Women in computing: first, get the problem right

Every few months I trip over another earnest attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in software and computing fields. Very few women opt to become programmers, system administrators, or hardware/software engineers. Indeed, the number of women who try seems to be falling rather than rising. This observation is invariably accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing and proposals for elaborate and (too often) coercive schemes to achieve “gender parity” – all doomed, because the actual problem is misdiagnosed.

I’m writing about this because I think the misdiagnosis arises largely from a refusal to speak uncomfortable truths. Discussion of the problem is nearly suffocated under a cloud of political correctness, cant, and willful blindness to the actual conditions of working in this field. Honesty won’t automatically fix the problems, but it’s a prerequisite to fixing the problems.

Let’s get one shibboleth out of the way first: Larry Summers was right to be skeptical about the prospects for “equality” in STEM (science, technology, math, engineering) fields in general. Just the difference in dispersion of the IQ curves for males and females guarantees that, let alone the significant differences in mean at spatial visualization and mathematical ability. Removing all the institutional, social and psychological barriers will not achieve a 1:1 sex ratio in these fields; the best we can hope for is a large, happy female minority – that is, as opposed to a small and unhappy one.

It needs pointing out that 1:1 parity is not achievable without coercing men out of these fields, because there are actually political moves afoot in the U.S. to try to achieve this through an extension of federal Title IX legislation to STEM fields. This would be a disaster, compounding already-serious incentive problems in academia that threaten the U.S.’s ability to sustain STEM research at all. (Summary: Cash-strapped corporations won’t fund basic research, and the academic system to support it is collapsing because grad students are underpaid, overworked, and no longer have a realistic shot at tenure.)

Having recognized this, though, formulating a goal with recognizable win conditions does get more difficult. It has to go something like this: any woman who wants to be in a STEM field should be able to get as far as talent, hard work, and desire to succeed will take her, without facing artificial barriers erected by prejudice or other factors. If there are women who dream of being in STEM but have felt themselves driven off that path, the system is failing them. And the system is failing itself, too; talent is not so common that we can afford to waste it.

Now I’m going to refocus on computing, because that’s what I know best and I think it exhibits the problems that keep women out of STEM fields in an extreme form. There’s a lot of political talk that the tiny and decreasing number of women in computing is a result of sexism and prejudice that has to be remedied with measures ranging from sensitivity training up through admission and hiring quotas. This talk is lazy, stupid, wrong, and prevents correct diagnosis of much more serious problems.

I don’t mean to deny that there is still prejudice against women lurking in dark corners of the field. But I’ve known dozens of women in computing who wouldn’t have been shy about telling me if they were running into it, and not one has ever reported it to me as a primary problem. The problems they did report were much worse. They centered on one thing: women, in general, are not willing to eat the kind of shit that men will swallow to work in this field.

Now let’s talk about death marches, mandatory uncompensated overtime, the beeper on the belt, and having no life. Men accept these conditions because they’re easily hooked into a monomaniacal, warrior-ethic way of thinking in which achievement of the mission is everything. Women, not so much. Much sooner than a man would, a woman will ask: “Why, exactly, am I putting up with this?”

Correspondingly, young women in computing-related majors show a tendency to tend to bail out that rises directly with their comprehension of what their working life is actually going to be like. Biology is directly implicated here. Women have short fertile periods, and even if they don’t consciously intend to have children their instincts tell them they don’t have the option young men do to piss away years hunting mammoths that aren’t there.

There are other issues, too, like female unwillingness to put up with working environments full of the shadow-autist types that gravitate to programming. But I think those are minor by comparison, too. If we really want to fix the problem of too few women in computing, we need to ask some much harder questions about how the field treats everyone in it.

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