Thursday, March 15, 2007

Women and Technology, Again

In my little corner of the blogosphere, we haven't had this conversation in a while. You know, the "where are the women" conversation. Partly that's because many of the blogs I read are by women, and the men I read seem to be pretty much aware that there are women bloggers out there and that they're pretty darn good. Maybe it's because we have Bitch, Ph.D in our corner. I don't know.

But in the tech world, especially the web development world, the issue of gender diversity has once again raised its head. I first saw mention of this at Kimberly's blog, and followed many of her links to fill myself in. I guess the firestorm started with Jason Kottke's post listing the specific gender breakdown of many of the most high profile tech conferences. Then Eric Meyer claimed he didn't care about diversity, which prompted a couple of responses from Anil Dash. Go read them yourself and then come back here. Substitute computer science, physics, chemistry conferences (or programs, for that matter), and the arguments are the same. "Women aren't really interested. I can't find any women speakers. I'm appealing to my audience, which is 95% male (hmm, wonder why)." The fact that they use the same arguments regardless of the field is a huge red flag. It says, we don't want to look at ourselves and figure out why we can't see past our biases; we want to lay the blame elsewhere. They refuse to examine the real issues behind why there aren't more women in these roles.

I'm not an industry person. I'd say I classify myself more as a student of technology rather than a creator of that technology. Therefore, I'm not likely to be called on as a participant in those conferences. However, I'm certainly involved in supporting the future women of tech. As is Mr. Geeky (probably to a much larger degree). And we both regularly see bias in the work we do. Mr. Geeky has taken teams of women to programming competitions, robot competitions, conferences. There have been far too many times when his team were the only women there. It's 2007, people. This should not be happening. But you know, when the guys treat you like a secretary instead of a future computer scientist, you kind of lose your taste for the field. Read Female CS Gradstudent or See Jane Compute. Plenty of examples of men acting stupid.

Even in 2007 women, actually girls, are still often not encouraged to pursue anything really technical. It starts very early. I was talking to some high school teachers at an all girls' school who were lamenting that none of their students took the CS courses offered at the boys' school next door. I'm thinking it's because they don't want to be the only girl in the room. It takes a lot of guts to participate in that kind of environment and if you haven't been playing around with computers or programming before this point, it's easy to be intimidated.

To put this whole thing in a framework I am often using, the phenomenon follows many of the principles of emergence. We have a system that follows pretty simple rules: pick people we already know, who are already famous. Changing the system requires changing the rules. But there's a tendency toward staying the same. There's a tendency to connect to the people who are already connected. We have to try to go against the those tendencies. And that's going to take some serious effort.

I'm getting tired but I have a little more to say about self-selection and some other related issues.