We Suck At This

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

1. Let’s be frank

We suck at being open and welcoming towards women. We also suck at being open and welcoming towards minorities.

All of us, the entire software industry. No, really. And I’m not even talking about being supportive or especially helpful, or giving any kind of special attention to anyone at all. We simply suck at recognising there are people who are not male, young, white and the nerdy version of a brain surgeon. But most importantly, we suck at caring.

There have been quite a few sexist incidents with massive fallout in the software industry in 2014 alone, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will at least have heard about the scandal that led to the firing of one of the founders of GitHub, the RadiumOne CEO who allegedly beat his wife 117 times, or the resignation of Mozilla Foundation CEO Brendan Eich due to his funding of anti-gay legislation.

Edit: So obvious, I almost forgot: Check out #YesAllWomen, and pay particular attention to some of the male comments…

There’s always going to be press and scandals. But to me, it’s really plain to see how badly we suck, when I just look at my own surroundings:

  • When I went to college, there were maybe a handful of female CS students among a few hundred men. I doubt things have changed much since then.
  • I’ve been to conferences where there were less than 5 women attendees, compared to a thousand men. And I seriously doubt there’s even one tech conference world-wide, where the ratio is remotely close to 50/50.
    Edit: I stand corrected: The Grace Hopper Conference seems to attract almost exclusively women.
  • I worked more than ten years as a professional software developer, both as a consultant and as an employee, before I even met an actual female programmer on one of my projects. Designers, managers, marketeers, sure. But coders? No.
  • At codecentric, we’re truly privileged: We are a company with no visible hierarchies, with all kinds of team and people processes, with peer learning mechanisms, with great employee participation concepts. Of all the places I’ve ever worked at, or even been to, we’re the most open-minded, creative, and really people-centric company I could possibly think of – I mean it, I think we are doing a pretty good job! And yet out of currently a little over 200 developers and consultants, less than 10% are female, or of a different ethnicity. I have also yet to meet an openly gay person among our ranks.

I could go on and on: There is plenty of evidence in my personal life experience of how little this industry represents diversity and equal opportunity, and I bet there’s equally as much in yours, as well.

Houston, we have a problem!

2. Let’s stop pretending we’re a meritocracy

The first and obvious objection to this observation would be blaming it all on a lack of talent or interest on their part: “Women are just not good enough at maths and science”, yadayadayada.

Of course these kinds of statements can easily be proven wrong. History shows that some of the most important discoveries in computer science were not made by straight white men. Just to name a few:

  • The first ever compiler was built by a woman.
  • The first ever programming algorithm was conceived by a woman.
  • And of course, the first model of a general purpose computer was built and run by a gay man, who was also persecuted and committed suicide for being different (incidentally, exactly 60 years ago on the day this post is published).

So if we assume that our genetic disposition and sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether or not we work in software, why is it then, that there is such a major imbalance of diversity in our field of work?

If half the population are women, wouldn’t there have to be about half as many female CS graduates, job applicants, conference speakers, etc.?

Also, how many really bad male developers have you worked with in your time as a professional? I personally have met quite a few that I wouldn’t even consider working with again – and that’s just the truly horrible ones.

Clearly, we don’t hire people based on merit alone, and we don’t let them enrol into CS classes based on just talent. The only conclusion I can come up with that makes any sense at all is that there must be mechanisms in place that make it either a) much, much harder or b) much less desirable for women and minorities to work in tech. Period.

And among all the reasons I can think of that would lead to either of those circumstances, the first and most prominent is the way they are treated by us, their peers.

3. Let’s not downplay other people’s feelings

The second counter argument I have heard often in the past weeks is direct denial of relevance when a person publicly speaks out about sexism. “It’s not so bad”, “it was just a joke”, “she’s just overreacting”, or “she should just respect that other people have a different opinion” – sound familiar?

That, my friends, is simply disrespectful. You may not agree with a particular opinion that was stated, but you have to accept that there are people who are clearly very emotionally involved in this discussion, and who have – unlike you – a very personal stake in making themselves heard. This should never be considered invalid. And if it happens often, as it clearly does currently, it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem.

How is showing that some people’s actions inflict damage upon others even remotely the same as arguing about algorithms, or discussing the weather? These people are not forcing their opinion on you, they are asking you to recognise that they are hurt!

The third most frequent objection I have come across recently is the “not all men” point of view: “Oh, sure, some of the guys are really bad, but I have never harmed a woman, and therefore surely not all men behave like that.”

Just stop. This is not about you. Or me. This is about all the people who haven’t had a fair chance to live up to their potential and be a real part of this wonderful ecosystem, which has been so rich and fulfilling to the rest of us.

It’s about all the times that we said “stop acting like a girl”, or worse: “stop being a pussy”. It’s about all the times we said: “That looks gay”, when we meant: “I don’t like it”. It’s about all the times we just expected the female person in the room to get coffee, even though she wasn’t really hired as a waitress. It’s about all the times we checked out the women we work with, because we were more interested in the way they look, than what they’re able to do. It’s about all the times we dismissed a female colleague’s arguments, because clearly, she was “hormonally imbalanced”. It’s about all the times we didn’t hire a woman, because she was planning to have kids. It’s about all the times we wouldn’t share a hotel room with a gay colleague, for some irrational fear that they may come on to us.

As Brianna Wu said it in her brilliant talk at AltConf, that I can’t recommend often enough: It’s not the one ridiculously horrible incident that pushes women and minorities out, it’s “death by a thousand cuts.”

4. Let’s stop making apologies

Once we’ve established that there is, in fact, a tendency towards bad behaviour against women and minorities in the software industry, we could now try to find all kinds of excuses:

  • It’s nothing personal, or one group in particular. We’re simply all nerds, and we’re generally not great at dealing with people.
  • Nerds are often autistic personalities, and they have trouble empathising with others. We just didn’t realise we said something wrong.
  • We’re just not used to having women and minorities around, so we can’t be expected to know how to do this right.
  • Sarcasm and bad jokes? Yeah, that’s just how we roll. We all take that, so they should just get used to it.
  • It’s not that we’re not trying to include them, it’s that they don’t like our way of doing things. They should integrate, not us.

These are just some of the arguments I’ve heard when talking to people in recent weeks. And I have to admit I used to agree with some of them.

But I also believe that these explanations are far too easy to really explain what seems like a global phenomenon, and just leaving it like this would be trying to find a cheap way out of the controversy, instead of actively looking for ways to make things better. In order to understand what is happening, we first have to stop lying to ourselves in order to talk about other, less controversial things.

We, as an industry, as a community, as a company, as a team, as men, must stop pretending that there is some rational explanation that makes this all come out as a big misunderstanding. Because it clearly isn’t. And in order to change, we have to start addressing these issues, even if it’s painful and unpleasant.

5. Let’s start making things better (tl;dr)

When I first told my wife that I was going to write this blog post, because I felt like I was part of the problem, she immediately started defending me. “Clearly, you’re not a mysogynist! How can you say that?”

So let me get this straight: I don’t consider myself a mysogynist. I don’t hate women. I don’t hate gay people. I don’t consider myself a sexual predator. I have always thought of myself as being overall respectful and supportive towards the women I know and work with. But after much consideration and plenty of discussions, and after having had the pleasure of listening to great podcasts and talks about the topic, and following wonderful women such as Brianna Wu, Serenity Caldwell, Georgia Dow, Jessie Char, and Julie Horvath, I realise that I’ve looked away far too often, I’ve been at least oblivious of a lot of stupid things I’ve said casually, and I can no longer pretend I haven’t been part of the problem – as much as I may want that to be true.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards making things better. It is how support groups address addictions and destructive habits: You admit that you have a problem, so that you know when to be careful, when to say no, or not bring yourself into temptation. Incidentally, it is also how Agile retrospectives work in software development: You address things that went wrong in the past, so that you may improve and become a better team – self-improvement is, after all, an idea that we value above all else in the Agile community!

Ultimately, that is why I wrote this post, and I hope that many of you male readers out there join me in working towards change. Because I truly believe that we can do so much better than this.

To put it in a drastic way: My name is Tobias, I am almost 40 years old, and I am a sexist. Let’s work on this.

Kommentare

  • Mike

    In addition to the minorities you mentioned, this industry also, as a whole, massively discriminates against anyone “older”. In many cases, a coder of 30 is considered “old”. We actually have men and women in the Bay Area in their 20s seeking plastic surgery so they can look younger because they are worried about age discrimination. We need to get over the belief that older brains can’t keep up with younger brains, since this has been repeatedly disproved by research, and research has even proved that older brains are better at filtering out bad information. People over 30 also have a lot of experience that not only makes them better coders, but may also have more experience that can help avert business disasters.

    Often this age discrimination is hidden as monoculture, where people over 30 are rejected because they aren’t a “good cultural fit”. Well, guess what, if you really want a successful product, you should surround yourself with diversity, and not run your company like a fraternity house. The problem is, many, many companies in the Bay Area aren’t interested in producing a real product, but getting a beta good enough that they can sell the company.

    • Tobias Goeschel

      10. June 2014 von Tobias Goeschel

      I agree, this is also a problem. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if it had a very different reason: Young people are generally much more idealistic and willing to invest incredible amounts of time and energy into projects for which they don’t get paid. Once you’re over 30, you’re likely to have a family and/or a house, so you can no longer afford to work for “part of the profit” in an uncertain future.

      • Mike

        As the saying goes, “there are a million excuses for discrimination, but no reasons”. Cultural fit, the house/family myth, the older brain, blah, blah, blah. There were a list of excuses when I was growing up why blacks shouldn’t be hired, and why women couldn’t do certain jobs. Just like the house/family excuse, they were all psuedo-science. In the US, people are putting off marriage later and later, and the idea of even buying a house is off the table for many in the US because housing costs are far outpacing every other cost except medical care, and especially in the Bay Area, owning a house, or even getting an apartment now, is a dream most people can’t even begin to afford.

        Older workers may be smart enough to know that in almost every case stock options are a pipe dream. So what? Any really intelligent young person should be able to use a search engine to find out the same thing in ten minutes. That argument is also based on the false idea that software engineering in the Bay Area is based on building the best product. I’ve found that this isn’t the case, and I’ve read other people’s experiences that match my own: the idea is not to build the best product, but to build something just good enough to flip the company and to have as much fun as possible while doing it.

        I believe my observations are valid, because I’ve seen them in real life when I’ve worked for companies in the Bay Area, interviewed with them, and talked to friends in the business. We have to face the hard truth here and not try to hide it behind pseudo-science: especially in the Bay Area software engineering is based around the culture you would find at many rich frat houses: very young, very white, very male, monied, and very drunk. Hell, I had an interview where a table of six interviewers bragged to me about how much they got together after work and got blind drunk every night. As an industry we brag about office drinking and how many beers are on tap in job descriptions. In my experience, the real argument doesn’t come down to “is this person the best person for the job”, but “is this person someone I want to get drunk with every day”, and just like a frat, few want to drink with someone that even graduated last year, yet alone someone old enough to be their parent.

        • Tobias Goeschel

          11. June 2014 von Tobias Goeschel

          I might not have made that clear enough: I don’t think startup culture, especially the one that is mostly VC funded, is based on building the best product, I think it is mostly based on exploiting young, naive and idealistic developers.

  • Alex

    I am puzzled by this article. I’ve been working in IT for over 25 years and to be honest most women I’ve worked with get treated very well, sucked-up to rather if anything. Young guys drooling over them a bit, management eager to recruit and keep them even if they under-perform or even take the piss somewhat.

    Must be the environment you work in, I’ve mostly been working in finance and enterprise. Maybe it’s just different in the UK?

    • Tobias Goeschel

      23. June 2014 von Tobias Goeschel

      I believe the problem starts where you simply assume your own personal perception of how women are treated to be the general truth. Have you asked any of them if they felt welcome and treated as equals? Just think about it: If there is any actual harassment, it’s not likely to happen while other people are around, and you’d only hear about it if there are major legal or disciplinary actions against the perpetrator. And then, these are not things any company is eager to include in their press statements…
      What’s probably worse, though, is a general attitude against women and minorities, that doesn’t show in violence or loud arguments, but in snarky comments, whispers and jokes. Have you noticed the negative undertone in your own statement (“sucked up to”, “under-perform”, “take the piss”)? If it really is much different in some places, I would assume it’s not a question of country, but rather company or team.

      • Alex

        Toby my boy, I do think your attitude is admirable if a little naive. I have run large teams of mixed genders for some years and believe me, I do talk to everyone and make sure I know what’s going on. I have sacked a team member for abusing a female member of staff but if there are abusive problems brewing in teams a woman is just as likely to be the trouble maker as a man, they are not better people because of their gender. Women are just as likely to bully in the office as men.

        I think it’s possible our experiences differ partly due to sector, large corporates have strict codes of conduct and attract more self-assertive women but I do think English speaking workplaces are different, I have done contracts in Germany with EDS and Merc and they were nothing like the Uk.

        Looks to me as if it is you who has an anachronistic gender stereotype issue that need examination, not so many women need white knights to save them as you may think. If you want a better workplace then forget gender and demand good manners and kindness be a universal team goal.

        • Tobias Goeschel

          24. June 2014 von Tobias Goeschel

          Looks to me as if it is you who has an anachronistic gender stereotype issue that need examination, not so many women need white knights to save them as you may think.

          Alex, I never intended for this to be about me, so let me just reply shortly: A white knight is precisely what I am not trying to be. I’m not fighting anybody else’s fight. There are plenty of strong women fighting their own fight quite impressively, some of whom I’ve named in the article. I’m also not saying I am “white” in the sense that I feel that I’m not at fault, or better than anyone else. I thought I made that clear. I merely think I recognised a structural deficit, which I am trying to improve, because I believe every last one of us will benefit hugely from more diversity and tolerance.

          large corporates have strict codes of conduct and attract more self-assertive women

          Why do you think that is so? Thank you for making my point there.

          If you want a better workplace then forget gender and demand good manners and kindness be a universal team goal.

          Which is exactly what I want.

    • Yves Hanoulle

      Alex

      when you say “and to be honest most women I’ve worked with get treated very well”
      How do you know?

      yves

  • Diana Larsen

    Hi Tobias,
    First, thank you so much for writing this. At the recent Agile2014 conference in Orlando, a whole group of women (and a few men) got together to discuss exactly this. While we think things may be marginally better in more collaborative, Agile shops, it’s still not what we’d al like it to be.

    Second, I feel honored that Agile Retrospectives make an appearance in this post. You’re right! This is exactly the kind of opportunity for improvement a retrospective is useful for.

    Rock on!

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