December 19, 2009

Women in technology

Yesterday the legendary author, mentor and teacher Kathy Sierra (@KathySierra) made a comment on Twitter about women in technology, and I will quote, and I hope Kathy won't take issue with this:

"Tired of being a Woman In Tech. I'm a programmer. I'm female. Does it have to be SO political/significant? Sometimes a coder's just a coder."

I have a few thoughts on the subject, and writing them all down on Twitter in any sort of coherent fashion with everyone else's interjections is a pain in the neck, so I will do it here instead.

While I understand the sentiment, it can be a drag to have so much responsibility on your shoulders all the time - especially when you're a figurehead, and such a visible one at that...

Firstly, I think that women in technology are valuable, extremely so. Does it have to be political? Well, I guess it doesn't and wouldn't be if they weren't such a huge and often willing minority. I will clarify what I mean by willing - women (in general) opt not to play in this industry. Why that is comes down to many reasons that I'm not fully familiar with and don't wish to debate in this post. The point that I wish to press though is that the women in technology are important.

There have been various psychological studies done over the years that have all but proven that women and men think differently - and some go as far as to suggest that for all intensive purposes, we may as well be different species. How true that is I'm not sure, but it's not important. The purpose of this point is that if we're only getting the guys' point of view, doesn't that leave our industry's effectiveness in the world very one sided? The fact is, I'm a guy, I think like a guy and work like a guy, I look at the world from a guy's point of view. Of course, when I design software I try and design it logically - so gender shouldn't make any difference.

What's logical is logical, doesn't matter whether you're male or female, right? Well that was what I thought until I got married - now it's very obvious to me that what seems logical to me isn't always (in fact frequently isn't) logical to my wife... nor was it logical to my previous wife, or any of my girlfriends before them. I used to write it off as they just didn't think logically and in the context of computer software, they just didn't get it - we spoke a different language and would never understand each other.

The more time goes on, the more I'm forced to look at myself and think that maybe it's not the women in my life that don't get it - maybe it's me. Asking any of the guys I work with, they all agree that my idea is the most logical approach. But asking the women, they all agree to the contrary, the most logical approach to me often just doesn't seem to make sense to them, even when I explain it. So without having women's input and perspective in the design process, the result is skewed very much in the favour of the way guys think. Maybe this is "why guys are technologically inclined and women aren't" [just repeating the anecdote, it's not mine]. It's not because women don't get technology - it's that they don't understand the technology that was produced. It doesn't make sense because they've [women] had very little input into the design process.

Anyone can have a good idea, anyone, any time, any where. Male or female. So in a world where we have approximate balance between the sexes, how effective is our software if input into its design and user experience is almost entirely driven by guys?

Female input into software design is extremely valuable and if you are one of the few females in software development, I would call on you to be role models to other girls and women that the industry needs you. For every bigot, sexist or moronic asshole in this industry that look at women in technology as inferior, or objects to be leered over, there are many who value their opinions, input and ideas. There are guys out there that fit the stereotypic geek that lives for Star Trek conventions, girls too - to each their own, but if this or other stereotypes are what's making you lean away from a career in technology, please reconsider.

So Kathy, while I understand the sentiment of your comment that you just want to be you and that being a coder shouldn't be political just because you're female - you are an ambassador that can bring balance to an industry where there is currently little, if any - in fact, all women in this industry are, more so if they have any level of visibility.

Maybe I should extend the reach of this post as far as to say - it's not just women that are important, but diversity in general is important. If you are in any visible, social or any other kind of minority in the industry and you have any kind of visibility, you are an important ambassador too. Diversity in points of view, experience and approach is good for the industry and will benefit us far more than ignoring it or worse actively participating in behaviour that inhibits it.

Of course, this is just my opinion, and I hope, nay encourage my readers to post their comments in response.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I appreciate that your time is valuable and you have other important things to do. So the fact that you've chosen to spend it reading my views is appreciated - whether you agree or not.


  1. Ben, thanks for this post.

    I think most women aren't interested in technology by virtue of nurture, and arguably to some degree nature. Yes, I think men and women do, on average, interpret things differently. But logic is logic. Good design, however, has to take in account the past experience of the audience.

    This troubles me:
    "But asking the women, they'd all agree to the contrary, the most logical approach to me often just doesn't seem to make sense to them, even when I explain it. "
    This makes me think you aren't explaining it clearly enough. Or what you are trying to explain isn't your logical approach, but a design decision. Because in the next sentence you shift to design:
    "So without having women's input and perspective in the design process, the result is skewed very much in the favour of the way guys think."

  2. @areader:

    Logic also applies to design - where is the most logical place to put a menu command? where is the most logical place to put a control? what is the most logical human input interface? ... [the list goes on]. So this is where my argument is coming from - a design perspective rather than the straight out logical process of your code - which again

    I tend to think of nurturing people with technology is immersing them in an experience that they get value from. So if you immerse them in a world where the technology is frustrating to use and understand and doesn't provide much perceived value because the frustration outweighs the benefit, what happens? People learn that they don't like technology and hence steer clear of it.

    So maybe if technology continued to cater towards the nurturing of that excitement and fascination that drives us geeks/nerds etc. and does something about removing the frustration factor that the technology averse are afraid of, then those that are more technology averse would be less inclined to steer clear of a career in this field.

    Ergo, if software design had more of a female influence - and I don't mean pretty in pink with bows and glitter, but I mean catered towards designs that remove the frustration factors other barriers to women *wanting* to embrace technology, then I think that the industry will be better off for it.

    If women begin to embrace technology more, they'll be less afraid of it as they become more immersed and eventually when my Grandma gets pissed off that her email has stopped working, she'll be able to figure out on her own that her DNS server is no longer responding and point her PC to a different one, and programming will be a vocation where a woman could decide she wanted to do that without anybody batting an eyelid - and more than that, her opinions aren't belittled by egotistical bullies that are trying to make themselves feel important because they were bullied at school and feel inadequate unless they put you in your place first.

    As for nature, I don't think you can instill nature into anyone. Some people will always look at technology as utilitarian, not caring how it works or anything other than the fact that it serves some purpose that enhances their life or makes it easier or more bearable - in a world of technology, I'm thankful I'm not one of them, not that I blame them - human nature is human nature and we're all programmed the way we're programmed.

    What frustrates me is the apparence that stereotypes and industry biases are deterring people from following a path that they may not only be extremely well suited to, but that they may in fact change the world with.