Where the female engineers at? Right here!
I'm at MIT right now, manning the Mozilla booth at the career fair for engineering students.
It's snowing hard outside. I trudged through several blocks of it to get here from the hotel this morning. Living in California has made me miss snow so bad. This is the first time I've walked through a serious snow shower since moving out of Chicago. I'm so glad to be in a place with a good honest Winter; the sensation of snowflakes melting down the back of my neck as the wind numbs my face makes me feel ALIVE!
MIT students are definitely kindred spirits. A lot of them have hardware experience. They're all overachievers so many of them start blabbing about their skills and experience right at the booth, and I have to be like "Dude, we're not interviewing you yet, you don't have to sell yourself!"
Since this is a bunch of engineering students, I expected it to be depressingly male-dominated, but actually the male-female ratio is quite balanced and many of the young women I've talked to are into the deepest, crunchiest areas of technology, like compilers and hardware.
Contrast with the ratio at Mozilla - where the Labs team has as many guys named Dan as it has women - and it's clear that something is going wrong somewhere between college graduation and hiring.
I interview an awful lot of people and I don't think I'm prejudiced, but of course our biases are often invisible to ourselves. Anyway, the people I get assigned to interview are almost all dudes, so I surmise that whatever is going wrong is going wrong somewhere between college graduation and interviewing. Either the women engineers are not applying or their resumes are getting screened out, or something.
How dare you criticize obviously sexist advertising!
I had a conversation with Asa Dotzler at the Firefox launch party. He told me about how Microsoft made a pretty sexist T-shirt slogan advertising Internet Explorer. Asa blogged about it. Then Asa's blog post got MASSIVE BACKLASH from privilege-denying dudes. Asa said to me, "Is that shirt really inappropriate or am I just crazy? Cuz I was sure it was inappropriate but it seems like everybody's against me and I'm starting to wonder if I'm the crazy one."
No Asa, you're not crazy. I'm with you on this one.
If you somehow can't see the sexism here, let me lead you through it step by step: Designer sets out to illustrate the slogan "Fast is now beautiful". For "fast", designer chooses icon of a rocket. For "beautiful", designer chooses... what looks like an icon of a female stripper / porn star, aka image of sexual objectification of women. Hmm. So instead of using a neutral or universal symbol to illustrate "beautiful" (a flower, a sunset, a beautiful painting...) you chose a symbol that represents a very narrow type of sexual beauty - the kind that appeals to the horny hetero male, basically the stereotypical Maxim-reading audience.
Which, whether intended or not, sends the message that the Maxim audience is also the audience for Internet Explorer. If you're a woman who uses Internet Explorer, Microsoft has just told you that you're not part of their intended audience -- but your body can be used to portray their product as more "beautiful" to the men they care about pleasing. Might as well have gone whole-hog and used the slogan "Internet Explorer is the best browser for horny dudes to view porn with".
I was quite surprised at Microsoft for choosing an advertizing image that is both sleazy and sexist, especially given how conservative, businesslike, and even "square" Microsoft's messaging tends to be. The shirt seriously runs counter to Microsoft's usual messaging that Internet Explorer is for everyone. It also undermines the efforts that the industry is trying to make to encourage more women to get involved in software-related and the web-related careers. Efforts which Microsoft itself has even put considerable monetary support behind.
So anyway, that's the original issue. But the thing I really want to talk about is not "Microsoft made a sleazy and counterproductive marketing decision" but rather the phenomenon of the massive, defensive backlash to Asa's post.
All these random dudes jump out of the woodwork in the comment thread to angrily defend the shirt, deny that there's a problem, and attack Asa for being "PC" or "oversensitive". Many of them are surprisingly vehement about it. They've got this attitude of "How dare you even bring this up". They're, like, deeply offended that Asa chose to criticize the imagery used in a piece of marketing.
What's going on here? Where does the anger come from? I can see disagreeing with Asa's assessment, but this reaction is more like the commenters are trying to make him the bad guy for even raising the point. You would think he was trying to take away their right to look at porn or something.
The whole thread is full of illogical arguments and attacks on straw-man positions. I'm feeling snarky, so let's dissect the flaws in some of these counter-arguments. There's:
- "You're against freedom of speech" = attacking a straw man. Asa didn't propose censorship.
- "You're trying to repress sexuality" = another straw man. Expression of sex is fine. The issue is the decision to insert imagery based on sexual objectification into an off-topic context.
- "You're trying to tell the woman [the one depicted on the shirt] how she's allowed to dress and pose, what are you the Taliban?" = hilariously wrong, because it assumes that the cartoon outline drawn on fabric is a real person who had a choice about how to display herself. I'm all for women dressing how they want and even being porn stars if that's the career they choose. However, the woman depicted on the shirt doesn't exist, so referring to her as a free agent is nonsense. The issue is with the person who designed the shirt and the icon they chose to represent "beautiful".
- "You can't say for sure that the image on the shirt is a stripper / porn star, you're just asserting your opinion as fact" = way to obfuscate the issue, but are you seriously saying that the icon used there means something else? What else do you think it could mean? Maybe that rocket's not really a rocket either then?
- "But they didn't mean for it to be offensive to women". No, they just didn't bother to think about what message they were sending to women in the audience because they assumed their default audience was all-male. Isn't that just as bad?
- "It's impossible not to offend anybody. Even if you had put a flower there somebody would choose to be offended by it." = missing the point. The goal is not "to offend nobody" (which would indeed be impossible). The goal is "think about who you're addressing your marketing to and whether that's sending the message that half the population is not welcome in your user community".
- "[ Mozilla / the open source movement] doesn't have a 100% perfect record with regards to sexism either, so fix tht before you criticize Microsoft" = while there is merit to the principle of "let he who is without sin cast the first stone", we're not casting stones here, we're making criticism. Nobody's perfect, so if only those with a perfect record can criticize, then nobody can criticize.
- "You're overreacting, this is a total non-issue, why are you even wasting time talking about it" = and yet here you are, registering a username on somebody's blog just to argue about it. So you obviously don't really think it's a waste of time to talk about.
It's similar to the reaction you get in the gaming world when you try to point out any issues with representation in video games. Go on a video game forum and ask "How come there are 20 playable characters and all of them are white?" or "How come the male fighter gets normal plate mail but the female fighter gets armor with ridiculous windows cut out of it to show off her midriff and cleavage?". These should be obvious questions that game designers should be asking themselves once in a while. But man, ask those questions on a forum with gamers and watch them freak out as if you had just proposed censoring all video games.
Why are these guys so vehement about defending the status quo? Is it a sense of identification with their chosen technology that leads them to interpret any criticism of a company as a personal attack on its customers? Or, more likely, is it the need to deny that privilege and bias exist because otherwise you might end up thinking about things that might make you feel bad?
There's a disproportionateness to the backlash that doesn't make sense. Sexism and racism have undeniably caused harm to people and society. But what harm has ever been caused by criticism of an advertising campaign or criticism of representation in a video game? Take the criticism or leave it, but why react like criticism is something that could hurt you?
Teaching Programmers, not just Bro-grammers
I instantly fell back into the rhythm of teaching. Oh yeah, I remember how much I used to enjoy this! And the people are pretty cool. So I'm continuing to do it, for the time being. I didn't want to give them false expectations so I told them very explicitly that if I get into grad school, or if the Studio Xia Chinese game starts taking off, then I'm outta there.
So I've got a part-time job with very flexible hours; I can go in and teach for a couple hours one or two days a week and write a few assignments for their curriculum. It lets me pick up some extra money and more importantly gets me out and connecting with humanity on a regular basis, so I don't become a total hermit.
The students mostly look up to me since I used to have the kind of job that they're all want -- they're trying to break into the field that I'm trying to break out of. I am reminded of that kung-fu movie trope where the retired sword master is all like "Do not follow in my path, it leads only to violence and death" and refuses to teach students.
I don't want to crush their dreams. So I try to give them a neutral picture of what it's like, the good and the bad.
The class has about 20-25% women. Which is a really low number, but sadly, it's better than a lot of programming groups I've been in, which have been 100% dudes. Programming is still an extremely male-dominated field. As much as some people have tried to blame this fact on women just not being interested, I think the culprit is sexism, which still exists in both blatant and subtle forms. Sure, we like to think we're enlightened folks and beyond all that, but sadly we're not. For sickening examples, read the experiences that female game developers reported in the #1reasonwhy hashtag recently.
I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I want to help make the class a welcoming and egalitarian environment, and I want to encourage the women in the class to keep pursuing this as a career and not to get discouraged and drop out. But at the same time, I don't want to treat the women differently from the men. It would be damn insulting of me to assume they need extra help because they're women!
I talked to Alexis about this dilemma last week, and she told me some facts about stereotype threat. It's a phenomenon where a member of a group that's stereotyped as bad at something (i.e. "Women are bad at programming") get really nervous about confirming the stereotype, which reduces their performance in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It's been experimentally confirmed again and again. But experiments have also shown ways to mitigate it.
For instance, she said, getting people to talk as individuals about their personal goals and their reasons for wanting to take a class seems to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. And recognizing that not everybody communicates the same way, and that some students who need help might be really shy about asking questions for fear of sounding stupid.
The book Whistling Vivaldi is supposed to have some good insights for helping teachers mitigate stereotype threat, so Sushu and I have added it to our reading list.
So, I'm trying to get to know the students as individuals (luckily it's a small enough group to make this feasable), figure out their learning styles and their goals, and gauge what kind of help they each need. Students have a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have advantages that others don't, and it's got me thinking about privileges that male programmers take for granted.
Over the years I've gradually been learning to recognize my own privilege and how it's helped me get where I am. Like, because my family was (barely) able to afford a computer for me when I was a kid, I have a lifetime of tinkering experience to draw on. Just because I look and sound like a stereotypical computer programmer (young, white, male, communicates in sci-fi and video-game references), nobody ever sees me at a software company or a tech conference and questions whether I deserve to be there. If I wasn't any of those things, I would have had a steeper hill to climb.
The thing I want to talk about isn't any kind of blatant "get back in the kitchen" sexism (though that does exist in parts of the industry, no question). No, the thing I've noticed is a much more subtle phenomenon. It's not intentionally malicious but it still contributes to making programming culture exclusionary.
About the feeling of being overwhelmed by jargon: Programmers use tons of it. They redefine perfectly ordinary words ("function", "object") to have extremely specific technical meanings. Programming depends on precision of thought and so itthis lexicon of jargon is neccessary; without it, it would be impossible to communicate with enough precision. Problem is that programmers take the jargon for granted, forgetting that a listener might not know what ORM stands for, or might misinterpret "object" as its normal everyday meaning.
I told the class that the feeling of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar terminology is totally normal for programmers. I encountered a ton of brand-new bewildering gibberish at each new job, even after years in the profession. There's always a moment of panic: "They're talking about jQuery what the hell is jQuery oh no I don't belong here they're going to figure out I'm a fraud!" That feeling never quite goes away, but it gets less over time.
There's two ways of dealing with this: You ask "What's jQuery" and reveal your ignorance, or you fake your way through the rest of the conversation and then look up jQuery next time you're alone at your desk.
Now I think asking "What's jQuery" is the healthier course of action -- better to ask and look stupid for a moment than to not ask and remain stupid forever -- but it took me years to get comfortable with that. If you're already unsure of your social status in the group, then displaying your ignorance is really scary.
So to tie this back to the gender issue: women are less likely than men to have grown up in a social group that used a lot of technical jargon. They're also less likely to have been socialized to be assertive: our culture rewards a certain amount of cockiness in boys but punishes the same attitude in girls.
As a result, the kind of breezily overconfident, unthinkingly jargon-heavy communication style favored in male-dominated programmer culture can be quite exclusionary. If you're not used to the jargon, and you're worried about stereotype threat if you admit you don't know something, and you were raised not to fake confidence about stuff you don't know... well, I see how it can feel like a hostile environment, even if nobody engages in overtly sexist speech or harassing behavior towards you.
Programmers hold a lot of the levers of power in our modern age. Software runs ever more of the world. If the programmers are are mostly young white upper-class guys from San Francisco then most software will get written to reflect the interests and the unconscious assumptions of young white upper-class guys from San Francisco. So it matters great deal whether we make it easier or hader for people outside that demographic to become programmers.
My hypothesis for the day is that can, and should, make programmer culture more exclusive for people from different backgrounds, by doing things like being aware of diffrerent communication styles, not using jargon in a way that locks people out, not shaming people for not knowing a jargon term, etc.
I would love to hear your feedback on this theory, especially from women programmers but also from women who have taken programming courses, worked with programmers, or otherwise experienced programmer culture.