This is a difficult blog to write and I am not sure where to categorize it. I will probably file it under development, which is where it belongs but it touches on a lot of things.
I am the daughter of a developer and women in tech were a part of my life, where my father spoke of his female colleagues in the same way as he spoke of his male colleagues and work social gatherings included both men and women. So for me, women in tech were not unicorns, and as they were spoken of as being equally competent as men. The first time that I encountered hostility in tech was in a forum and in all honestly it shocked me to the core. Also, being me, it pissed me off, but I dismissed it as being an isolated incident and not a reflection of the general tech community.
For the most part I kept on with tech in the background and I did not pay attention to what was going on in the tech community. In 2015 I went to my first tech meetup hosted by WordPress Joburg. I felt safe and welcome, especially when I made a comment that my ability to attend a meetup on weeknight would depend on getting a baby-sitter for my son and was met with the response of “Bring him with”. I have been an active member of the WordPress Joburg Community ever since and now am one of the co-organizers.
<sidenote> Of course being a woman comes with a level of being aware of background misogyny, both the unintentional systematic misogyny that permeates the world and the deliberate and malicious misogyny that forms part of the day-to-day world. In this regard I have a few advantages, being a white woman from a middle class family who studied law and was warned by my principal in the first few days of my articles about the inherent misogyny of the legal profession and given some tips to ignore it, combined with a low-level of neuroatypicality meant that I generally was able to ignore the effects of misogyny until my thirties.</sidenote>
My first in-person encounter with misogyny in the tech world happened in 2016, where I was made to feel like a completely unreasonable, trouble-making bitch for daring to be anything other than a sycophant when I spoke up at a meetup. In a not atypical reaction I did ask a fellow attendee privately whether I was being oversensitive or whether there was genuine hostility, they too had perceived hostility.
It is against this background that I read the New York Times’s 2014 article “Technology’s Man Problem”. I have some specific thoughts and comments:
Women who enter fields dominated by men often feel this way. They love the work and want to fit in. But then something happens — a slight or a major offense — and they suddenly feel like outsiders.
I never felt explicitly unwelcome in the tech community until the incident I described above, and that incident along with a collection of other comments and interaction made me consider walking away from the tech community 🙁
A culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha-male culture that can make women and other people who don’t fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned or even endangered.
“It’s a thousand tiny paper cuts,” is how Ashe Dryden, a programmer who now consults on increasing diversity in technology, described working in tech.
A thousand tiny paper cuts is an excellent description and if you raise these incidents in isolation you look like you are blowing things out of proportion and if you try to create context by speaking of them in a larger picture you are accused of holding grudges and being hysterical and generally being unreasonable.
“We see these stories, ‘Why aren’t there more women in computer science and engineering?’ and there’s all these complicated answers like, ‘School advisers don’t have them take math and physics,’ and it’s probably true,” said Lauren Weinstein, a man who has spent his four-decade career in tech working mostly with other men, and is currently a consultant for Google.
“But I think there’s probably a simpler reason,” he said, “which is these guys are just jerks, and women know it.”
The choice for people who are uncomfortable with the “bro” culture is to try to change it or to leave — and even women who are fed up don’t always agree on how to go about making a change.
Firstly, yes #notallmen are jerks.
Secondly, I think that we should admit that there is unlikely to be one true way to make the change and should not overly stress about finding a homogeneous solution and be willing to support efforts to effect change even if they are not done the same way as we personally would have implemented them.
Writing code is a high-pressure job with little room for error, as are many jobs. But coding can be stressful in a different way, women interviewed for this article said, because code reviews — peer reviews to spot mistakes in software — can quickly devolve.
“Code reviews are brutal — ‘Mine is better than yours, I see flaws in yours’ — and they should be, for the creation of good software,” said Ellen Ullman, a software engineer and author. “I think when you add a drop of women into it, it just exacerbates the problem, because here’s a kind of foreigner.”
“I’m in no way saying that women can’t take a tough code review,” she added. “I’m saying that no one should have to take one in a boy-puerile atmosphere.”
As I have not worked in an environment with formal code-reviews, I cannot comment. But on anecdotal evidence and based on conversations with both men and women in tech my thoughts on this are:
1. Initially getting used to code reviews is tough. Learning to take any kind of constructive criticism is a skill, and considering that coding is an act of intellectual labour that is often accompanied by strong emotions, it is natural for coders to feel sensitive about feedback.
2. The biggest challenge in any code review is ego and preconceived notions.
3. Some men are intensely threatened by women and resent any feedback them. And I have heard guys say that they are much harsher in their reviews then some of their female colleagues and get far less grief about it.
4. People need to reframe code reviews from being threatening and personal attacks to being a form of mentorship and improvement. (Honestly, has any code not looked at some of their past code and gone “What! Why did I do it this way. I am much better now”
But the debate isn’t over. In fact, Ms. Shevinsky now finds herself in another argument. This time, however, she’s on the defensive with other women.
A prominent feminist in tech told her that she was doing a disservice to women by accepting Mr. Dickinson’s apology and working with him again. The conversation, Ms. Shevinsky said, was “hateful.”
Ms. Shevinsky says that she judges Mr. Dickinson “on his actions, how he is with other people in the company and with me,” and said that there was no contradiction in both working with Mr. Dickinson and supporting feminism in tech.
By virtue of being human people are going to make mistakes and be insensitive and possibly, unintentionally misogynistic. I believe that we should allow people to move on from their mistakes. As I stated above I also believe that we should allow women to have their own agency and allow for a diversity of approaches to women in tech.
Lea Verou, an incoming Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at M.I.T., wrote in a much read essay that women-only conferences and hackathons “cultivate the notion that women are these weak beings who find their male colleagues too intimidating.”
“As a woman,” she wrote, “I find it insulting and patronizing to be viewed that way.”
I strongly disagree with this view, and find that these environments allow for a different form of collaboration and openness, and to find it to be an environment that counters systematic, unconscious misogyny as well as outright hostility.
Love and (lots of) thoughts about being a woman in tech,