Why you shouldn’t hire me

Last year I had the chance to go to San Francisco to attend the Apple WWDC. I won’t talk about the conference itself, except to say that one thing struck me about it that I still think about. In a conference with about 5,000 attendees, there must have been a maximum of maybe 250 women attending, about one-in-twenty. I think that’s being generous too.

Of course this bias amongst software engineers is no surprise to anyone in the industry, but I think addressing this deficit should be given some sort of priority. I have my reasons and it has little to do with principles of equality. Simply put, software engineering needs a gender balance so that we can get better at what we do. I’m going to use gender balance to generalize my points, but the argument applies to just about any division that we apply to ourselves as humans; race, socio-economic status, etc. as software engineering is basically dominated by white males.

To use an analogy, as an industry we need to foster “bio-diversity” amongst our developers. I can’t speak with any exact knowledge, and forgive me for painting with broad brushstrokes, but it is reasonable to speculate that generally there are qualities that women contribute to the industry that are unique and positive beyond the capabilities they have in common with their male counterparts. As much as I believe people should be treated as individuals on their individual merits, I think it is important to recognize the potential of having a more diverse human resource in the software engineering pool.

When I’ve broached the issue with (male) colleagues, they tend to shrug. You can’t magically attract people to something if they aren’t inclined towards it. This is true, but I’d like to suggest that the reason that women aren’t particularly attracted to programming is because the tools (including the languages) have been mostly written by men, and although it may not be intentional, their design and utility is geared towards male patterns of organisation and logic. Only recently has usability and accessibility for software interfaces become a priority. No one thinks about writing tools that are accessible too. As a result, I imagine the barrier of entry is generally higher for anyone who isn’t the person who wrote the tools, i.e. women.

I also don’t think there is anything wrong with the culture of software engineering that might be turning women away. Actually, I think that the professional culture amongst software developers is very inclusive and approachable. More so perhaps than other male dominated professions where women have a far greater foothold such as law and politics.

There is a real need for affirmative action on the part of industry. As software becomes even more pervasive there is a need to ensure that those creating it have the same breadth of diversity as those who are using it.

The view for the industry applies on the smaller scale of individual offices too. Sure you want someone who is a good fit for your company’s or team’s culture and you want someone who is capable, but you also need to assess whether having a single type of perspective on the work you are doing is a good idea. That’s why you shouldn’t hire me. You probably already have someone just like me on your team. In fact there’s a good chance that your whole software engineering team is probably just like me; male (and white).

  1. Andy said:

    Are there few female carpenters because hammers were invented by men? I saw pink tools at the store… though not profession grade. Maybe the problem is that the work itself is not inherently attractive to young females who are deciding what they will spend their time learning. That happens many years before they are filling out job applications. Why aren’t girls attracted to programming? The male:female ratio at my engineering school (5:1) was lower than the ratios at competing schools, a fact advertised to prospective students by the admissions department.

    I think you are right about the professional culture being inclusive but what about the amateur culture? Even if it isn’t typical, the welcome I’ve seen toward women in IRC is deeply misogynistic. Most of the successful female engineers in that space maintain gender-neutral presences while in that space. If I find out after many interactions that the person is male or female and their gender never crossed my mind, so much the better. There are places where gender has no business being advertised. But this is all beside the point because these women are already interested in programming.

    I do not think the tools are a handicap to women. I think the early experiences of each young person, along with their personal strengths, determine the pattern of their interests. As long as females are avoiding abstract technical work when they are teenagers choosing their career paths, affirmative action in the workplace is misplaced. It belongs earlier in life, during the most formative years. Can you buy a toy that will promote your daughter’s interest in abstract technical thought?

  2. Were hammers actually invented by men? 🙂

    Thanks Andy, you raise good points about the amateur culture. Many internet based conversations (mailing-lists, forums, etc.) can be very combative places as well. Mind you, I’m reminded that in my professional experience, I know first hand the civilizing influence that even a single female colleague can have on an office environment.

    While I do agree that perhaps there should be affirmative action at education levels, I think it is more important to have examples or even role-models in professional spheres. A persons line of study doesn’t always dictate their career path either, it certainly didn’t affect mine. It might just come down to acknowledging it as something that needs to be addressed, rather than not thinking about it as a problem at all.

    I still think the tools might be a culprit, the same way only having references for a tool in English is a barrier to a non-english speaker, I think the structure of a tool is going to be biased towards the creators thinking and create a barrier for anyone who doesn’t share their way of thinking.

    > Can you buy a toy that will promote your daughter’s interest in abstract technical thought?

    I don’t think so, but the first time she asks me if she can play a game on my computer I’ll tell her if she writes one she can play it as much as she likes. How’s that?

  3. _ck_ said:

    I see it as somewhat of a chicken and egg problem.
    I don’t like working exclusively with men – it gets annoying after awhile 😉
    I can’t speak for others but unless one has a “pioneer spirit”
    it’s hard to find motivation to work in an environment of all men.

    Every company I’ve worked for (even AOL but that was years ago)
    did not have any woman at a senior technical level.
    The only other women I know in the computer industry are independents.

    So, Automattic is up to 17 white male coders now (out of 18 employees?)
    (I’m not quite certain what Maya does).
    I hope they hire some women and/or minorities sooner than later.
    You’d be amazed at how productive a different perspective can be.
    But don’t just hire ONE woman, bring a few onboard at the same time.

  4. I am a woman. I have estrogen. I am a coder. I don’t think the lack of female software engineers is related to the tools. My husband is also computer scientist, and I am more organized than he is and logic doesn’t bother me. In fact, some people actually get a bit exasperated with me because I need things to be logical in order to work on them. Oh, and I have my own toolbox. I got tired of looking for stuff in my husband’s toolbox, and not finding it because he hadn’t put it back the last time he used it. Now, when he needs something, he always wants to borrow mine. I always cringe just a bit, and remind him that he darn tooting better put it back when he is done.

    I agree that having women on staff can add a layer of civility that may be missing in an all male team. I used to be involved in a project called SmoothWall. I won’t go into how I got involved, that is just too boring, but the main point was that there was a guy on the mailing list that, while he always had the right technical answer to the question posed, couldn’t give the answer without giving it in a rude and aggressive way. Unfortunately, he was the project leader. Being the type of person I am, I emailed him and basically told him he needed to get off his own mailing list, and get someone else to deal with the user base if he couldn’t be civil. That was the start of my 9 month stint as the “Worldwide Online Support Manager”. It seemed that I was the only person with whom he could hold a polite conversation without using profanity or personal attacks. I guess even 3000+ miles away, my estrogen encouraged civility.

    As for the amateur culture, there is something to be said for that. In the IRC, which is where most of the support for the product was done, many users would initially ignore my responses – because I was a woman. It wasn’t until the other developers would basically tell them to either follow my advice or get lost that some users would start listening to me.

    A bigger problem than early life conditioning and conduct in IRC channels, is the basic interactions that go on between prospective employees and employers. I have heard horrible reasons that people were not chosen: “she seemed qualified, but has a family to support”, ” will make a great addition to our softball/golf/other sport team”, “unfortunately, women are only good workers 3 weeks each month”. Yes, it is amazing what can be overheard if you sit in the lobby and check your voicemail after an interview. Interviewers somehow don’t think about the fact that the people they interviewed may still be in the building when they leave for lunch. Even sadder, though this didn’t involve a woman, was this comment in an employee’s performance review: “Surprisingly, even though is of a different ethnic background than the rest of the team, he gets along well with his co-workers and fits in well.” Gee, what did that supervisor really expect? It wasn’t like the guy was a cannibal trying to control his urge to consume his co-workers. Discrimination comes in so many forms. Sigh.

    What it comes down to is that in this life, one really needs to pick one’s fights. And I just don’t choose to fight with the 20-year-old pimply faced geek-wanna-be’s at Best Buy who think they know better what hardware I need that I (and my estrogen) have determined I need. Gee, I have only been building firewalls since these guys were in middle school. By the same token, I don’t choose to fight with potential employers. I suppose I could take them to court on a discrimination case, but where would that get me? It would be in the local papers and then no other local company would touch me with a ten foot pole. I have few enough call backs as it is.

    All we can do is encourage companies that DO try to move in more gender equitable ways. Moreover, to encourage companies that try to move in more equitable ways towards ALL applicants. In doing so, the young of this generation will see that gender doesn’t need to be a condition when selecting a major.

    Now, all that said, I realize I have painted myself as the girl wearing the “Here Comes Trouble” t-shirt. But, Automattic is hiring, so I’ll submit my resume. Maybe they will see past the t-shirt and consider the moxy to be an asset and not a drawback. If not, well, to thine own self be true.

  5. @beccaward

    My “broad brushstrokes” were never going to capture the details of every persons experience so thanks for taking the time to share yours.

    You touch on a few points with regards to employee/employer relations which I would like to respond to. I came to realise a while ago how much cultural “fit” matters to employers. They are interested in qualifications and experience if they are smart, but on top of that they are ultimately going to have to spend their working days with the person they are hiring – that’s why the comments you heard like the one about being a great addition to the company sports team are passed. Personally I don’t discount those comments as completely trite. The hirer in that situation is weighing up the potential employees fit into their companies culture and into their own life. It’s fine if that fact works in the persons favour over another similarly appropriate candidate. Of course it would go off the rails if that was their main concern. The supervisor who wrote the performance report you mention typifies this team culture focus, his expression was lazy and ultimately unacceptable but he showed this typical concern for creating a harmonious workplace. Many companies spend lots of money to “team build” and to create their own corporate culture, it’s not a small deal.

    My concern in all this is that in our industry there is a cultural change required to bring about equality. It’s OK if those cultural fit considerations are made when the culture is diverse enough or at least the hirer is smart enough to not favour the white males, which is overwhelmingly where the creative side of IT sits at the moment. I’m a fan of affirmative action, I think it gets the job done faster in most cases like this. But to be honest I think it will just occur by natural attrition. Those who are better able to understand broader perspectives will be better equipped to deal with broader markets, and that requires creating inclusive corporate cultures.

    I’m willing to drop the idea that the tools are the problem – although I’d love to see some quantitative data on the topic, like usability tests. I doubt there is much of that sort of thing about, and I have no idea if it could be easily evaluated. I still think there are definite barriers to access to tools due to socio-political divides though, despite most of the world kindly learning to speak English for my benefit.

  6. Chris Sebastian said:

    The reason there are more males than females in engineering and technical fields is that males and females are _different_. They have different interests. Their brains work differently.

    The day that young girls are just as excited about video games as young boys are, maybe this will change. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    ~Christopher Sebastian

  7. @Chris

    My claims don’t doubt there are inherent differences between genders. My point is that I think the gender bias is ingrained in the tools and to an extent the culture.

    I don’t particularly see the correlation between video games and programming.

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