Women in Computing — Part 2

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<strong>A quick review</strong><br />
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So, tech has some gender issues. <a href="/article/5123-women-in-computing-the-numbers-problem" target="_blank">In Part 1 of this series</a> I introduced the topic, talked a lot about the statistics, and a little about what they mean for women in the industry. One of the anonymous, female, written responses to the survey I ran summarized the problem well:<br />
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&ldquo;I believe most women in STEM learn pretty quickly that they need to ignore the vast majority of sexism that they experience. Speaking up about it results in backlash, and is usually just a waste of time because it is so difficult for people to understand. Especially when comments are very subtle, reacting to them will appear to be an &#39;overreaction.&#39; However, years of small comments add up to a lot of frustration. I know women who felt like they did not belong in their program and were simply accepted because they were female.&rdquo;<br />
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In this article I&rsquo;m going to expand on Part 1, look at some of the things that women are doing to solve the issue, and address a major criticism of the &ldquo;women in tech&rdquo; movement.<br />
Let&rsquo;s dive in, shall we.<br />
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<strong>Women in computing organizations and events</strong><br />
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The first Grace Hopper conference &ndash; an annual event celebrating women in computing &ndash; was first held in 1994. In its inaugural year it brought together 500 women. In 2013 the conference hosted over 4,750 attendees from 53 countries, including 1,900 students from over 400 academic institutions and 2,850 professionals from industry, government, and academia.<br />
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The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women is the largest and most well known &ldquo;women in tech&rdquo; conference, but there are countless others. Women 2.0 is an organization that, in addition to holding frequent networking events, writing about women in tech and hosting a startup pitch competition, has been running conferences since 2008 that celebrate women in computing. Women who Code, Ladies Learning Code, Girls Develop It, and Black Girls Who Code are also among the many organizations promoting women in technology.<br />
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Waterloo, as many of you likely know, has its own women in tech organizations: Computer Science has WiCS (Women in Computer Science), Engineering has WiE (Women in Engeineering), and Math was WiM (do I really need to spell it out for you?). For the purposes of this article and the sake of specificity, I&rsquo;m going to focus on WiCS.<br />
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There are two components to WiCS: the general committee and the undergraduate subcommittee. The subcommittee was split off from general WiCS in the fall of 2013 as part of an initiative spearheaded by Elana Hashman (who you&rsquo;ll remember from Part 1), then a committee member, to better serve needs of the undergraduate female CS student body. It began operating autonomously in the summer of 2014.<br />
Since being run autonomously, the undergrad committee has been extremely successful. Under the leadership of Hashman, the committee&rsquo;s first executive director, they have run weekly events which have seen excellent turnout, raised the profile of WiCS in the faculty, and brought in some pretty impressive speakers including Leigh Honeywell, a semi tech celebrity from Toronto who now works in security in Silicon Valley, and Sarah Sharp, a former Linux kernel program&shy;mer (kernel programming, for those who don&rsquo;t know, is pretty hardcore in the computing world).<br />
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A big part of what has made WiCS efficacious has been their push to provide technical, career, and academic services to women in the CS faculty. They have run over 40 hours of technical workshops, hosted a number of academic, industry, and co-op panels, improved on and built new corporate partnerships to help women transition into the workforce, and re-engineered the big CSters (read: big sisters) program to better provide mentorship for younger female CS students. They have also built their own computing environment (which requires a ton of server programming) and secured their own office.<br />
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In my survey, most men &shy;&shy;&shy;(67 per cent) supported women in tech organizations, while 21 per cent said they were explicitly against them. Majority support is certainly a positive, but I want to talk about the 21 per cent that disagree, because their reasons, as my research revealed, are not sexist or vindictive (for the most part), but are based on a central tenant of the computing industry ideology &ndash; the idea that tech is close to a perfect meritocracy. They are also a vocal bunch, as you&rsquo;ll see later.<br />
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<strong>The meritocracy myth</strong><br />
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For those that are unfamiliar with the idea, it states that success should be based solely on merit, and other factors (such as gender) are trivial and can be ignored. For the purposes of this article, it implies that in the realm of computing people are evaluated based on talent alone and that the entire industry is somehow immune to the biases, privileges, and corporate politics that plague the rest of the humanity. This idea has been perpetuated, embellished, and polished by the industry and media, and if you work in computing, it&rsquo;s understandable that you would want to believe it. The problem is that it&rsquo;s categorically false, and used as justification for opposing women in tech groups.<br />
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The ingrained belief that tech is a meritocracy leads to opinions like this one from an anonymous male survey response: &ldquo;I know a lot of very competent women in tech, and the ones I respect the most are able to do it on their own merit &hellip; The onus is on women if they want to get into computer science because they won&#39;t receive any special treatment from me, and I don&#39;t think they should.&rdquo;<br />
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Read almost any comment thread on a prominent article on the topic, and you&rsquo;ll see countless responses that espouse these ideals. For example, this comment on a TechCrunch article responding to a Newsweek piece on women in Silicon Valley: &ldquo;At what point do we say &lsquo;enough... women, if you want into tech, then step up and earn it like the rest of us&rsquo;? [sic]&rdquo; Or this one on a Readwrite piece on why so few women are studying computer science: &ldquo;Now women are saying listen we&#39;d love to do tech but only if you change the environment&hellip; Maybe instead of that you could instead just get really good at your craft. That would probably make you fit in without forcing everyone else around you to change.&rdquo;<br />
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<strong>Why it&rsquo;s a myth</strong><br />
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Making the assumption that computing is a level playing field, and that merit is the only significant factor in success, is objectively incorrect. In addition to the gender issues which are the topic of this piece, the computing industry has been accused of ageism (the plastic surgery market in San Francisco is exploding due to aging tech workers attempting to take a few years off their countenance), racism (less than one percent of venture capital (VC) funded start-up founders are African-American), and discrimination.<br />
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The meritocracy myth dismisses financial wealth as a determinant of success and completely ignores the notion of luck. Yes it is remarkably easy to learn to code in the modern world, but that does not mean that economic status doesn&rsquo;t play a huge role in an individual&rsquo;s ability to succeed in industry and/or academia. Everything from becoming interested enough in computers to get a related degree to acquiring funding from VCs is influenced by your gender, race, age, physical appearance, and economic upbringing, among many other factors.<br />
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There are also significant problems with how merit is measured (this problem is not tech specific, but certainly applies): factors such as gender can often affect how performance is evaluated. In a 2010 study by Samuel Johnson at the Sloan School of Management, it was empirically shown that: &ldquo;when an organizational culture promotes meritocracy (compared with when it does not), managers in that organization may ironically show greater bias in favor of men over equally performing women in translating employee performance evaluations into rewards and other key career outcomes.&rdquo;<br />
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The computing world is just as susceptible to the internal biases, prejudices, and privileges that the rest of humanity subscribes to. While it may better in some respects, there are others where it is quantifiably worse.<br />
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<strong>&ldquo;You only got that job because you&rsquo;re a woman&rdquo;</strong><br />
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A brainchild of the meritocracy idea is the assertion, one that has been made by men at Waterloo as well as in the computing community, that some women only got their jobs because they&rsquo;re female &ndash; that because there is so much pressure on companies to hire women, and because women have so many gender restricted opportunities for networking, they didn&rsquo;t earn their position. This idea is so prolific that every woman I talked to said that they had experienced it some form.<br />
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The obvious problem with this is that it devalues the work that women do and portrays them as a symbolic representation of their sex, rather than, say, a talented Linux kernel developer, or a gifted systems administrator, or even an average iOS developer.<br />
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A less obvious problem with opinions like these is that they don&rsquo;t leave any room for less-than-brilliant female programmers. &ldquo;[I felt] under additional pressure. I needed to &lsquo;prove I was good&rsquo; because I&#39;m not what the stereotypical good programmer would look like,&rdquo; Evy Kassirer, who was WiCS&rsquo; chair last term, told me.<br />
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Julia Nguyen (who you&rsquo;ll remember from Part 1) expanded on this: &ldquo;You need to be that woman who is killing it &ndash; who is succeeding academically, landing competitive jobs, and all the while &lsquo;kicking male ass&rsquo; and being an inspiration to other women &hellip; Women go unnoticed and sexist stereotypes are perpetuated if women don&#39;t take on exceptional personas and do exceptional things. Men have more freedom to be who they want to be. They can be mediocre, they can be average - they can be more true to themselves than women can be.&rdquo;<br />
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It&rsquo;s important to have the freedom to be less than exceptional because, as much as we hate to admit it, most of us come much closer to average than brilliant, and it&rsquo;s simply not possible for every woman to kick ass all the time. I am by no means saying that women shouldn&rsquo;t be held accountable for subpar work, but it&rsquo;s not fair to hold them to higher standards than men.<br />
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<strong>Back to women in tech organizations, and why they exist</strong><br />
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There are a number of demonstrably incorrect assumptions that attempt to validate the meritocracy myth. The largest is that experiences in the community, industry, and academia are uniform across genders. When men become involved in computing, they are surrounded by other men &ndash; their peers are predominantly male, their managers, professors, and interviewers are likely male, and their professional networks are also statistically likely to be dominantly male.<br />
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I laid out the negative effects that this can have on women in Part 1, but it has a similarly positive effect for men. When you&rsquo;re surrounded by people who are similar to you, you&rsquo;re likely to be encouraged, feel supported, and become more extrinsically motivated. It&rsquo;s easier for men to form larger friend groups in the field, to establish more extensive mentor networks, and to share experiences, whether computing related or not (I should note that this idea extends to race and age as well as gender).<br />
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Refuting this is analogous to saying that it is possible, on a large scale, for people to interact with men and women in exactly the same way. It means totally ignoring gender differences and asserting that women don&rsquo;t care about working with other women.<br />
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A major reason, then, that women have set up gender-exclusive organizations, that they have established restrictive mentorship networks, and that companies are running diversity initiatives that aim to hire more female technical staff is that women face a built-in disadvantage in the industry. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s not saying that women are special, therefore we treat them differently, it&rsquo;s giving them the same opportunities that men have inherently,&rdquo; Alex Cendecki, a fifth-year double degree computer science and business administration student told me.<br />
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<strong>Fostering a sense of community</strong><br />
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On top of levelling the playing field, these groups help to combat the distressing prevalence of loneliness among women in computing. Nguyen told me that because of internal competition between women and the pressure to perform, for the first two years of her university career she never really became friends with any of her female peers.<br />
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Elisa Lou, a software engineering graduate, said that, although she&rsquo;s comfortable around guys, the ratio in her program (she was one of 11 women in her cohort of 105 students) meant that she never had many female friends she could work with. She elaborated on this in an interview she did for WiCS: &ldquo;I am more comfortable talking to guys than girls. But I still wish I had a close female companion in my class. I&#39;m always conscious about posting photos or being tagged in photos with a bunch of guys, as I don&#39;t want my other friends to see me with only guy friends. Even though they are great people, I still think about these things at the back of my mind.&quot;<br />
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Women in industry face many of the same issues. In an article she wrote for Fast Company, software engineer Ciara Byrne talked about the oppressive feeling of loneliness that followed her throughout her career: &ldquo;It&#39;s the loneliness that I remember most. More than the joy of cracking a problem, the satisfaction of getting a tricky piece of code to run, of releasing version 1.0 of a product, of closing a million Euro deal by shipping on time, it&#39;s that feeling of isolation that I associate with my time of working in development teams, and of managing them.&rdquo;<br />
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Women-only tech organizations provide the sense of community that is so hard for women to find in a male-dominated world. They allow women to share experiences with people that relate to them on a more fundamental level, to establish mentorship and professional networks with other women and, of course, to build really cool stuff with their female peers who are just as into computing.<br />
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&ldquo;Everyone on the [general] committee has talked about the sense of community that the [undergrad] committee has helped foster,&rdquo; Hashman told me, referring to the impact that WiCS has had on the UW female CS student body.<br />
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<strong>Part 3 &ndash; Progress</strong><br />
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I have good news for you! In these first two parts I&rsquo;ve intentionally focused on problems, because you need to understand the issues before I address potential solutions. But when July rolls around, and part three comes out, I&rsquo;ll shift away from problems towards what is being done to make the situation better.<br />
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A quick note before I leave you. The issues I&rsquo;ve discussed here are not remotely close to exhaustive. I selected specific topics to write about based on the reporting I did in preparation for these articles, but there are many more that I didn&rsquo;t cover. As I said in Part 1, I strongly encourage you to do your own research; these articles offer a brief overview.
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