Sometimes More Gets Done Without Women

Am I allowed to say that? Probably not. That’s part of the reason why I’m saying it — because we have entered into an era where it is OK to say that, for instance, the world would be better if women ran it. That might be true. In some ways, it probably is true. But it may also be true that, in some ways, things are not better when women are involved — and it should be OK to say that too.

In making such a statement, regardless of whether it targets men or women, it seems clear that there should always be room for the atypical person, the one whose attitudes or behaviors do not reflect the relevant sex-based stereotype. I have noticed, for instance, that among my friends on Facebook, those who talk about certain subjects (e.g., sewing) are invariably female. Well, as it happens, sometimes I am curious about those subjects. I hope those women don’t think it’s weird or effeminate of me to express that curiosity. I don’t feel gay or transgender when I do. I just happen to find some of those things interesting and/or useful. Likewise, I’d rather not be made to feel like a pussy if I don’t get into sitting around and talking about NFL football teams. I’ve played football — tackle football, grassy field, no helmets or pads. I like football. I’ve had broken bones from football. To me, the real game does not have much in common with TV quarterbacking. I like that too, just not to the same extent.

While we’re talking about what I’m allowed to say, you might have noticed that I used the word “pussy.” I don’t especially like the word, and I rarely use it. But in this context, you might call it a PC-filter.

The Atlantic Article

What brings this subject to mind is a passage in an article in The Atlantic (Nyce, 2017), regarding what Nyce characterizes as “The Winter Getaway That Turned the Software World Upside Down.” The resulting “software revolution,” as she calls it, originated in a meeting of programmers in Snowbird, Utah, in 2001:

“The first day had quite a lot of alpha-male-type, status-posturing-type behavior,” Brian Marick, an independent programmer and author, recalls . . . . [He] called his wife that first evening of the retreat, telling her, “There’s a powerful odor of testosterone in this room.”

Schwaber says the group did invite “a whole bunch of really pretty knowledgeable women” but that none showed. “They thought it would just be a carousing and smoking weekend,” Schwaber says. “They didn’t think we were going to do anything intellectual or productive.”

“That was a shame,” he says, “because there’s some people that would’ve been really helpful.” But it’s unclear whether women were, in fact, actually invited: A few of the framers tell me they vaguely remember some women being invited. Others don’t. . . .

The final document is hosted online, on a simple website that feels straight out of the early 2000s, featuring a bunch of guys in khakis standing around a whiteboard. . . . [F]or a decade and a half, the website . . . stood as a virtual, communal rallying cry. Site visitors were invited to sign on to the Manifesto and publicly add their names to the document.

“We put that thing up, and it just exploded,” says Dave “PragDave” Thomas, a coauthor of The Pragmatic Programmer and an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University.

Notice the quote says there was a lot of the alpha-male stuff on the first day. I won’t go into the research on that now, but I suspect a good case could be made that the presence of females would have encouraged a continuation of competitive jostling for position on the second day. It seems, instead, that such behavior went mostly unrewarded — that it was not so effective in an all-male crowd — and that they decided, instead, to get down to business after that first day.

Notice also how Nyce handles the part about inviting women. It is unfortunate that she failed to take (or was unwilling to report) a good, thorough census of who invited women, and what the response was. She gives us only vague, unsupported suspicions to counter Schwaber’s relatively specific statement of how women reacted when invited. Possibly Nyce just didn’t want to acknowledge, in print, that “a whole bunch of really pretty knowledgeable women” did, in fact, skip a pivotal event because they made the mistake of pigeonholing it as a guy thing — possibly because theirs was a herd mentality that would discourage a solo woman from attending independently. (To illustrate that herd possibility, the Huffington Post (Saravia, 2016) speaks of a “sisterhood that got me through Advanced Placement Calculus,” and says, “I firmly believe being part of [an all-female] ‘Nerd Herd’ in every phase of my [STEM] education and career has contributed to my success.”)

As it turned out, any women who believed that the Snowbird conference was just “a guy thing” would have been right: Nyce makes clear that it was exactly that. And the result was a software revolution. Schwaber may have been right in saying there were women whose presence would have been “really helpful.” Helpful, OK, maybe. But maybe not. It’s hard to improve on what was, already, a (software) world-changing development. On the other hand, there was real downside potential — a real possibility that, with women present, no revolution would have taken place. Women, often praised for their caution, might have resisted risky forward momentum, or might have been a hindrance by their mere presence. Just as you can’t blame women for naturally attracting and distracting men, you can’t blame men for being naturally attracted to, and distracted by, women.

We need not blame anyone, in order to consider that distraction due to the presence of women might have made the Snowbird getaway into precisely what the women evidently believed it would be. Indeed, maybe their presence at past events was why they had experienced such events as unproductive: maybe, without intending it, they inspired unproductive behavior in men and/or in each other. Unlike Nyce, I wouldn’t imply that such possibilities are necessarily amenable to simplistic solutions (e.g., everything will always be better if you just invite women). Rather, I would be interested in seeing research on such possibilities, conducted without ideological precommitment to a feminist outcome.

The YouTube Video

I noticed, at the bottom of Nyce’s Atlantic article, a link to a video (evidently produced by The Atlantic itself) titled “How Did Tech Become So Male-Dominated?” The description of that video said this:

Since computing began in the 1940s, women have led major developments in programming and software development. In 1984, 37 percent of computer-science majors were women. What happened? The tech industry’s image shifted rapidly in the 1980s and ’90s, and society began to associate programming with men. Today, only one in four computing jobs is held by a woman.

Leaving aside the complaint (expressed in multiple viewer comments on that video) that such remarks mix up computer science, programming, and software development, let us consider that question, “What happened?” The description attempts the vague explanation that “society began to associate programming with men.” But why?

The video says (at 2:15), “Men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became the heroes of the rapidly expanding industry.” But, again, why? What prevented brilliant women from sitting down at their computers, in their garages, and developing competitive operating systems?

The video suggests an answer to these questions (at 2:27): “Pop culture gave rise to the stereotypical male nerd, with movies like War Games, Weird Science, and Revenge of the Nerds.” But how, exactly, did “pop culture” manage that? Are we to understand that Hollywood ignored a tidal wave of female programmers, and unfairly fixated solely upon the male nerds? I don’t think so. I was active in computing when those movies came out. It was all guys. Women were not remotely into it. Nobody was preventing them from taking computer science classes in 1979 or buying a PC in 1983, as I did, and rolling up their sleeves. They just didn’t want to. Much the opposite: for the most part they were preferring to disdain geeks.

The video (at 2:41) attempts the lame excuse that “Video game companies marketed their consoles as toys; and because toys were gendered, toy stores stocked games in the boy aisles.” That’s exactly backwards. Wikipedia says, “[I]t was not until Atari released a conversion of the golden age arcade hit Space Invaders in 1980 for the Atari 2600 that the home console industry took off.” In 1980, Bill Gates was already 24, and Steve Jobs was 25. Their computer-related interests were not being influenced by gendered toys. The more likely explanation: video games were marketed in the boy aisles, and Hollywood was depicting boys as nerds, because, again, girls were not interested in any of that. Toys were gendered because boys and girls were (and are) different for a variety of reasons, some of which result from female preferences. To quote several of the comments posted by viewers of the video:

In 2005 in the USA we’re all equal and the net was shiny new. What killer apps have been developed by woman teams? Why don’t they exist?

Companies bend over backwards to hire women in traditionally male dominated fields. No company wants to be labeled sexist so there’s a great deal of incentive to hire women even [if] they’re not qualified.

Most women have a great fear of being labeled “manly” by other women.

[W]hen women do study a hard science it seems like they usually pick chemistry, math, physics, pharmacy school, or literally anything else over electrical engineering or computer science.

Engineering is also associated with dirty hard work like being a train engineer.

Interesting how you don’t see women lining up to complain about the unfairness of men doing most of the dangerous jobs. They just cherrypick the good parts of being a man and ignore the rest.

Conclusion

What emerges from the video and, to a lesser extent, from Nyce’s article — as from other media output critiqued in this blog — is a sense that female journalists writing on sexism are not especially interested in finding the real reasons why women are not in STEM. These journalists would be interested in that if they, themselves, had ever wished to work in a STEM field — and in that case they would speak knowledgeably about computers, for instance, instead of making the mistakes evident in the Atlantic article by Nyce and, more so, in that accompanying video.

What seems to motivate these female journalists is simply the opportunity to invent another accusation against men. They seem to consider themselves crusaders in a great moral quest, to strike down the evil heresy of male superiority in anything, including the Agile meeting in Snowbird in 2001. Not that men necessarily have an intrinsic superiority in software development. The current state of affairs is no doubt the result of many ingrained social and possibly biological factors, some of which could and perhaps should be changed, some of which probably cannot and/or should not.

In any event, in the real world, what is needed is not more misandry. What is needed is a cold-eyed, realistic awareness of how things stand, and how they can be used most effectively, given who people actually are and what they actually want to do. That does seem to fit with how most women respond to STEM fields, to computers in particular, and to the opportunity to be a geek.

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