Thursday, 30 April 2009

Women in IT

I read an article called A Painful Decision recently.
There has been some discussion in recent days in the Rails community about appropriate conference presentations, whether women feel welcome in the Rails community, and related issues. I don’t intend to review the entire mess here - you can find it if you want it. For what it’s worth, I think the original presentation was an inappropriate and regrettable mistake. However, far more disturbing to me are the reactions to the discussion on the part of some of the Rails community.

Folks, the idea that women are disproportionately underrepresented in engineering and software in general, and open source development in particular, should not be new and controversial in 2009 - anyone who cares to look can find such things as the FLOSSpols findings, or any amount of academic literature on the subject. Anyone who cares to take the time to actually talk to the women who are a part of the open source community will have no trouble getting an earful about how challenging it can be to participate.
But unfortunately for me, in parallel to the public discussion there have been private ones. I can’t reveal details without breaking confidences, but suffice it to say that a significant number of Rails core contributors - with leadership (if that’s the right word) from DHH - apparently feel that being unwelcoming and “edgy” is not just acceptable, but laudable. The difference between their opinions and mine is so severe that I cannot in good conscience remain a public spokesman for Rails.

So, effective immediately, I’m resigning my position with the Rails Activists

Commentary here, with my own contribution.
There's a number of issues here.

First, men and women tend to think differently, and have talents in different areas, just as men tend to be taller. This is a matter of biology, and on that basis alone, a reasonable mix in IT would be biased towards a greater proportion of males, depending on the exact developmental role. About 2:1.

Except it's more like 8:1 or even 12:1, rather than 2:1.In open source, 50:1.

It's no accident that there are more women in interface design, project management and architecture within IT either. Remember though that this is all statistical, just as there are short men and tall women, you should always look at individuals as individuals, not as stereotypes. Talents between the ears are what's important, and chromosomes are a poor guide to those.

Part of the problem is the discouragement talented girls experience at school because IT is a "male field". Part of it is that businesses are set up with men in mind, with stereotypically male aspects of bonding after work, of stakhanovite hours with no concession for having a Life, with hierachies and competition for "fastest gun in the west" rather than teamwork. The latter is particularly important in Open Source development.

Part of it is straight old-fashioned misogyny and the glass ceiling, but I think that's not as important as the other issues. It can get pretty bad though as a consequence of the other causes, trust me on that one. I invite all the straight guys to imagine what it would be like in a gay-only environment, with gay porn posters and bitchy jokes about "breeders", plus the occasional overt sexual harrassment and almost universal attempts to flirt. That's what it's like for many women in IT, all the time.

It's not as bad as it was. I'm 51, and can remember when things were a lot worse. Female medical students are no longer required to sign a pledge not to get married if they enter med school, as they were when I was in grade school. But Blacks don't have separate drinking fountains either, as they did then. "Better" does not mean "Good" or even "minimally acceptable".
TechCrunch delves into the issues more deeply, and I'd recommend you go there, as there's far too much to cover in just one blog post.

As a side issue (for once) there's a comment on the Telegraph that reads, in part,
If male and female brains operate differently, how do we account for transgender issues, and when the girls are as good as boys at all sorts of things... We can also change our hardwiring, look at concepts such as long-term potentation for example and treatments of depression.
You can guess how I answered....

1 comment:

mythusmage said...

So at the core we're both strange for the same basic reason, but for different specific reasons. You're intersexed, I'm autistic, and we both owe our state to genes and environment.

I still say the adventures of the Brillo is a classic of its genre. :)