Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Stumbling blocks for me on the women in tech debate...

Note: Before pithily summarizing and dismissing, please not that the title of this is "stumbling blocks" not "A Comprehensive Airtight Case For Why Nothing Should Be Done."  I offer this as my reasons for being reluctant to get behind certain remedies, and provide opportunity correction for where I might be wrong, not to say there's not a problem, or that nothing should be done about it.

To state what I believe is the problem, women's entry into technical professions, in particular math and science, has lagged their entry into other professions.  Several explanations have been provided for this, the ones that will not get you fired are that these industries are overly hostile to women, and that not enough is being done to encourage young girls and women to develop an interest and enter these fields.  Therefore the solutions have been to pressure male tech workers to ensure that their culture is welcoming to women, and a variety of programs to ignite an interest in tech among girls and women.

I am not positive this is all for the best.

Other professions, notably medicine and law, have not experienced the same problems, despite also being rigorous disciplines requiring even more education.

So what explains the disparity?

My personal experience, and the stereotypes of the professions, leads me to doubt that it's because (male) engineers and scientists are in general bigger jerks and assholes than (male) doctors and lawyers.  I am sure there are individuals, and subcultures, that are huge jerks.  But my experience is that most techies are live-along get-along types who will welcome anyone to the team that can help them.  The large number of immigrants and foreign nationals in the tech community would seem to also indicate this.

I don't recall doctors and lawyers needing to be lectured about creating a more inclusive culture.  I don't recall agonizing over the gender ratios for participants and speakers at medical conferences, the number of women's restrooms, etc.  Maybe it's because I'm not part of those communities.

Now, as I mentioned before, there are subcultures of the technical world that are much further removed from mainstream culture than the medical and legal community is or was.   And, it probably matters to them that they are accepted by mainstream society than it does to already marginalized techies.  And, stereo-typically, techies would be less tuned in to subtle social cues than other professions, and thus may require a more explicit invitation to get with the times than other fields.

Which leads to my suspicion as to what may be at the heart of the problem -- that while technical careers can be as financially remunerative as other professions, they remain second class in social prestige.  Someone may put up with crap in order to become a doctor or a lawyer; they are less likely to in order to become an engineer.  The social rewards are not in sync with the market rewards.

And, venturing further into thin ice, I wonder if this effect may be stronger for women than for men, since, more so then men, women have an expectation that their career be fulfilling as well as financially rewarding. In spite of whatever changes have come, men are likely more pressured to settle into a solid career than women are, and thus may be more willing to earn a solid paycheck in a less rewarding field.

If that is the case, I wonder if conspicuous efforts to "encourage" women to enter technical fields may backfire.  Now, women who go into tech fields not only have a somewhat lower status than doctors and lawyers, but also an unshakable suspicion that they needed a boost to get in.  This has been a criticism of affirmative action programs, though I don't think it represents a compelling argument against affirmative action.  But what's different in this case is that the boost is targeted at a particular field.  Women have the option of pursuing fields where nobody will suspect they were given a boost, and that their position was fully earned.

This may also be a reason why these pressures are applied to engineers, and not to doctors or lawyers (or hedge fund traders, which have a similar disparity).  That engineers will actually entertain these suggestions, while I suspect doctors and lawyers would have laughed people out of the room who would suggest they change their culture to accommodate different populations.

Again, I am not saying that this represents a case that we should do nothing, or even that we shouldn't do the things that have been suggested.  But it may not be as simple as a lot of the conversation suggests, either.
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