Thursday, 20 January 2011

On How Not To Target Girl Geeks

(First, let me say this post contains opinion, stereotyping and sweeping generalisations.  But that's sort of the point.  Also I don't pretend for one moment to speak for all girl programmers, I can only speak for myself)

When I first started this blog, I wanted to just post "proper" technical information.  I wanted to prove that there are girls out there doing "real" programming.

I specifically didn't want to talk about my gender.  I wanted to prove by silence that gender is incidental to what I do.

But, it doesn't really work that way, does it?

Firstly because one of the first things I get asked by guys when I meet them in this industry is "why aren't there more girl programmers?" (that's after they ask "do you work in HR?" followed by "are you a real programmer?" - I'm not joking, this happened this week).

And secondly because I'm pretty passionate about the gender issue.  To be specific: I'm passionate about diversity.  It's just that I'm more qualified to bang on about gender rather than something like race, sexuality, age etc.

What's started you off again this time?
The London Java Community got me thinking by asking "Is there anything we can do to attract more girls to the events?"

The thing is, the reason people (boys) keep asking this question is because they want more girls in the industry / at events.  They want them to feel involved and included.  I've said it before, but I mean it - I've never come across malicious sexism at work.  Yes there is subconscious sexism.  But the boys want the girls to come and play.  Why wouldn't they?  How many boys really want to work in a team which has 12 developers and only one is a girl?

But think about it: who is the worst person to ask why girls don't like being developers?

Yep.  A girl developer.

Because we love it.  We're here because we like programming, we like our jobs, we're good at it.  We weren't stopped by sexism (assumed or real), by boys clubs, by not having female role models, by... well, any of the myriad of reasons posited as to why girls don't become programmers.

I have no idea why a girl wouldn't want to be a programmer.  It's brilliant!  It's problem-solving, logical and creative, you're usually surrounded by intelligent people who are striving toward the same goal as you, and you get to meet a lot of boys :-)

So, back to the question at hand: how do we appeal to girls, as a user group and ultimately as an industry?

There are lots and lots of ideas kicking around this area, and I'm going to start by ranting about the things I think we shouldn't be doing.  This, of course, is totally my opinion so helpings of salt might be required.

No Pink
I get so angry about this!!  As if the pinkification of our little girls wasn't bad enough, "people" (I have no idea who) think that they can inflict this upon grown-ups too!

Why, WHY, would a website that is aimed at professional technical women be branded in childish hues of the hated colour?  I didn't even click on a single link, I'm not sure what service it's supposed to provide, because I was so disgusted by the colour palate I closed the browser.

In particular, if your target demographic is the somewhat unusual creature the girl-geek, or at least the lady technologist, what makes you think that ultra-feminine colour is going to appeal to us?  Apparently "The November 2009 Times/Lady Geek Female Appeal Study showed that only 9% of women want technology to be feminine, let alone pink."

What do you think, that your average (female) maths graduate is going to decide Computing Is For Me Because It's Pink?  Really?

I worry about this: are these sites (phones/consoles/cars) designed by men, and that's what they think women like?  Or were they designed by women who really believe that's what ALL women like?

Please.  Stop it.  Now.  It's embarrassing.

Be careful about your role models
Take the gadget show, for example.  I don't actually watch it, I'll be honest, because I really don't need someone tempting me to spend money on things I don't require.  But as an example of this point it's perfect - just the picture at the top of the page says it all to me: two reasonably attractive women (I know not everyone floats your boat but they're not ugly), token black guy and two white guys who certainly don't float my boat.  If only one of them was gay, their diversity tick sheet would be perfect.

I am not for one second suggesting any of these guys don't know their stuff.  That is not the point at all.  I just wonder - if one of the women looked like someone's mum, would they have got the job?  The subconscious message here is that yes, it's totally fine to be a girl and a geek.  But you still have to look good too.

And there's another message there - if you're a guy and you're into technology, you don't have to be hot. In fact, the role models we see are definitely on the Not Hot end of the scale.  Bill Gates anyone?

So girls get a double-whammy - I have to know what I'm talking about and look good (whilst also trying to prove that girls who look good have brains); and there are no hot guys in the industry.

Hmm, no thanks, I think I'll get a job in marketing.

Don't assume all women are the same
In fact don't assume anything about the girls you want to attract.  Actually, assume they're people.  Like you.  And geeks.  Like you.

For example.  I actually do like shoes and clothes.  But plenty of my fellow girl-geeks are about as bothered about that stuff as their male counter-parts.  So trying to appeal to girls with iPhone apps that help you pick you next pair of Jimmy Choos might not be the approach you want to take.  You'll attract a subset of women, sure, but they might not be the ones you want.

Imagine if you wanted to get more guys into programming, and you decided to do it by using football as the hook.  Yes, you'd get certain guys interested. But I've met more guys who are utterly disinterested in football in IT than I've met girls who dislike it.

We're not all the same.  We're interested in all sorts of different stuff.

Be very very careful about women-only events
My personal feelings are that there should be no need for all-girl conferences or all-girl line-ups.  To me, it implies that girls want something different to boys, and that girls only listen to other females.

I think there are places for these sorts of things, especially if you're aiming it at girls who might be more uncomfortable with guys around (e.g. some sort of mentoring).  So I'm not going to say flat-out they're wrong.

It's just I think it's not the right angle to attack the problem.  And you're segregating based on one dimension only, but as I said we're all different and we all have different problems.  The issues a non-white (am I allowed to say that?) lady might face could be different to those a middle class white girl like me has to deal with.  And do you want all-black conferences, and all-gay conferences, and so on and so forth?  Why are we special?  Why are we allowed to exclude the boys?  It's sexist.

Also, as a girl-geek, I get a bit freaked out when I'm surrounded by women, even if they're all geeks like me.  I'm much more comfortable talking to a guy, they tend not to try to read between the lines of everything you say or wonder if you're bitching about them behing their back </gross generalisation>.

Diversity is about being inclusive, not exclusive.

In Conclusion
Lots of the girl-geek, women-in-IT movement often appears to me as if women are "special" and need different treatment. This is not helping our cause at all. It causes resentment amongst our male peers and it puts off women who don't define themselves by their gender - people like the girls who are already in our industry. We like technology, we love programming, and we're good at our jobs.

So.  I don't know why there aren't more girls in programming.  And I don't have the answers as to what will tempt them in.

But, just for me, next time you're creating an advert or a website or something aimed at geek-girls, can we have more hot guys please?

13 comments:

  1. This is a great post and very pertinent right now.

    I am absolutely sure that the problem starts in school. I work in tech, but I'm not a programmer. However, I wish I was! If I could go back in time I'd have studied computer science at Uni, rather than humanities subjects. The trouble is, it never occurred to me. No one taught programming at my school, and no careers advisor ever suggested it might be a potential career. I worry that this is still going on in schools and that careers advisors and teachers are subconsciously directing girls towards careers they perceive to be suitable for them. I don't believe it's malicious, as you say. It's entirely subconscious on the part of both women and men, making it very hard to root out.

    I think the answer is for people like you to be going into schools and inspiring young girls to see themselves in a similar role in the future.

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  2. Very well put! The only bit I'd vaguely take issue with is this:

    "I am not for one second suggesting any of these guys don't know their stuff. That is not the point at all. I just wonder - if one of the women looked like someone's mum, would they have got the job? The subconscious message here is that yes, it's totally fine to be a girl and a geek. But you still have to look good too."

    I think that while that's true, it's part of a broader syndrome too -- if you want to be a female TV presenter in *any* field (apart from maybe comedy panel shows) you have to look young and attractive, whereas if you're Brucie you can mug it up until you've got one foot in the grave.

    I don't really follow celebrity news, but I believe there have been a few controversial cases of female presenters being sacked for looking too old recently.

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  3. Or hot girls. Remember, we're not all the same.

    Very good, and very true!

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  4. @Trisha, well said. You've articulated a lot of the feelings that I have about the way that diversity is handled. I particularly like the soundbite "Diversity is about being inclusive, not exclusive."
    My feeling is that having exclusive conferences, meetings etc, may actually be counter-productive to breaking down divides, as it draws attention to whatever disparity exists. I also feel that some diversity groups use an us vs them approach, where the truly diverse would not have a "them".

    @The Bureauista, it's never too late to try a different path. Some of the best programmers I know don't come from a technical background, and some don't even have a degree. Some of the worst programmers I know have good CS degrees from the best universities.
    Programming is problem solving, so if you have an open mind and a desire to learn (and not the attitude that "Well, that is the way I was taught, so that is the way it is and always shall be"), then the sky is the limit.

    A really friendly, inclusive meeting in London is XTC. Come along and we can have a chat :-)

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  5. Ah, but I'm a woman, and I've worked in Petey's Playhouse for 30+ years, frequently as the only woman out of 200 developers. Overt sexism? Sometimes. More heard over the cage walls... Bitching about "my bitch" carries over into "you know how 'they' are" and a load of PMS jokes.

    Aside to women coders. Please leave your hysterectomy, episiotomy, child-birthing and menstruation stories at the door. Nothing, but NOTHING makes me cringe for us as sitting on the other side of the wall, every bit as disgusted as my male pair, and embarrassed as hell. Stop it. Now.

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  6. This is an issue for engineering as a whole and not just programming. How many structural, chemical, electrical, electronic engineers are women? It's not like this in every country. A (female) friend of mine from Hong Kong studied to be an actuary but her two sisters were engineers. They had high profile jobs working on important engineering projects in Hong Kong and that was considered glamorous. The majority of female students on my engineering degree were from overseas and in particular the far east.

    This is also not an issue in other professions that were previously dominated by men - women entering accountancy and medicine outnumber men!

    So this is a specific problem for western engineers. I'm sure it's largely about image as engineers/programmers are perceived as hygiene challenged, beardy nerds with no social skills - the fact that I fit this is just coincidence. This is not an issue faced by the medical profession but I'm not sure how accountancy has managed to get through their negative stereotypes.

    ashkelon - Not sure where you work but almost any company I've worked for would have fired people being sexist like that. I have to laugh though as I had a long conversation today with a pregnant co-worker about babies, birth etc. In fact it's mainly me and the other dads who talk kids!

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jun/03/women-doctors-nhs-medicine-review
    http://www.catalyst.org/publication/204/women-in-accounting

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  7. @The Bureauista I couldn't agree more, and this is something I want to talk about more soon. Pretty much the one thing most programmers have in common, regardless of background, is someone encouraged them to do it really early on.

    @Andrew yes this is true, but I'm not trying to change the world, just our bit of it. Just because that's normal in media doesn't mean we have to have the same issue in IT. It might have been a poor example because there are YouTube videos aimed at women which suffer from the same problem, and you can't argue sponsorship from large media organisations for those.

    @ashkelon good point - I guess there's an unspoken rule I follow without realising, don't talk about messy biological stuff. But it's not just aimed at girls - I don't want to know about your IBS or your hernia op either, it's just as gross. However I do think sometimes you need to give your pair a heads-up if you are having a really bad "time of the month". Not every month of course! But it's only polite. The same way I would warn my pair if I had a hangover.

    @robann you're absolutely right, and I actually have the figures - the number of women entering engineering is even smaller than the number of women entering computer science. I want to go into that a bit more later as well. The thing is, I want to keep my focus quite tight so that there is a chance to find specific problems and address them, but I would expect that if we find things that work for diversity in programming, much of it should be transferrable to engineering.

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  8. Directed here from a mates link on FB. I just looked at womenintechnology and posted some feedback about their colour scheme. ouch! I'm a finance/admin/event person which means that I don't do tech, but I *need* tech and the better i understand everything from AV to software to motor pool then the less patronising crap i get when i ask the inevitably male helpdesk guy a question.

    It's not just about encouraging women into career based tech, it's about getting them to engage with the world and understand it. Which stops as soon as you start getting muddy/covered in oil/ or sitting for longer periods in front of the monitor. Parents get precious about their girl children in a way they don't about boys - the gender behaviour is encouraged way before school starts and it surrounds us like air (invisible but constant).

    (sorry for uber rant)

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  9. Just came across this post completely by chance (via a retweet) and I must say that I agree with you. As a female developer myself I too have always responded to the question of "how to get more girls interested in programming" in exactly the same way - how the hell should I know, I'm here!

    I also agree about WomenInTechnology page - don't worry about digging around the site, all you're missing are talks on flexi-time, self confidence and managing work-life balance (although why these only apply to women I don't know...). The same applies to most of the talk on the BSCWomen mailing list and any other female focussed tech groups (possibly with the exception of GirlGeekDinners).

    p.s. I too find a group of girls to be far more intimidating than a group of geeky guys - weird, huh?

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  10. I just found this from the Java Meetup group. Interesting post, I particularly liked the explicit assertion that a girl developer is the worst person to ask why few girls like programming... it makes a lot of sense, but it was the first time I heard that, even though I had read a few other blogs posts and articles about the same subject in past.

    I do agree with the general idea mentioned in some comments, that whatever the issue is for the gender gap in programming, its nature and cause are likely to be found somewhere around the high-school age (and maybe also before that), and not to something specific to the workplace. I mean, from the moment we have a situation where very few women choose to enroll in Computer Science and similar university degrees, there is not much the workplace can do to improve the situation. In the past there was really hardcore sexism and strong barriers for women in the fields of science and technology, but not so much nowadays, I think. The issue now is more intrinsic, more rooted in a girl's own choices and preferenes rather than an external barrier.

    Maybe in part it is cultural, like Bureauista's experience. There might not be barriers, but a lot of people (like school advisers, parents, etc.) might *direct* or prefer girls to venture into other careers. Whereas in eastern cultures (Japan excluding... -_-') they are more favorable to women working in science and tech. Well, I would say they are more favorable to *people* working in science and tech _period_, not women specifically. But I doubt this is central to the issue. For starters my experience has been almost the opposite of Trisha: I was not encouraged as a kid to work in programming/tech (in fact my parents actively discouraged me from working with computers, annoyingly so), rather I did it because I loved it. And it was a similar thing for a few friends of mine who also took up programming as a career.
    So yes, you might get more women if you encourage them from early on to work with tech. But that might only help to a limited extent, I think the root of the issue is that women are just generally less interested in science and technology than men. Why is that I don't know, and I doubt anyone knows for sure. I mean, I know what my interests are, but I don't know why I like them...

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  11. Trish, great post, great blog.
    But, I take exception to "and there are no hot guys in the industry.".

    I work in IT, and let's face it I'm gorgeous.

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  12. Ah, but later I ask for more hot guys - there are plenty in the industry (not Bill Gates of course!), I just want more!

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  13. I came here to know something about Disruptor and I found a smart girl-geek ;-)

    while (++diversity)
    comment("Really great worlds!");

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