On Competence and the Wringing Of Hands – Kate Paulk
It should surprise no one here that, me being a software tester by day job, I read a fair few software blogs. Mostly they stick to the nitty gritty of the programming world, sometimes with ranting (oh, who am I kidding. Get a software geek ranting and you have something epic that chances are most of the world not only doesn’t understand, but even if they did they wouldn’t see the point. It’s a bit like the operating system wars). Largely, though, it’s a very merit-based world. If you have good things to say you’ll be followed.
Occasionally though, you get things like this [http://blog.codinghorror.com/what-can-men-do/]. Now, I respect the living hell out of the guy who writes this blog. He’s one of the people who created the Stack Exchange network. He knows software like few others do. And here, he’s drunk the ink. Big-time.
It’s no secret that programming is an incredibly male dominated field.
- Figures vary, but somewhere from 20% to 29% of currently working programmers are female.
- Less than 12% of Computer Science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women at US PhD-granting institutions in 2010.
So, on average, only about 1 out of every 5 working programmers you’ll encounter will be female. You could say technology has a man problem.
Really? Let’s take a look at what programming actually requires. It’s a demanding field where there’s little room for perspective. The software either does the job or it doesn’t. If it does do the job, then you can start throwing in things like how well it does it and the design and so forth. But at the sharp end, you’re talking about 1s and 0s that are do not have an indeterminate state.
More than that, it requires very specific syntax and instruction sets, because when you strip away all the fluff computers are nothing more than very fast morons. They will always do exactly what they have been instructed to do, they do not read the minds of the operator or programmer, and they don’t do what the operator or programmer wanted them to do unless that happens to be what they were told to do. In very specific steps.
The analogy I was given back in my software engineering degree was that you can tell a person to cross a room by saying “Go to the other side of the room.” To tell a computer this (we’ll presume a robot here), you might start with something in a high level language that does the equivalent of telling your robot to go to the other side of the room. That is broken down into steps along the lines of (in pseudo-code because it’s easier to follow):
While not (at destination) do
The TakeStep breaks down even more, describing what to tense, what to loosen, which direction to swing the hips, how to balance on one leg while the other is making all those complex movements, how and when to shift balance, and so forth.
All of that decomposes even further into a whole lot of 1s and 0s.
In most entry level software engineering classes, maybe one person in five is capable of the kind of logical breakdown that can go from “walk across the room” to the hundreds of tiny changes that are needed to actually do it. Of those, most will be male.
Why? The male sex hormones are the biggest factor in the development of the parts of the brain that handle things like formal logic, analysis, and so forth (also spatial reasoning, direction sense and hyper-focus). Pretty much by definition, any women who are good enough to do this will be atypical.
In an earlier post I noted that many software developers I’ve known have traits of Aspergers. Aspergers is a spectrum disorder; the more severe the symptoms, the closer it is to autism. And did you know that autism skews heavily towards males at a 4:1 ratio?
Interesting. I might even go so far as to say some of those traits are what makes one good at programming.
Leaving aside the question of whether autism spectrum is being massively over-diagnosed where the real classification is “typical boy”, yes, the skill set that is best suited to programming does overlap rather a lot with what’s called high-functioning autism. In a way, this even makes sense, since one of the core issues with autism spectrum issues is the ability of the brain to filter out unwanted input. In people with autism spectrum issues, that ability is somewhat hampered, forcing the person to develop their own filtering routines. These routines do, at a certain level, resemble the way software works.
I’ve compared programmers to auto mechanics and plumbers in the past. And you’ll notice squarely where those occupations are on the above graphs. There’s nothing wrong with being an auto mechanic or a plumber (or a programmer, for that matter), but is there anything about those particular professions that demands, in the name of social justice, that there must be 50% male plumbers and 50% female plumbers?
Funnily enough, I’ve never seen the Feminist Glittery Hoo Haa crowd agitate for gender equity in plumbers. I’m sure the fact that plumbing is a dirty, smelly, and often unpleasant job has nothing to do with this. Really. Stop laughing, you.
Now Atwood quotes Sara J. Chipps on why all of the above is problematic. I won’t quote the quote in full, just the key points and my observations.
1) Diversity leads to better products and results
Really? Diversity of what? This is a load of shit, frankly. A diverse customer base leads to a diverse range of products and results. It doesn’t matter a damn who creates that range so long as the people doing it are smart enough to recognize that their customers aren’t widgets.
Not to mention, reducing “diversity” to a combination of skin color and possession of dangly bits is frigging insulting. I have pale skin and an innie. The idea that this makes me just like everyone else with pale skin and an innie is laughable. Most of my “diversity” is going on inside my skull and is completely invisible to the wider world.
What’s more, I work in the damn field. I’ve worked in other male-dominated fields. I’ve never been treated differently because of the innie – but then I’ve also made damn sure I’m competent and I do the job I’m being paid for.
2) The Internet is the largest recording of human history ever built
And? The Internet is full of applications that are used by people all over the world. The people using those applications are what is recording the history, not the people who write them. If your 80 year old grandmother who’s never seen a computer before can figure out how to write and update a blog, if kids from a village in Africa can work out how to use laptops and how to hack them without any instructions, then I guarandamntee you it doesn’t matter if the people who write the software have an innie or an outie.
3) Women in 10 years need to be able to provide for themselves, and their families
And men in 10 years don’t? Is there any guarantee that software engineers 10 years from now will be able to support their families? Nope. There is only the assumption that software engineering is going to stay a relatively high-status and high-pay occupation.
You know what is going to be around in 10 years and provide a living? Plumbing. Electricians. You know, all the heavily male careers that are also hard work, hot, dirty, and often dangerous. The ones that frequently also call for a fair amount of brute strength (yes, electricians, too. You know how much those mega-sized extension leads weigh?). Programming is already being outsourced to places where the programmers will work for a dollar an hour and think they’re doing well (we won’t go into the quality of the software they write… let’s just say that there are always a ton of assumptions behind software and many of them are cultural so someone from a different culture isn’t going to get them…).
Atwood’s next effort is a long list of things that can be done to make programming a “more welcoming profession for women”. Hell, it’s not a welcoming profession for most men. It attracts weird, it attracts poorly-socialized people (yes, I’m one of these. I can fake it for a while, but sooner or later the truth shows). Programming is ultimately for people whose focus is on cutting through the crap that makes up most of everyday life and teaching a very fast moron to do things that the ordinary everyday people think are valuable. If you don’t have the basic competence, you might as well not bother.
Now, I think Atwood meant well. He is, for the most part, a decent person who likes good software. What he doesn’t get is that women in the USA have been told for years that they are capable of anything, and that any criticism of them is sexist. These two concepts are not compatible. Nor are they true.
Women are not capable of defeating men on a pure strength-for-strength basis. They need an equalizer of the Sam Colt variety. This is not sexist, it is biology. Women have a different center of mass, a different balance, a lower muscle mass and lower muscle density. Yes, a female body builder will likely wipe the floor with an average male about her size. She won’t be able to do that with a male body builder about her size. That’s just one example. There are many, many more.
As for criticism, well, you have to learn to distinguish between personal attacks and critique. It doesn’t matter who you are (or whether you’ve got an innie or an outie) you will make mistakes. Some will be minor mistakes. Others will be such a breathtaking “oh my god what have I done” balls up you’d swear there was a bull elephant on his back somewhere. Critique that looks at what was done and how to make it better and/or not make that mistake again is not racist, sexist, or anything-else-ist, even if it comes in the bluntest and crudest wrapper imaginable (if you’re dealing with poorly socialized males, this is pretty much a given).
Are we clear? Good.
Now, let me point out that in my varied career attempts, I’ve been a field geologist in a 6 person camp. I was the only female there, and I was dealing with manly! men, the kind of men to whom a woman being pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen was possibly dangerously liberal. I had no problems. Why? I did my job. I did not complain. I did not ask for help unless I’d already tried to do something and couldn’t. I hauled the bags of ore chippings myself because that was part of my job (with one exception – the bag that contained the chips from three meters of damn near solid silver-lead-zinc ore. That thing weighed about double what I did and I couldn’t even drag it). I dealt with the heat, the dust, and I didn’t treat the men’s language or their discussions as anything to be upset about.
As a result, they respected me. Not as “a woman” but as “Kate, the field geo”.
The same thing applies in software engineering, or anywhere else. If you do the job and don’t make a fuss over stupid shit like everyone calling USB drives “dongles” or the way connectors are labeled male or female depending on whether they’ve got innies or outies, you’ll get on fine. I have. And do. Not only that, I feel like I belong because I know damn well I’ve earned the respect of my co-workers.
So no, there is no need to “encourage” anyone, be they black, white, purple, male, female, “yes please”, or anything else. People will seek the fields that interest them. The traditionally male-dominated fields are still largely merit-based: those that do a good job will be respected regardless of the nature of their dual couplings.
And shame on the Feminist Glittery Hoo Haas for conflating merit with bigotry.