Although it's not the topic of this post specifically, my workplace is currently all male.  This is not by design.  There have been occasions when we've attempted to hire competent people and they also happened to be female.  The dearth of women in the software and web development industry is a sad fact that I believe is common worldwide.  Every so often the topic once again crosses my radar.  This time, it comes in via an article unearthed by Chris Shiflett written by female developer, Nicole Sullivan.  The article, "Women in Technology", has been quoted by many on Twitter with the phrase "Why is computer science a sausage fest?" The article itself was spawned by a comment made on twitter about Google's recent funding of a grant to allow female developers to attend JSConf on Google's dime.  After encouraging my wife (who is in my mind an exceptional female developer) to debate with me on the topic for a bit, I only have a few scant points to make, and then I'll wander back off into my male cave of ignorance. 

Point 1: Google is not your mom

So I brought this topic up with Berta.  "What would you think if Google did this?" And her very astute mind immediately replied with an argument I had not considered before. 

Google can do whatever it wants with its own money.

If Google wanted to fund trips for 10-year-old red-headed stepchildren to Disney World, that's their prerogative.  I may be wrong, but it seems that there is no law saying that Google must distribute its money evenly among diverse groups.  I certainly wouldn't want to be forced to give my money to groups in opposition of the charitable organizations I've donated to in the past.  Google is not your mom.  It need not love all its children equally.  What right do we have to impose our ideals on Google?  Seems like none.  The debate should really end there.  But let's talk about women, because that's what makes people mad. 

Point 2: The state of balance

Here are the fun facts that you'll contradict later: I like women.  Women can make fine developers.  I live with one, after all.  And I have female friends that are developers, whom I respect.  I believe that the differences in how male and female minds work can be an asset to development work.  It is bad that there are women who would enter the field but don't because of bigotry.  Although I believe I have never personally witnessed bigotry the likes of which Ms. Sullivan describes in her article, I don't doubt that it exists.  And that's a terrible thing.  However, asserting that equal numbers of men and women in a field would eliminate the bigotry she describes seems erroneous to me.  I'm sure we can think of several times in history (perhaps even current history) where a field dominated by women was still a dwelling place for bigotry of the worst kind.  The number of women in the field seems, at least to me, to have only a partial effect on that bigotry, if any.  Don't get me wrong -- I think it's great that Google is trying to encourage more women to take part in technology.  I don't see it as "encouraging women" though, as much as encouraging developers that are competent but reluctant (for whatever reason) to join the wider development world.  And yet I don't think it explicitly addresses an issue of bigotry -- I'm not even sure that was Google's goal at all.  My conclusion is that while the people who are decrying Google's generosity as favoring women are themselves insane, the people who point at Google's generosity as helping snuff out bigotry against women may also be a bit delusional.  Sure, we can look at the disparity in the ratio of women to men in the computer industry as a warning sign, but I think it's more important to search for its specific cause and address it than to simply encourage more women to enter the field and be accosted by it.  I am not yet convinced of the positive effect adding more women to the industry will have toward the goal of making that workplace a good environment for women to work.  Is it necessary that there be equal numbers of men and women in a particular field?  While I can see it as a reasonable test for whether a field is wrought with discrimination, I do not think that this is the final determinant of whether a field is healthy.  I would wish that all women - all developers - to have an equal opportunity to do this type of work if they chose, free of any kind of unwarranted discrimination (if you're no good at it, please try another field).  It is a useful measuring stick, but the remedy of adding women seems akin to pushing down on side of the scale measuring gold to make it seem like there's more there.  I don't know how to fix bigotry.  Maybe encouraging women to attend conferences like this is the best way, though I'm skeptical.  Isn't there some other way?  Your thoughtful consideration is appreciated.

Comments

Have you read Elizabeth Naramore's post "Gender in IT, OSS, ?

I'm also not entirely sure about whether initiatives like Google's will help. PHPWomen has been successful, not because of corporate sponsorship, but because women from within the PHP community are taking the lead and saying "let's make this happen."

Hey Owen,
Thanks for taking the time to put some thoughts down in a blog post. A lot of people are sick of talking about this, but I'm glad the discussion is alive and kicking. While I can't speak for all women, and I know there is no silver bullet to solve the problem, I can tell you what my experience has been.
Conferences have been a *huge* part of my career as a developer. At the first conference I attended, I met some core PHP devs who were awesome. Every conference since then, I have been able to see old friends and make new ones. And my circle of community has grown exponentially. There is no substitute for face-to-face communication. No substitute for sitting down, having a drink with someone and talking tech. No substitute for feeling like you are a part of something bigger.
That first conference I was timid, shy, and extremely uncomfortable being one of a handful of women in a group of 500. Now, I feel like my gender isn't an issue because I feel more like a part of the community.
If Google can encourage even one woman to go to a conference that eventually ends up sticking around and doing great things, then more power to them.

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