We Are Not Having a Productive Debate About Women in Tech

Yes, it’s about the “anti-diversity memo”. But I won’t go into particular details of the memo, the firing, who’s right and wrong, who’s liberal and who’s conservative. Actually, I don’t need to repeat this post, which states almost exactly what I think about the particular issue. Just in case, and before someone decided to label me as “sexist white male” that knows nothing, I guess should clearly state that I acknowledge that biases against women are real and that I strongly support equal opportunity, and I think there must be more women in technology. I also have to state that I think the author of “the memo” was well-meaning, had some well argued, research-backed points and should not be ostracized.

But I want to “rant” about the quality of the debate. On one side we have conservatives who are throwing themselves in defense of the fired googler, insisting that liberals are banning conservative points of view, that it is normal to have so few woman in tech and that everything is actually okay, or even that women are inferior. On the other side we have triggered liberals that are ready to shout “discrimination” and “harassment” at anything that resembles an attempt to claim anything different than total and absolute equality, in many cases using a classical “strawman” argument (e.g. “he’s saying women should not work in tech, he’s obviously wrong”).

Everyone seems to be too eager to take side and issue a verdict on who’s right and who’s wrong, to blame the other side for all related and unrelated woes and while doing that, exhibit a huge amount of biases. If the debate is about that, we’d better shut it down as soon as possible, as it’s not going to lead anywhere. No matter how much conservatives want “a debate”, and no matter how much liberals want to advance equality. Oh, and by the way – this “conservatives” vs “liberals” is a false dichotomy. Most people hold a somewhat sensible stance in between. But let’s get to the actual issue:

Women are underrepresented in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics). That is a fact everyone agrees on and is blatantly obvious when you walk in any software company office.

Why is that the case? The whole debate revolved around biological and social differences, some of which are probably even true – that women value job flexibility more than being promoted or getting higher salary, that they are more neurotic (on average), that they are less confident, that they are more empathic and so on. These difference have been studied and documented, and as much as I have my reservations about psychology studies (so much so, that even meta-analysis are shown by meta-meta-analysis to be flawed) and social science in general, there seems to be a consensus there (by the way, it’s a shame that Gizmodo removed all the scientific references when they first published “the memo”). But that is not the issue. As it has been pointed out, there’s equal applicability of male and female “inherent” traits when working with technology.

Why are we talking about “techonology”, and why not “mining and construction”, as many will point out. Let’s cut that argument once and for all – mining and construction are blue collar jobs that have a high chance of being automated in the near future and are in decline. The problem that we’re trying to solve is – how to make the dominant profession of the future – information technology – one of equal opportunity. Yes, it’s a a bold claim, but software is going to be everywhere and the industry will grow. This is why it’s so important to discuss it, not because we are developers and we are somewhat affected by that.

So, there has been extended research on the matter, and the reasons are – surprise – complex and intertwined and there is no simple issue that, once resolved, will unlock the path of women to tech jobs.

What would diversity give us and why should we care? Let’s assume for a moment we don’t care about equal opportunity and we are right-leaning, conservative people. Well, imagine you have a growing business and you need to hire developers. What would you prefer – having fewer or more people of whom to choose from? Having fewer or more diverse skills (technical and social) on the job market? The answer is obvious. The more people, regardless of their gender, race, whatever, are on the job market, the better for businesses.

So I guess we’ve agreed on the two points so far – that women are underrepresented, and that it’s better for everyone if there are more people with technical skills on the job market, which includes more women.

The “final” questions is – how?

And this questions seems to not be anywhere in the discussion. Instead, we are going in circles with irrelevant arguments trying to either show that we’ve read more scientific papers than others, that we are more liberal than others or that we are more pro free speech.

Back to “how” – in Bulgaria we have a social meme: “I don’t know what is the right way, but the way you are doing it is NOT the right way”. And much of the underlying sentiment of “the memo” is similar – that google should stop doing some of the stuff it is doing about diversity, or do them differently (but doesn’t tell us how exactly). Hiring biases, internal programs, whatever, seem to bother him. But this is just talking about the surface of the problem. These programs are correcting something that remains hidden in “the memo”.

Google, on their diversity page, say that 20% of their tech employees are women. At the same time, in another diversity section, they claim “18% of CS graduates are women”. So, I guess, job done – they’ve reached the maximum possible diversity. They’ve hired as many women in tech as CS graduates there are. Anything more than that, even if it doesn’t mean they’ll hire worse developers, will leave the rest of the industry with less women. So, sure, 50/50 in Google would sound cool, but the industry average will still be bad.

And that’s the actual, underlying reason that we should have already arrived at, and we should’ve started discussing the “how”. Girls do not see STEM as a thing for them. Our biases are projected on younger girls which culminate at a “this is not for girls” mantra. No matter how diverse hiring policies we have, if we don’t address the issue at a way earlier stage, we aren’t getting anywhere.

In schools and even kindergartens we need to have an inclusive environment where “this is not for girls” is frowned upon. We should not discourage girls from liking math, or making math sound uncool and “hard for girls” (in my biased world I actually know more women mathematicians than men). This comic seems like on a different topic (gender-specific toys), but it’s actually not about toys – it’s about what is considered (stereo)typical of a girl to do. And most of these biases are unconscious, and come from all around us (school, TV, outdoor ads, people on the street, relatives, etc.), and it takes effort to confront them.

To do that, we need policy decisions. We need lobbying education departments / ministries to encourage girls more in the STEM direction (and don’t worry, they’ll be good at it). By the way, guess what – Google’s diversity program is not just about hiring more women, it actually includes education policies with stuff like “influencing perception about computer science”, “getting more girls to code” and scholarships.

Let’s discuss the education policies, the path to getting 40-50% of CS graduates to be female, and before that – more girls in schools with technical focus, and ultimately – how to get society to not perceive technology and science as “not for girls”. Let each girl decide on her own. All the other debates are short-sighted and not to the point at all. Will biological differences matter then? They probably will – but not significantly to justify a high gender imbalance.

I am no expert in education policies and I don’t know what will work and what won’t. There is research on the matter that we should look at, and maybe argue about it. Everything else is wasted keystrokes.

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3 thoughts on “We Are Not Having a Productive Debate About Women in Tech”

  1. Great points. I’m also pro diversity and equality of chances. I think firing that guy was wrong and submined his right to free speech. Many have said that free speech can somehow be banned or punished since it is a private company with its own code of conduct. But I think free speech should apply in any context, with no exceptions…

    Oh and I believe we’re falling to the other extreme. One thing is fighting to stop biases, which is a right thing to do, and another one is setting explicit goals like having x% employees from a certain group, say A. Such goals are wrong because they discriminate the other groups. Simply put: A and B are interviewed, tested and they evaluate the same. Since there is a goal to reach x% of employees from group A, person A will most likely be hired, thus discriminating the other. So, I am not happy when I hear a company bragging about percentages and targets when it comes to diversity. There are lots of things to be done when discussing diversity in hirings, but setting percentages in targets is not one of them.

  2. I agree we are not having a good debate about women in tech. Anyway, I am not convinced that we should aim at having more women in tech. I think it should be the other way: We should have less women in tech. Currently the tech industry is booming and it’s mostly dominated by young men. As a young man I like to be around women. But not old women – we want young and beautiful women to wonder around our office all day long. I think this is the main reason ‘the industry’ as whole embraces ‘more women in tech’. I think we should not force women into such stressful job. Working in tech is a warfare – we are at constant conflict with: our selfs, the machine, our colleagues, the managers and etc. Most of human civilization did not allow women to go to war. War is a men’s job. So it’s tech. Women should have more important role in society – taking care of children and education.

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