Sunday, 20 November 2011

Why We Shouldn't Target Women

I'm back from Devoxx, having had lots of food for thought.  In particular, my panel on Why We Shouldn't Target Women generated a lot of discussion and I'm still trying to process it all.

Martijn Verburg; Regina ten Bruggencate; Trisha Gee; Antonio Goncalves; Claude Falguière; Kim Ross 
The panel went really well, we got decent interaction from the audience, and of course my fellow panel members were awesome.  I managed to restrain myself from using the opportunity as my own personal soap box and allowed other people to speak occasionally.  Sadly the only male on the panel stole the show somewhat, so Antonio won't be invited in future... Actually in seriousness, it was great to have a guy on the panel to present his point of view.  It was interesting that he's a father, highlighting that parenting issues are not the same as women's issues, and conflating those two concerns hurts both genders. But Antonio's hair is far too shiny and pretty and he's funnier than I am, so I'm not standing next to him again.

I'd love to make a note of all the issues discussed during the hour, but I'll be honest, I was too busy trying not to fall over in my girly six-inch stiletto boots to remember anything that happened.  The video will hopefully be available on Parleys some time in the future, so I will link to it when it's there if it's not too horribly embarrassing.

Someone let me have the microphone again...
One question that came up more than once throughout the week was: IT/programming is not the only industry with a lack of women, why should we care?  Maybe it's just natural?

I think we need to be very careful before writing off such an imbalance as "natural".  We need to make sure first that we aren't discriminating against groups, consciously or through some unnoticed system bias.    And for me, the thing is that we notice that women aren't well represented in technical roles, but we don't necessarily notice the other groups of people who might be being put off for similar (or maybe totally different) reasons.  We can't so easily tell if gays, jews, parents, shy people, folks from poor backgrounds or any other less distinguishable sets of people are finding it hard to make it as a programmer.

We can see the figures for females.  In the UK in 2008:
  • 44.7% of people taking ICT (Information and Communications Technology) at GCSE (age 14-16) are girls.  As in many other subjects these days, the girls get better results than the boys.
  • 38.6% of kids taking ICT at A Level (16-18) are girls.  Only 9.6% of Computing students are girls. Again, girls outperform the boys in both subjects.
  • 19.4% of those studying Computer Science at university are women.  This is down from 24% in 2003.
  • Through a not-very-scientific poll of the members of the London Java Community, it looks like approximately 15% of techies in industry are women.  Interestingly, some companies have a much higher proportion than others, but I think that's something to explore another time.
The thing that worries me about these figures are a) the "pipeline" hints at a drop-off in interest in the subject, not a lack of ability, since the girls are doing well tech subjects but choose not to pursue them and b) the numbers are declining in some areas, specifically university applications.  I've read studies that show the percentage of those in technical jobs who are women has been steadily declining since the 80s, but it's difficult to get specific figures, especially as I'm particularly interested in programming / technical roles rather than just the percentage of women "in IT".

If the numbers are declining, that seems like a smell to me.  Not only do we have some sort of image problem which puts people like those who have two X chromosomes off from entering our industry, we're driving them away when they get here.  And I don't believe that's because women find they're not good at it.

Other industries have been successful at attracting a higher proportion of women - for example, in 1950, only 15% of accountants were women.  By 1985 half of all accounting majors were women, and by 1990 the majority of the workforce was female.  It would be nice to think we could learn something from our friends in the Maths world.  After all, the skills are not dissimilar.  But they have a slight advantage over us - in many countries all children are required to study maths until age 16.  However, there are very few 16-year-olds who have any programming experience at all.  Either we need to accept that we're going to have to hire kids with other degrees and train them to be programmers, or we're going to have to do some serious outreach to interest kids in programming and technology long before they start to make their exam choices.  In the UK, they need to choose their GCSE subjects at 14, which means we probably need to be targeting kids as young as 10 or 11.  That's not inconceivable, when you think about it - how many of us were programming in BASIC aged eight or nine?  Could we not teach kids to write an iPhone app or a Facebook app instead?  I was very pleased to hear someone in our audience was teaching their daughter to program.  At an even younger age, the least you can do is buy your kids Lego - I'm sure that exercises the right parts of the brain.

The point is, that I don't think we can conclude that it's "natural" for girls to not be interested in programming.  The first programmer was a woman, and during the war and even into the '60s many programmers were women.  I think that if we can work with schools to provide some tutoring in computing at a younger age we might be able to attract kids who wouldn't have thought about programming as a career choice before.  Some of these may be women, some will not.  That's fine, diversity is our ultimate goal.

Which leads me onto another point - special treatment of women.  I've said it before I'm sure - I think singling out women to attempt to increase their numbers does more harm than good, for a number of reasons: 
  1. It makes women think that there must be something wrong in our industry if women need to be treated differently, or mentored differently, or need additional training to get by. Or it makes us think that we really aren't as good as our male counterparts because we're being given special treatment.
  2. It builds up resentment amongst our male colleagues, so they soon begin to wonder if we're doing our job because we're good at it, or if we got there because we got lots more help, or because we're there to tick some sort of box
  3. It's not solving the problem of lack of overall diversity - where are the programs for people who went to the wrong schools, for those who didn't think about programming as a career, for a million other special interest groups that exist out there?
Some of the ideas that imply special treatment are things like: all women events (you should know by now how I feel about those); free entry to conferences for women; higher pay for women at certain companies.  Although I would benefit from all of these things, I hate them.  I feel like I'm being compensated for this terrible affliction of being born female.

So, what can we do?
  • Reach out to those you want speaking at your conferences.  This might include women, it might include people from other "minorities", or it might just be awesome people that you want there making your conference look good.  
  • Use these people for marketing and role models - it is indeed possible that if you have some female faces on your conference site and posters, you might attract more women attendees.  Actually, if you have more women role models you might attract more men, but hey, it's all about diversity.
  • Buy your kids Lego and teach them programming.
  • Treat women in your company like people the same as anyone else.  We were asked about how to deal with a younger female boss.  Kim's answer was perfect: "Like an older, male boss".
  • Get involved in mentoring programmes, not just for women but for people of all ages - kids at school, undergraduates, or people who are already in the industry and want to take that next step, for example to speaking at conferences or writing or leading teams or becoming CTO.
Since the panel I've been pointed, numerous times, to this excellent article which talks about racism, sexism, and meritocracies.  I particularly like the line "Explicit diversity programs have the solution exactly backwards".  Well worth a read.

4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Stephen Souness said...
    Hi Trisha.

    I don't think that the 2008 figures are being interpreted in an appropriate way.

    The GCSE figures for that year have no direct relation to the A level figures for the same year, which in turn have no direct relation to the university figures for that year.. and so on and so forth.

    (GCSE students are not taking A levels, going through university and progressing into the workforce at the same time). :)

    My (ignorant foreigner) perspective on this is that there is an upward trend in the ratio of females to males in the IT sector - from the high school education figures through to the job placement figures.

    I am quite open to being proven wrong, but I think that the snapshot approach to analysis in this instance is not at all suitable.

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  3. It's a fair point, I was assuming the figures don't change too much within a 2 year period.

    I have the figures for kids taking "Information Technology" GCSEs, which is a group of any subjects which have the primary focus as something computery:
    - 2006/7 = 36 500 girls = 45%
    - 2007/8 = 30 700 girls = 45%
    - 2008/9 = 24 800 girls = 45%
    - 2009/10 = 19 200 girls = 44%
    (Total number of kids taking GCSEs remains more or less the same for all of these years).

    I also have annual figures for number of UK students applying for Computer Science degrees specifically:
    - 2002 = 2572 female applicants = 15%
    - 2005 = 1760 female applicants = 14%
    - 2009 = 1339 female applicants = 14%

    So you can see that overall the number of people (men and women) taking these subjects has been declining over the last decade, but the percentage remains pretty stable at both ages.

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  4. Trisha,

    I encourage you to keep pushing your message as it is a very important one. It is very similar to what I say all the time here in the US about the lack of minorities (primarily Blacks and Hispanics) in the IT industry. There is no reason for minorities and women to have such a low representation in our field. We must do more to start planting the IT seed in future generations. :)

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