Sometimes it takes someone saying something so gobsmackingly obvious that it makes people ashamed they didn’t realize it before, to clue people in that there might actually be a problem, and how to address it. This post, I truly hope, is one of those times.
Sometimes, men talk about the gender disparity in tech communities as if there’s some big mystery. I have to conclude that these guys haven’t talked to women who currently work in computer science academia and the tech industry, or who did and then left. As someone who was perceived as a girl or woman doing computer science for 12 years, my solution to the lack of women in tech is:
Stop telling women that they aren’t welcome and don’t belong.
Sounds pretty obvious, right? Well, you’d think. But read on to see what counts as telling them they don’t belong. A tip — it’s not just making the blatantly sexist comment, like Prof. Doaitse Swierstra’s saying that more women in Haskell’s programming school would make the program “more attractive”.
When I watched the video, what I heard after Prof. Swierstra’s comment about attractiveness was laughter. No one called him out; the discussion moved on. I might be wrong here, but the laughter didn’t sound like the nervous laughter of people who have recognized that they’ve just heard something terrible, but don’t know quite what to do about it, either (though I’m sure that was the reaction of some attendees). It sounded like the laughter of people who were amused by something funny.
It would have taken just one person to stand up at that moment and say, “That was sexist and it’s not acceptable here.” (That person would probably have to be a senior faculty member or researcher, someone of equal rank to Prof. Swierstra; challenging a male, senior researcher is not something a female grad student (or even maybe a male grad student) should be expected to do.) But nobody did. And that’s what really disappoints me. Structural sexism persists not because of the few people who do and say blatantly bad things, but because of the majority who tolerate them. People say things like the things Prof. Swierstra said because they are socially rewarded for it: they can get a few laughs. Also, they can display their membership in a high-status group (heterosexual men). Take the reward away, and the comments and actions that exclude go away too.
The whole story sounds like the old anecdote about wanting to attract more women to a product “so let’s make it pink” — looking for a silver bullet solution that doesn’t acknowledge the true nature of the problem. “Let’s get more women because it’ll become more ‘attractive’, wink wink nudge nudge” makes it sound like all you need is more women to make it more likely for women to join up, rather than addressing any sexism already rampant in the community. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding that the framing of the problem is actually prejudicial to women to begin with. It’s one of those things where a bunch of men say “we need more women because X-thing-that-hurts-women”, and women go “no fucking wonder you’ve got a problem”, and no self-awareness is ever achieved.
It’s terrible when that entrenched sexism comes from the top, and woe betide any lowly trench soldier that dares speak truth to power because they’ll get drummed out as trying to “tar” the leader’s reputation.