complex sociological and educational question and it’s totally outwith my area of expertise. I do wonder to what extent computing or maths qualifications are a prerequisite for IT jobs (and particularly web jobs); I wonder even more to what extent they should be a prerequisite. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I took English, Music and French at A-Level, did a degree in English Language & Literature, and have no formal qualifications in computing.)

Of course, that may not be the only reason: in some cases the high proportion of men at a conference or in an organisation may result in a workplace/conference culture that’s male-dominated, maybe “blokey”, maybe offputting to women in some way (though not necessarily as extreme as the ‘brogrammer culture‘ that’s been hitting the headlines recently). It’s by no means a necessary outcome of there being more men around than women, but it does happen.

For me, however, the second question begs the questions:

  1. Can we do anything about it?
  2. More controversially, should we do anything about it?

There are several possible answers to the first question: if ‘here’ is in the profession in general, we could, for example,

  • try to change job adverts to make them more appealing to women (it’s not clear what this would mean in practice)
  • target job adverts at more female-dominated arenas (‘girl geek’ organisations and mailing lists? Mumsnet? I don’t know)
  • try to prevent — and show that you take seriously — the incidents that may make women feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, e.g. have a strong equal opportunities policy
  • try to change the jobs themselves to make them more appealing to women (again, it’s not clear what this would mean in practice — perhaps allowing part-time and/or flexitime working, and making the availability of these options explicit in the job adverts?)
  • introduce stronger positive discrimination measures, e.g. mandate at least one woman on every shortlist (but then what if none apply in the first place…?)

If ‘here’ is a conference and we’re worrying about the gender ratio among speakers or workshop facilitators, the options are similar:

  • try to make the call for speakers/workshops more appealing to women (it’s not clear what this would mean in practice)
  • try to prevent — and show that you take seriously — the incidents that may make women feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, e.g. have an anti-harassment policy
  • exercise positive discrimination — make sure to invite a set number of women

You may have noticed that there’s a trend emerging: a lot of these options involve making things “more appealing to women”. I hear this phrase a lot, and it’s never very clear what it means. For the profession as a whole, does it mean help with childcare (for example childcare vouchers, crèches or nurseries)? Well, here’s a thing: men are parents too. Does it mean allowing for part-time or flexible working? Again, this benefits everybody, not just women, not just parents: if employees can negotiate a satisfying work-life balance, they’re almost certainly more likely to be happy, motivated, and productive when they are at work; they’re also probably more likely to stay in the job. And everybody (employers and applicants) would benefit from more clarity in job adverts about whether part-time or flexible working is available: if it is and you don’t mention it, you may put excellent part-timers off applying; if it isn’t and you don’t mention it, people who require part-time/flexible working will be wasting your time and theirs by applying. For conferences, I’ve heard suggestions along the lines of “We could make it clear that you don’t have to be very technical to speak”, or “We could make it clear that we welcome applications at all levels of competence” — but both of those are making assumptions about women’s competence/interests and their reasons for not participating, not to mention also assuming that men aren’t affected by either of these perceived deterrents! (There is some evidence that, on average, women are more likely to underestimate their abilities than men — if you’re interested in going down that road, read up on Illusory superiority and the Dunning-Kruger Effect — but it’s far from clear that this is the most significant factor in the skewed gender ratio in IT and web work.) As with job adverts, though, making it clear what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to accept helps everybody: the take-home message is that neither women nor men can actually read your mind.

As for the anti-harassment measures, surely you don’t need me to tell you that nobody should be harassing anybody, anywhere. That’s not about “women’s issues”, that’s about everybody’s right to feel safe and to be treated with respect.

Then we get on to the question of more direct positive discrimination, e.g. introducing quotas for female attendees/speakers/applicants/employees. This is a tricky one, and I don’t claim to have any definite answers, but I’m uncomfortable with it for several (linked and overlapping) reasons:

  1. It’s still discrimination; it’s still “unfair”. I think this is more of an emotional reaction than an intellectual one, to be honest; it just Feels Wrong.
  2. I’d much rather see a process which allows the best candidates/speakers/etc to succeed irrespective of their gender.
  3. I worry that discriminating in favour of women to redress an imbalance will be perceived as letting women off lightly, not subjecting them to the same rigorous selection criteria as men. This just results in resentment (“she only got appointed/invited because she’s a woman”).
  4. I worry that a need to fill some kind of arbitrarily-set quota of women may lead to women actually being let off lightly, resulting in not only (justifiable) resentment as above, but also a lowering of overall standards, and a reinforcement of the perception that women aren’t as good (and distress and damaged self-esteem for the women involved as they realise that they’re not as good as their peers).
  5. I fear it’s addressing the wrong problem: I believe that the problem isn’t just “there aren’t enough women around”, rather the problem is a stage further back than that, at the point where women feel unwelcome and/or there simply aren’t as many women who are eligible/interested — both of which may be better addressed by trying to fix the causes upstream.

So what’s the answer? Should we try to do anything about the imbalance? If so, why?

There are reasons why the imbalance is less than ideal: Various studies show that organisations with a more equal gender balance get better results; some women want to go into IT but are put off by the imbalance in gender and the attitudes in the profession (though it’s harder to back that up with statistics), and I believe they should have the chance to pursue the career they want without having to wage war against perceived prejudice. But another way to look at the question is: what happens if we don’t do anything to try to even up the balance? Organisations miss out on potential talent; people who really do think women are inferior feel that their beliefs are vindicated by the fact that there are fewer women; people who just want to do a job without getting ground down by prejudice or identity politics may be put off by the imbalance in the industry; girls and young women who are interested in IT as a career may be ‘turned off’ if they can’t see any role models with whom they can identify; products which are developed won’t reflect women’s needs or interests (and people assume that so long as they provide pink laptops and games like this the ‘ladies’ will be happy); the status quo is preserved, or the imbalance worsens. None of those sound like desirable outcomes to me.

We’re back to fixing the wrong problem, though. Basically, I’m not sure I think we should try to make the gender balance equal (or even ‘more equal’) at IT conferences or in IT jobs; but what I am absolutely sure of is that we should work to get rid of discrimination on the grounds of sex or gender; we should challenge unexamined assumptions about the ‘default’ gender of speakers/applicants/geeks/etc; we should call people out on sexist behaviour or speech which may be making people (men or women) feel uncomfortable; and in general we should work to make our professional environment a place where everybody can be respected for their talents rather than judged on the basis of what chromosomes they were dealt at birth.

As I said, I don’t know the answers. But I know that nothing will change if we don’t keep asking the questions.

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