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On The Evil Of Stereotypes

I attended (one way or another) two events last week that got me thinking

The first was Girl Developers will Save the World - a session that had me a little confused as to whether that referred to me, or actual girls, i.e. those that are not yet legally classed as adults.  The second was the Remarkable Women Twitter party the following day.

Firstly, a caveat/disclaimer (as usual) - both events were useful, thought-provoking and overall worthwhile.  But the alarming thing to me was the number of times I heard "boys are…" or "women think…" or "girls prefer…".  And I know we often make generalisations to stress a point, but I'm becoming extremely wary of statements that group people together along some arbitrary boundaries.  

  • "Google+ failed because it's design by men for men" - no, it's because it's not designed for anyone.  Its only purpose was to compete with Facebook.
  • "Women are better at communicating and social activities" - what, all of us?  I'm better at communicating than every man I've ever met?  Than someone like Obama or Steve Jobs or John Stewart? 
  • "Women do better with female role models" - where are the statistics?  And do men do better with male role models, or do they do better with female role models too because women are so much "better at communicating"?
I'm not saying these statements aren't ever true.  I'm not even saying they're not true "most" of the time (although I want to see proof).  But any kind of strategy based on gross generalisations had better take into account the fact that these are generalisations, that they are based on Statistics1(and sometimes not even those), and that they frequently correspond nicely to things we'd like to think or we are trained to think.

Humans are great at categorising.  It's a survival skill - "yummy", "warm", "safe", "funny coloured = hurty tummy", "things with sharp pointy teethies like to eat me".  Without this skill we wouldn't have made it as a species.  And marketing people, who have to use psychology to get us to part with our money, understand this.  They identify trends and target their shinies to these trends (YuppieBaby Boomer, etc).  By identifying these groups and aiming at them, they make them real.  And since humans are a clan-based society, who (again for evolutionary reasons) need to fit in with their gang, these groups become aspirational.  Essex people drive BMWs and wear white stilettos?  I don't and I live in Essex, oh no! I'd better get on that right away, otherwise people will see I'm An Imposter.

So when people go around saying "Women are great at communicating", we believe it.  Those of us who are a bit sucky at it or maybe don't care about it wonder if we're aliens.  Or we believe we're great at it because we should be, and we don't work at improving our skills.  Men are terrible at cleaning?  Great!  I don't have to clean the toilet!  Women's minds aren't programmed for engineering because they're more communicaty than logical?  Fine, I'll teach physics instead of using it.

If I hear one more person say women don't do well in IT because they prefer more soft-skill-based roles, I'm going to scream. In that case, why are there more women entering accountancy than men? In that case, how do men ever get to manage people, and why does pair programming work so well?

If I hear once more that men put women off these roles because of the macho male environment, I'm going to drag that person through a tour of every office I've worked in - I'm constantly disappointed that my male colleagues enjoy football even less than than the girls I went to school with.

So, using stereotypes to try and address things like gender disparity in IT is not going to work.  The men in our industry are not beer-swilling, football-watching, womanising alpha males.  So why, when we talk about the missing women in our industry, do we assume they will be pink-obsessed, fashion-conscious, gossipy socialites who only hang around with other women?  Do you even know any women like that?  This is not Desperate Housewives, this is Real Life.

Really good marketing people don't target people as they are - no-one wants to be considered poor - you're a bargain hunter or great at identifying value.  Similarly, if you want women to use your product or  work for your company, you don't target to weight-obsessed, soap-opera-watching, child-caring fashionistas.  Instead you target how a person wants to be seen.  You might say using your product or working for your company makes a person look smart, savvy and awesome.  And who doesn't want to be all of those things?

Saying people in IT are sexy and intelligent and earn loads of money and have oodles of job options and can find work globally might be a compelling story for people.  Some of those people might even be women.  Some of them might even be the other missing minorities

Thinking in stereotypes can be damaging to everyone.  Gender stereotypes in both directions are so sweeping they are unhelpful, you can't categorise fully half of the world's population as one thing or another.  I hear men doing men a disservice by saying things that aren't even true for themselves, and the same for women.  It's something we're trained to do, and something the media loves to do.  But it's wrong.  

So the next time you find yourself saying "men prefer..." or "women are...", stop and think if this is actually true for all of the men and women you know.  And if it's not, just don't say it.

1Lies, damned dies and…


  1. I studied computer maths with about 300 other guys and about half a dozen girls (of legal age) girls chose to study marketing, psychology and other subjects - I don't understand the need to change what people want to study rather than let them get on with it, I know very few female programmers but generally they fine - sometimes better, sometimes worse than the guys they work with... Do they progress any slower than the male counterparts or do they have issues that stop them progressing (other than maybe taking a few years out to have kids) no ...

    1. The problem, if there is one, exists earlier. The "how girl programmers can save the world" was actually about programs aimed at encouraging girls from 11-16 to study maths and science subjects and consider IT as a career. This isn't really the subject of this blog post, if I'm honest, the point is to try and get people (women in particular if you like) to stop thinking about things as "boys things/skills" and "girls things/skills".

      When we get to a point that people are following genuine preferences rather than what we thing we *should* be doing, then we can stop talking about it. I don't think that point is right now, because we're still not clear *why* girls pick marketing over programming.

      Besides, there's nothing to say that a degree in psychology isn't useful for a career as a programmer - have you tried to design a user interface?

  2. "The men in our industry are not beer-swilling, football-watching, womanising alpha males."

    Maybe that's the problem? Perhaps people find it too hard to deal with people that don't fit an easy stereotype? To help resolve this, I'm off to the pub RIGHT NOW!

  3. True dat. The "girl geek" events everywhere kind of freak me out, and I've been to one too many women-in-tech events where it's this awful generalization spoken about women needing work/life balance because we are the heads of our families. First of all, I'm single. Second of all, I sure as hell am guessing men need work/life balance as well. And third, it completely subordinates men to women in the family unit which is what keeps society from making parents equally accountable in the first place. So, long story short, you rock. PS - I disagree with Jobs being a great communicator, I suppose because I can't align his reputation for being a real dick with being great :-)

    1. Glad it's not just me who's felt that!. And I've definitely found it's when women generalise what women want, and when men generalise what men are like, that you get these worst types of stereotypes. It's insane, because when someone tells you what their gender is all about, they usually say something that isn't true for themselves!
      (PS - I picked Jobs because I googled "greatest communicators" and he cropped up several times. To be honest, I don't have a strong opinion on him, sacrilegious I know.)

  4. Trisha, there are two words that will always end these arguments: "Grace Hopper".


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