2009-04-28 12:10 in /tech
Yesterday, DHH made an argument that alpha male programmers aren’t keeping women out of the tech field. I’m of the opinion that he’s wrong and that his argument is flawed, and in a moment I’ll explain why, but let me get a few things out of the way so they don’t distract from the rest of my argument.
First, I don’t think that “alpha males” or the “rockstar” mentality are the only causes of under-representation of women in technology. As far as I can tell, the causes are many, varied, generally difficult to deal with, and in one or two cases may even be valid reasons why we might ultimately accept some degree of imbalance in the field. Second, this is not strictly a gender issue. Some men are also driven away by this behavior, although I think women are more likely to be; and also some “alpha males” happen to be female. Third, this is not a personal attack on DHH or any other individual, although some people might read parts of it in that way. But my goal here is that the range of individuals who find themselves uncomfortably reflected in what I say, but don’t simply reject it all out of hand, might view that discomfort as an opportunity for personal growth. Finally, I am certainly not claiming that I am perfect in this regard. I’ve made mistakes in the past; I will make them again. I simply hope that my friends will be kind enough to point out my mistakes to me, so that I can try to do better.
Okay, now that that’s all out of the way...
I first claim that DHH is wrong. My proof is empirical and anecdotal, but fortunately for me, I’m on the side of this debate that gets to use those techniques. I.e., I’m asserting existence of a phenomenon, rather than non-existence. I know numerous women who have been driven away by alpha male behavior. In some cases, they simply moved to a different team, or a different company. In other cases, they switched to non-programmer roles. And some left the industry entirely. I know this because they told me. They described specific individuals and specific behaviors which drove them away.
With some frequency in these debates, male programmers will claim that they don’t know any women who have left the field for this reason (or who have experienced sexism in the field, or who were offended by the example under discussion, or even just the milder claim that DHH makes, that no one has any idea what to do). I can explain this in only one of two ways: either they don’t know any women in the field to begin with or don’t talk with them beyond the minimal professional requirements, or women are not telling them because they are part of the problem. Perhaps it would be more effective if these women directly confronted the people causing the problem, but the fact of the matter is that most people, men and women, dislike conflict. We’re much more comfortable griping to a sympathetic friend than to the cause of our unhappiness. So consider me something akin to an anonymizing proxy. Without revealing names or too many of the specifics, please trust me when I say that almost every woman in the field experiences and complains about this.
Now I also said that DHH’s argument is flawed, and I will spend the rest of this post pointing out the various flaws I see.
DHH claims alpha males cannot be a problem in programming because the average male programmer is “meek, tame, and introverted” compared to other fields. First off, “alpha males” are by definition not average; they are the most dominant individuals of a group. And, it may even be possible that the general meekness or introversion of programmers makes it easier for a small set of individuals to dominate the interaction, rather than reaching a condition of detente between a group of uniformly assertive individuals. Second, presumably DHH does not interact with these people from other fields in a professional context. A point repeatedly stressed in this recent “pr0n star” controversy is that it’s not an issue of people being anti-sex or anti-porn; it’s about what’s appropriate in the workplace, or in a professional context. Standards for behavior in a social context are different. Third, he speaks in terms of whether these other men are more or less “R-rated”. This is not the point. Women are just as “R-rated” as men. They curse. They talk about sex (often more explicitly than men). The issue is not about whether we say or do adult things, it’s about whether we respect each other as human beings and whether we understand the societal norms of what is and is not appropriate in particular contexts. In fact, in this regard, I’ll defend DHH. Saying “fuck” (in the exclamatory, non-sexual usage) in the course of a technical presentation is not problematic in this day and age within the technology community. I think most of us swear freely in the course of struggling with a nasty bug or production problem. This is a normative expression of frustration within our community, and it does not oppress or disrespect other members of the community. (As far as I know. It’s possible that people just aren’t telling me that it upsets them when I curse at my monitor. If that’s the case, I hope someone will tell me.) Finally, DHH observes that these other fields have a more even mix of men and women. What he misses is that when the distribution is relatively equal it is generally easier and more comfortable for men to be men and women to be women. It is perhaps counterintuitive, but environments which are heavily skewed call for greater sensitivity to gender or other cultural differences simply because it is so easy to unintentionally create an oppressive or exclusionary atmosphere.
In the final paragraphs of his post, DHH suggests that somehow by respecting women we are squashing some other sort of “edge” and diversity in the community. I’m a little puzzled by what he means by this, and I’m sort of afraid that he thinks that being a heterosexual male who likes to look at scantily-clad women (or who openly admits as much) is somehow “edgy”. It’s not. By definition, hetero males like women; and it’s well established that men tend to be visually oriented. Pointing out that you fall in this category does not make you “diverse”, it makes you a completely typical representative of your gender and orientation. No one needs to be reminded of it.
Moreover, it might be true that maximal gains are had by pushing the edges (although I don’t think that one should naively assume that analogy from physics or economics applies to social endeavors), but for this to be work there has to be negative feedback when boundaries are crossed. If the edge-walkers want society to accept their behavior, they must be prepared to apologize, to make reparations, and to correct their course when they go over the line. This is the difference between a trend-setter and a sociopath.
There’s quite a bit more that I could say on this issue, but I fear this may be becoming too long already, and I think it’s probably best to focus only on the arguments presented in this particular post at the moment. To summarize things in a couple of sentences, the phenomenon of women being discouraged by alpha male behavior is real. You merely need to talk, and listen, to women in the field to verify this. (But you might have to earn some trust first.) Comparisons with men in other fields in non-professional settings do not have much relevance to the matter at hand. Claims that respecting the feelings and experiences of a minority group is damaging to the community overall are extraordinary and require extraordinary support. Being a thought leader and being offensive are two very different things.
It’s really quite discouraging that so much of this discussion still seems mired in the question of whether a problem even exists, or whether it is desirable and possible to address the problem. This lack of acceptance leads both to the explicit refusals to acknowledge the validity of the complaints of the offended, as well as the phenomena of false apologies and insincere claims that “I would help if only I knew how (and if it doesn’t require any actual change of behavior on my part)”. Male programmers need to pull their heads out of the sand. The evidence, both hard statistical data and anecdotal, is overwhelming. It also is not hard to find advice about what can be done differently. The hard part is moving from a vague desire for diversity and balance to serious, meaningful, sometimes painful self-examination and commitment to change and improvement. It’s not easy to admit flaws in yourself, to acknowledge when you’ve hurt another person, or to make a true apology. Change doesn’t happen overnight or simply because you say that you want it to. It takes work, but it’s an important part of being a human being and being a member of a community.