For those of us who’ve learned to actually be aware of sexism and racism, it’s incredibly frustrating how the same stupid pathetic arguments about sexism keep getting regurgitated, over and over again, by clueless guys. It’s exhausting and frustrating to constantly answer the same stupid, bullshit arguments. But if it’s frustrating to a white guy like me, just imagine what it’s like for the people who are actually affected by it!
This rant is brought on by the fact that lately, there’s been a movement in the tech/engineering community to try to actually do something about the amount of sexism in the community, by trying to push conference organizers to include speakers outside the usual group of guys.
You see, it’s a sad fact that engineering, as a field, is incredibly sexist. We don’t like to admit it. Tons of people constantly deny it, and make excuses for it, and refuse to try to do anything about it. Many people in this field really, genuinely believe that technology is a true meritocracy: those of us who succeed because we deserve to succeed. We see ourselves as self-made: we’ve earned what we’ve got. Anyone else – anyone else – who worked as hard as we do, who’s as good as we are, would succeed as much as we have.
Unfortunately, that’s not reality. Women and minorities of all sorts have a much harder time in this community than the typical guy. But when you try to do anything about this, the meritocrats throw a tantrum. They get actively angry and self-righteous when anyone actually tries to do anything about it. You can’t actively try to hire women: that’s discriminating against the guys! You’re deliberately trying to hire inferior people! It’s not fair!
I am not exaggerating this. Here’s an example.
Summing it up, turning away qualified male candidates and accepting potentially less qualified female candidates just to meet a quota is not only sexist, but is a horrible face to put on the problem. My wife is a nurse. A female dominated field. I also own a construction company. A male dominated field. In neither field would you see a company or an organization suggest hiring one gender over the other to satisfy a ratio.
What exactly is being accomplished by limiting the speakers at an event, or your employee base to an equal male / female ratio? Turning away qualified candidates and hiring purely based on gender, or religion, or race? What does having a program like Women Who Code, PyLadies, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, etc… accomplish? The short answer; very little if anything. In fact, I believe groups like this have the potential actually do more harm than good. But I’m not here to debate the minutia of any of those groups so I’ll summarize;…
Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously suggest that you should
turn away candidates based purely on gender, or race, or whatever.
What we do advocate is recognizing that there are people other than white guys in the world, and maybe we should actually include them once in a while.
The majority of people running tech conferences are white guys. When they think about inviting people to come speak, they’re naturally going to start off with a list of “Who do I know who’d be a good speaker?”. The nature of the tech community is that the vast majority of people that they immediately think of are going to be men – because the majority of people they’ve worked with, and the majority of people they’e seen speak at other conferences were men.
People love to handwave this, talking about how it’s just that the field is so male dominated. It’s true that it is, but there are many problems with that as an excuse:
- The male domination of the field isn’t meritocratic. We discriminate against people who aren’t like us at every level – from elementary school teachers discouraging little girls from being interested in math, to college classmates harassing women in their classes, to people conducting job interviews and making hiring decisions.
- The actual fraction of women who work in tech is much larger than the fraction of women in leadership, or who are invited to give talks at conferences.
- There are a shocking number of women who are driven out of technology and engineering by harassment by their male coworkers.
People get really angry when we say thing like this. Part of it is that old meritocracy thing: you’re saying that I didn’t earn my success.
Guess what? You didn’t. Not entirely. No one succeeds solely on the basis of their own merit. There’s always a huge amount of luck involved – being in the right place, having the right body, having the right parents, having the right opportunities. Yes, hard work, talent, and skill helped you get to where you are. It’s a very large, very important factor in your success. But if you were born to a different family, with exactly the same abilities, you might not have ever had any chance at succeeding, despite equally hard work.
The other side of this is actually a sign of progress. We’ve come to accept that racism and sexism are bad. That’s a really good thing. But in our black-and-white way of seeing the world, we know that sexism is bad: therefore, if I’m sexist, I’m a bad person.
That’s not true. Sexism is a deeply ingrained attribute in our culture. It’s pretty much impossible to grow up in the US or in Europe, or in China, or in India, or in Africa, without being constantly immersed in sexist attitudes. You’re going to be exposed – and not just exposed, but educated in a way that teaches you to have the attitudes that come from your culture.
Recognizing that you’ve grown up in a sexist culture, and acknowledging that this had an effect on you and your attitudes doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. Refusing to admit that your culture had any influence on you, and continuing to discriminate against people because you can’t admit that you might do something wrong? That’s what makes you a bad person.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s a damned good story, and it’s true, and it’s not hearsay: it’s my personal first-hand experience. It’s part of my own awakening to just how pervasive gender bias is.
A long time ago now, I worked for IBM Research. My third year working there, I volunteered to be the summer student coordinator for my department. The previous year, IBM Research had hired around 100 summer students, and exactly one of them was a woman. The vast majority were white guys, with a sizable minority of Chinese and Indian guys. The pool of candidates was nowhere near that skewed. It’s definitely true that men outnumber women in computer science by a sizable factor, but not 99 to 1. Our candidate pool was more like 5 men to 1 woman.
So, that year, the powers that be at the company decided that we needed to do something about it. What they decided to do was allocate a reasonable number of summer student slots to each department based on the departments budget, and they could use those slots to hire anyone they wanted. If they hired a candidate who was a woman or minority, they didn’t count against the budget. (Note that they did not reduce the number of students we were allowed to hire: they allocated based on the usual budget. They set up an additional budget for the extra students.)
My department was one of the smaller ones. We were allocated 5 slots for summer students. The day we started allowing people to request students, all 5 were gone within a couple of hours. The next day, the guy across the hall from me came to my office with a resume for a student he wanted to hire. Of course, it was a guy.
I told him that we couldn’t hire him – our budget was gone. But if he could find a woman, we didn’t need budget to hire her.
He threw a fit. It was the angriest I ever saw him. (Most of the time, he was a really nice, mellow guy, so he was really upset about his!) It was discrimination! Sexism! Unfair! He carefully went through the resume database looking for the best candidate, not the best male candidate. We were refusing to hire the most qualified candidate! On, and on, and on. I finally got rid of him, after pointing out at least a dozen times that I was just a lowly junior engineer, not someone who made the policy.
The next day, he was back in my office. He was practically bouncing off the walls: he’d gone back to the resume database, and he’d found a woman who was even better than the guy he’d wanted to hire.
This is the point of the whole story. He wasn’t some nasty, spiteful, misogynistic twit. He wasn’t being deliberately discriminatory. He wasn’t consciously screening out women’s resumes. But the fact is, when he went through the resume database without being forced to consider women, he’d eliminated the resumes of every single woman. He was going through a database of 1000s of resumes, and in that process of quickly skimming, he skipped over a more qualified candidate, because she had a woman’s name.
This is what happens in the real world. We don’t deliberately try to be sexists. We don’t act in a deliberately sexist or discriminatory way. But we’re part of a culture that has deeply ingrained sexist attitudes. We’re taught, by the way teachers treat boys and girls differently in school. We’re taught, by the way that society treats us differently. We absorb the message that when it comes to things like engineering, women are inferior. Most of the time, we don’t even really notice that we’ve absorbed that. But we have. It’s been hammered into us so many times, in so many ways, in so many settings – it would be shocking if we didn’t pick it up.
I’m using my experience at IBM as an example, partly because it’s such a vivid demonstration, and partly because it’s impossible to figure out the real names of anyone involved. But I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen in every job I’ve had where I’ve been involved with hiring. It’s not usually deliberate, but it’s very real.
The point of things like the pledges to not attend conferences that don’t have women and minorities as speakers and participants isn’t because we want to exclude the most qualified speakers. It isn’t because we want to force conference planners to include less qualified speakers. It’s because we know that it’s easy, without trying, to exclude some of the most qualified speakers, because the people running the conference don’t notice them.
They’re just like my friend at IBM: they’re not deliberately trying to exclude women. But if they don’t actively try to think about people outside the usual pool of guys like them, they won’t include any. And if they don’t, then they’re priming the next round of conference planners to do the same: if everyone you’ve seen give a great talk at a conference is a guy, then when you’re planning a conference and you try to think of some great speakers to invite, then who’s going to come to mind?
I’m particularly annoyed at the snipe that the author of the quote up above takes at “Girls Who Code”. GWC is a great organization. If you actually take the time to listen to the people who run it, you’ll hear some appalling true stories, about things like young women who go to college to study computer science, and on their first day in class, have classmates telling them that they’re in the wrong classroom: this is a programming class, not a class for chicks.
We have a community where we treat women like that. And then we rant and rave about how horribly unfair it is to do anything about it.