Women In Development
July 8, 2014
When I started with GeekHive, I noticed a few things. First, everyone was smart and competent. Second, they were nice, pleasant to work with, and got things done when they said they would. Third, almost everyone was a man.
These Young Men are Actually the Good Old Boys
The realization that I work in a male-dominated field wasn’t a surprise. I’m also a classical and folk musician, and music is heavily male-dominated as well. At least there’s an open conversation happening there, with notable in-roads by women into the elite orchestras. However, if I consider the last four jobs that I’ve had in IT, I’ve never worked with a female developer.
In the tech field, recruiting is an ongoing puzzle. The short list of qualifications for a software engineer is that they’re smart and get things done. Yet, as hard as it is to find people who fit that description, I think it falls short. “Diverse” needs to be added to the equation, not bolted on at the end of the search.
The problem is deeper though, since companies are recruiting college grads at the end of a very long pipeline – one that is slanted towards men and away from women. While colleges (well, some colleges at least) are acknowledging the gender bias, and changing their programs and measures, if you’ve ever worked at a college, you know that’s a really slow process. And more to the point, an institution making changes isn’t the same as a teacher changing his stance on women in the sciences and applying it to the classroom. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
The number of women who major in the sciences is impacted by our very own culture, which states openly, “women are bad at math.” Of course that statement isn’t true, but the damage it causes is measurable. We live out that bad narrative in how we recruit, how we setup our offices, how we set up our teams. We create workplaces where women are only allowed to exist at the periphery of the technological action. We do that, not because we’re bad people, but because we allow it.
Why Would a Woman Want to Work Here?
One observation from a new coworker (paraphrased) was, “This place looks cool, if you’re a programmer.” It was a nice way of saying that the programmer’s desks and the programmer area looks a little like a man-cave. Why not create a space where everyone is comfortable?
A couple of years ago, I observed an interaction between a male programmer and a female account manager where he chided her when she asked a technical question. The event jumped out at me, because a normally soft-spoken man became a bully when it came time to defend is his tech turf. I asked why he had to get loud and condescending to answer the question. Then, we talked about gender bias and eventually resolved the issue. I’m sure they thought I was being overly “dramatical,” but my hope is that it will nudge their behavior into a more respectful and functional direction.
I hate to say something as silly as “if you build it they will come.” Women won’t become programmers just because you create a work culture where they can excel. But they will leave if you create one that prevents them from success.
The Internet is a Series of Tubes… Carrying Women into Our Office
Rather than wait for colleges to address the problem, or lament that HR can’t recruit women who will tolerate the (unfortunate) status quo in programmer culture, we have to act. We have to reach out to a diverse group of people and we need to grab their attention early in the game. Male, female, black, white, whatever. We have to engage our communities, whatever those communities may be, and show them that their success in IT can be from skill and hard work, not gender.
We have options. I started something called CodeClub to teach basic web development. I invite women, high schools students, senior citizens, and anyone who will listen. I can’t describe in short terms how much the mere act of reaching out has changed how I appreciate those I reach to. As my thoughts on this issue mature, I’m sure we can act as a company as well: we can sponsor code meet-ups in local high schools and encourage girls to participate. We can sponsor programs through the Girl Scouts. We may never get a recruit out of our efforts, but we can affect some small change in the world, and a huge change in our own company culture. If other tech firms follow suit, we can amplify that change.
We gain by giving up monopoly, by cooperating with other smart people who get stuff done. It’s not zero-sum math, so being exclusive doesn’t make sense.
Women don’t need permission to be good; they need the doors to be unlocked and the war to end. “War” sounds like a hyperbolic description, but it isn’t. Acting to end the boundaries makes us more aware of them, and awareness makes us better people.
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