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Why We Shouldn't Target Women

11.23.2011
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I'm back from Devoxx, having had lots of food for thought.  In particular, my panel on Why We Shouldn't Target Women generated a lot of discussion and I'm still trying to process it all.

Martijn Verburg; Regina ten Bruggencate; Trisha Gee; Antonio Goncalves; Claude Falguière; Kim Ross 

The panel went really well, we got decent interaction from the audience, and of course my fellow panel members were awesome.  I managed to restrain myself from using the opportunity as my own personal soap box and allowed other people to speak occasionally.  Sadly the only male on the panel stole the show somewhat, so Antonio won't be invited in future... Actually in seriousness, it was great to have a guy on the panel to present his point of view.  It was interesting that he's a father, highlighting that parenting issues are not the same as women's issues, and conflating those two concerns hurts both genders. But Antonio's hair is far too shiny and pretty and he's funnier than I am, so I'm not standing next to him again.

I'd love to make a note of all the issues discussed during the hour, but I'll be honest, I was too busy trying not to fall over in my girly six-inch stiletto boots to remember anything that happened.  The video will hopefully be available on Parleys some time in the future, so I will link to it when it's there if it's not too horribly embarrassing.

Someone let me have the microphone again...

One question that came up more than once throughout the week was: IT/programming is not the only industry with a lack of women, why should we care?  Maybe it's just natural?

I think we need to be very careful before writing off such an imbalance as "natural".  We need to make sure first that we aren't discriminating against groups, consciously or through some unnoticed system bias.    And for me, the thing is that we notice that women aren't well represented in technical roles, but we don't necessarily notice the other groups of people who might be being put off for similar (or maybe totally different) reasons.  We can't so easily tell if gays, jews, parents, shy people, folks from poor backgrounds or any other less distinguishable sets of people are finding it hard to make it as a programmer.

We can see the figures for females.  In the UK in 2008:

  • 44.7% of people taking ICT (Information and Communications Technology) at GCSE (age 14-16) are girls.  As in many other subjects these days, the girls get better results than the boys.
  • 38.6% of kids taking ICT at A Level (16-18) are girls.  Only 9.6% of Computing students are girls. Again, girls outperform the boys in both subjects.
  • 19.4% of those studying Computer Science at university are women.  This is down from 24% in 2003.
  • Through a not-very-scientific poll of the members of the London Java Community, it looks like approximately 15% of techies in industry are women.  Interestingly, some companies have a much higher proportion than others, but I think that's something to explore another time.

The thing that worries me about these figures are a) the "pipeline" hints at a drop-off in interest in the subject, not a lack of ability, since the girls are doing well tech subjects but choose not to pursue them and b) the numbers are declining in some areas, specifically university applications.  I've read studies that show the percentage of those in technical jobs who are women has been steadily declining since the 80s, but it's difficult to get specific figures, especially as I'm particularly interested in programming / technical roles rather than just the percentage of women "in IT".

If the numbers are declining, that seems like a smell to me.  Not only do we have some sort of image problem which puts people like those who have two X chromosomes off from entering our industry, we're driving them away when they get here.  And I don't believe that's because women find they're not good at it.

Other industries have been successful at attracting a higher proportion of women - for example, in 1950, only 15% of accountants were women.  By 1985 half of all accounting majors were women, and by 1990 the majority of the workforce was female.  It would be nice to think we could learn something from our friends in the Maths world.  After all, the skills are not dissimilar.  But they have a slight advantage over us - in many countries all children are required to study maths until age 16.  However, there are very few 16-year-olds who have any programming experience at all.  Either we need to accept that we're going to have to hire kids with other degrees and train them to be programmers, or we're going to have to do some serious outreach to interest kids in programming and technology long before they start to make their exam choices.  In the UK, they need to choose their GCSE subjects at 14, which means we probably need to be targeting kids as young as 10 or 11.  That's not inconceivable, when you think about it - how many of us were programming in BASIC aged eight or nine?  Could we not teach kids to write an iPhone app or a Facebook app instead?  I was very pleased to hear someone in our audience was teaching their daughter to program.  At an even younger age, the least you can do is buy your kids Lego - I'm sure that exercises the right parts of the brain.

The point is, that I don't think we can conclude that it's "natural" for girls to not be interested in programming.  The first programmer was a woman, and during the war and even into the '60s many programmers were women.  I think that if we can work with schools to provide some tutoring in computing at a younger age we might be able to attract kids who wouldn't have thought about programming as a career choice before.  Some of these may be women, some will not.  That's fine, diversity is our ultimate goal.

Which leads me onto another point - special treatment of women.  I've said it before I'm sure - I think singling out women to attempt to increase their numbers does more harm than good, for a number of reasons: 

  1. It makes women think that there must be something wrong in our industry if women need to be treated differently, or mentored differently, or need additional training to get by. Or it makes us think that we really aren't as good as our male counterparts because we're being given special treatment.
  2. It builds up resentment amongst our male colleagues, so they soon begin to wonder if we're doing our job because we're good at it, or if we got there because we got lots more help, or because we're there to tick some sort of box
  3. It's not solving the problem of lack of overall diversity - where are the programs for people who went to the wrong schools, for those who didn't think about programming as a career, for a million other special interest groups that exist out there?

Some of the ideas that imply special treatment are things like: all women events (you should know by now how I feel about those); free entry to conferences for women; higher pay for women at certain companies.  Although I would benefit from all of these things, I hate them.  I feel like I'm being compensated for this terrible affliction of being born female.

So, what can we do?

  • Reach out to those you want speaking at your conferences.  This might include women, it might include people from other "minorities", or it might just be awesome people that you want there making your conference look good.  
  • Use these people for marketing and role models - it is indeed possible that if you have some female faces on your conference site and posters, you might attract more women attendees.  Actually, if you have more women role models you might attract more men, but hey, it's all about diversity.
  • Buy your kids Lego and teach them programming.
  • Treat women in your company like people the same as anyone else.  We were asked about how to deal with a younger female boss.  Kim's answer was perfect: "Like an older, male boss".
  • Get involved in mentoring programmes, not just for women but for people of all ages - kids at school, undergraduates, or people who are already in the industry and want to take that next step, for example to speaking at conferences or writing or leading teams or becoming CTO.

Since the panel I've been pointed, numerous times, to this excellent article which talks about racism, sexism, and meritocracies.  I particularly like the line "Explicit diversity programs have the solution exactly backwards".  Well worth a read.

 

From http://mechanitis.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-we-shouldnt-target-women.html

Published at DZone with permission of Trisha Gee, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Sunil D'monte replied on Wed, 2011/11/23 - 6:37am

Good points all, and I'm glad to see sessions like this happening. I'd like to add one more thing - we need to acknowledge that there is sexism against women in IT, and we need to address it. I'm male and I've been in IT for 13 years, I've come across lots of men who are either explicitly biased against women (one manager used to privately refer to female members of his teams as "these junk girls"), or of the implicit/sub-conscious/unexamined-privilege sort. Unless men change, I think the measures you suggest will not eliminate the problem. So a lot of the work needs to be done by us men.

Wal Rus replied on Wed, 2011/11/23 - 12:54pm

There is evidence that boys' and girls' brains work differently, so possibly the found 'imbalance' is just natural. The science also observed that there are great differences in behaviour, emotion processing and the like. This isn't something we should be alarmed at, as the differences are conditioned by nature and like man will never be able to carry a baby (unless u are a former gov. of CA), women will never be able to get another women pregnant. There are differences between genders and that's part of nature. Don't fight it. Live with it.

Trisha Gee replied on Fri, 2011/12/02 - 4:50am

Sunil, that's interesting because all the women I've spoken to don't feel like they are discriminated against, which is why I didn't raise that point specifically. Sure, when we see sexism, we should fight it, but in my personal experience it's not explicit sexism which is the main problem. As for the nature argument, sure, there are differences. But gender differences are not binary, it's more of an analogue scale. *Generally* women belong towards one end of the scale and *generally* men belong towards the other, but there's a lot of overlap. The key thing is not to place barriers in the way of anyone who could be great in technical roles based on some arbitrary biological difference, but encourage anyone with the right sort of mindset to join us.

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