Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

Feminist Computer Science 2

Following up on my last post; none of what I said there about women in technology was particularly new. But, trying to be more constructive...

I think history offers an interesting parallel here. Feminists criticized historical texts as being dominated by white men (which they were). The retort was that, in fact, historical events had been dominated by white men, and historians should not be criticized for writing about the truth. (The parallel being my own argument that women aren't particularly discriminated against in computer science, but rather they are not particularly attracted or naturally inclined to the field.)

Feminists responded to this in various ways:

One particularly pernicious group then went and denied there was any such thing as "truth" (the poststructuralists). Those people were intellectual bullies and hypocrites. I hate them. I'm not talking about them.

Another group tried to find the women that were left out of history, like Amelia Earhart or Cleopatra. Frankly, this was a rather pathetic attempt, because the old school historians were right, history had been dominated by white men.

A third group of feminists actually did something great, when they realized that the Great Women of History weren't going to provide a real alternative to the Great Men of History. There have always been women, but the way we looked at history didn't include them -- history based on battles and monarchs and contemporary historical accounts. To really look at the history of women, you had to look at the history of the people, not the history of the leaders. This kind of feminist history actually can speak a great deal about men -- about all the men who were left out of history just like the women had been. It talks about life through the ages, instead of just events. This history doesn't just serve to highlight women in history, but provides a whole new kind of history, and I think has been very influential on the entire field, and in a very positive way.

To bring this back to computer science, it may require the same kind of redefinition of the field, and a radical reconstruction of the field. In the same way, this wouldn't benefit just women, but it would open up computer science to a whole new segment of people, men included. This is nothing new, really -- this is the dream of Logo, or the Dynabook, or a number of ideas of subtlely popularizing programming. Certainly it's not an easy path, and we can't simply will it to happen. But the result might be a "humanized" computer science.

One could argue that we're already moving in that direction, but not due to the idealists. But I'll leave that for yet another day.

Created 19 Apr '04
Modified 14 Dec '04


> and yet there are many women accountants

True, but this is a recent change, and there are still not as many women as men in that field.

> But the result might be a "humanized"
> computer science.

Like accounting has been "humanized"?

The great driver for getting women into IT is the gradual redefinition of gender roles in society. Women are getting into "male" jobs such as construction, emergency services and the professions, while more men are getting into "female" jobs such as primary school teaching and nursing.

It's just a matter of time and I see no need to either hurry it, or hold it back.
# Alan Green

Again, I'm coming from a pretty much feminist position here:

I agree with Alan on the societal bases of the gender "divide" in IT, but disagree that there's no need to work upon it. I've been on equity committees at companies, and there has really been a lack of understanding about the effects of workplace environment and corporate culture on those who aren't outgoing straight white males (these are South African companies).

When I started programming and playing with computers, there were always girls my age playing too. The culture was accepting to anyone, generally. Now, as "mainstream" influences started to dominate the culture (only in the past five to seven years ago), I've found there's less acceptance of others w.r.t. gender, sexuality, and culture. And the (now-) women I knew went into other fields.

Lately, though, I've noticed a reversal in that as society (although not normally company cultures) becomes more accepting of women in what society previously considered "male" pursuits, there're more women coming into the market. If they're lucky, they find places that don't automatically require them to prove themselves to a higher level just because they're female. I'm currently working at a company where this doesn't appear to be an issue (although, we're still all white in the tech department).

At a previous company, it really just took one incredibly skilled woman programmer to show the men that they're really boys and that they have a lot to learn too, and we had a lot less of a problem finding other women to join our staff, and the culture changed quite considerably.

So, I don't think it's a matter of changing the subject to attract women. Rather, we should work to change the environment/culture and acceptability of the field so that those who are already attracted to the field are able to maintain and grow that attraction. And this'll happen anyway, but it's in our own interests to help it along as we're able to as members of the communities and corporate cultures.
# Neil Blakey-Milner

Neil: In the environments I've been in I really haven't seen discrimination, and I don't believe it's because I've been blind to any discrimination. That said, it is possible (indeed, probable) that the environments I've experienced are not entirely representative. But, while I've seen women-friendly environments (evidenced at least by the number of women), I haven't seen that lead to many women in programming positions in particular, or IT to a lesser degree. And in the open source community -- where I think there is very little discrimination (because, after all, no one even needs to know you are female), I also see very few women.

One could redefine discrimination to include ways of interacting which may intimidate women... but I think that's expanding the definition of discrimination too far.
# Ian Bicking

Hey Ian,

I think you may be surprised by the Open Source community. One of the leaders on the gender session at Africa Source, Fernanda Weiden, explained to us exactly how it felt joining certain communities on freenode, for example, and how being female affected the way people interacted with her, and so forth. That's something that guys don't have to deal with, and as such is a form of discrimination (which, ultimately is just behaving differently based on a characteristic).

Or, as you mention, it's not so much intentional discrimination as an intimidating environment. The off-topic gender-based jokes on one LUG have led to a number of women leaving the group, for example. These weren't necessarily IT professionals, but they were interested enough to have Linux installed at home and to join a user group; exactly the people we need to keep advancing through the ranks. Hopefully they found homes elsewhere.

(I guess that's what I meant about the culture becoming more "mainstream". The tech and Open Source communities I've been a part of were a lot more accepting of, for example, gay or transgendered members, than the mainstream then. But that gap is closing as tech and Open Source become more mainstream. Or I've just been unlucky in my choices of communities.)

Back on work: one study that the other session leader related found that women tend not to over-inflate their ability, while men tend to do so by about 25% (IIRC). This leads to less self-advertising and thus less promotions and opportunities in the work-place.

I suppose I just question the need to simplify or change the subject matter. I don't believe that there's anything inherently masculine about it, it's currently equally available, and there's only a little that one can focus on female issues that aren't just generally useful. I think the gender divide boils down to social acceptance, community, role models, and work environment, all working towards self-acceptance. Work on those, and we'll speed up the inevitable change.

Perhaps humanisation should be focussed on the workplace/community - a sensitivity for the way that women tend to behave differently from men. Understanding that women might be a little less likely to brag, for example, would be useful for decision makers to decide on job applicants, promotions, and other opportunities. Understanding that confrontational styles would probably not be very effective with women too - although I think that's just a generally good idea. Understanding that inviting "The Boys" to the pub every Friday afternoon is just creating the impression of a "popular" sub-group unless other activities are found to bring in those who feel left out.

But, as I said, I come from a pretty feminist position, so we may just be talking past each other on the basic causes.
# Neil Blakey-Milner

I suppose I just question the need to simplify or change the subject matter.

Accessibility doesn't necessarily mean simplification, though it does mean change. Sometimes that change can be shallow, breaking down a perceived (but not actually present) barrier. Or it can be a radical redefinition. Even how you make that categorization is probably subjective. But anyway, that's not really what we disagree on. Mostly, I think the gender differences are based on inherent structure in the subject matter itself, while you feel it's based on the social structure. I wouldn't say one is more feminist than the other -- though certainly they are different kinds of feminisms. Not all feminists come down on the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. (Not all... but maybe most ;)
# Ian Bicking

Not all feminists come down on the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. (Not all... but maybe most ;)

Yeah, I've just been corrected about this at home. (Sucks to spend your life with a philosophy lecturer...)

I took but not due to the idealists to mean the nurture feminists, and hence the defense. I would be interested to know what changes to the subject matter you envision as necessary to attract female participants. I suppose you're getting there; I'll be watching. ;)
# Neil Blakey-Milner

By "idealists" I actually meant Alan Kay and other idealistic computer scientists; but yes, more on that later.
# Ian Bicking

Val Henson has excellent comments on LUGs' attitude toward women at http://www.tldp.org/HOWTO/Encourage-Women-Linux-HOWTO/ --- she's a Linux kernel developer, so she knows a thing or two about Linux and LUGs. In my (male) experience, a lot of her criticisms of LUGs also apply to the Linux community, the open source community, and the computer industry at large.
# Kragen Sitaker

I know this thread closed, well, quite some time ago. I'm writing a report on gender bias in the computer industry, and was wondering if anybody could answer a question for me.

As a female pursuing a career in computer science, would you say the mainstream acceptance of the Internet and Personal Computers has helped or hurt your pursuit?

My thought is that the white male computer culture has gradually been entering society. That is, geeks, nerds, gamers, whatever, are slowly being accepted into society.

This is a problem though, shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't the computer society's culture accept EVERYONE, rather than impose its standards on the rest of society?

Hope I explained that well, and don't worry about delay, the paper's due tomorrow :D Just curious now.

# James Wilson Tyrrell Jr.