Sometimes I’m asked about women’s equal representation in the software industry. And someone might also ask me — what other than ethics justifies spending precious resources on making a company or a community include more women?
When I think about getting more women involved in the production of software, I think about:
- What’s the ethical thing to do
- What’s the fallout when we don’t do the ethical thing
It’s true that companies with more women in leadership make more money, and women make 80% of the consumer goods purchasing decisions in the US. But these metrics are just data we’ve collected about an unfortunate social experiment that’s resulted in a male-dominated software industry.
Ethics are about what is right and what we believe our society should aspire to. Ethics are not conclusions we draw from flawed social experiments.
Software is critical to the future of the world — from how we communicate, to how we make financial decisions, to how we elect leaders. There’s no question women should be part of our future.
So, it makes sense that…
Women should be involved equally in the means of producing software. They should be leaders, makers and decision makers in companies, board rooms and open source software communities.
Looking at the numbers, we’re not doing well when it comes to involving women in producing software. But software is important.
People who understand and create software have power.
So, let’s talk for a minute about what it’s like in a world of software production that doesn’t include women.
For me personally, my life is less rich for the lack of women. I work a lot of hours, and most of my work does not involve women on a day-to-day basis. So, I am deprived of colleagues who are women. I wish there were more. I grieve when friends leave my industry, and I feel obligated to represent women when I am just trying to do my job like any other person in the software industry.
For the software industry, we fail to meet the needs of women in the software we write and the online communities we build. Siri finds escort services, but can’t find women’s health clinics. An article about Anemia in Wikipedia stated recently that anemia is normal for women who menstruate. An editor read the articles that were cited, and updated the page to reflect what the research actually states — which is that women are not normally iron deficient or anemic, and if you are you should go to the doctor because it’s not normal and probably caused by internal bleeding!
For society, we fail to include women’s voices in decision making about what software we should create. Women are grossly underrepresented. So, largely, they do not benefit from IPOs, make decisions about marketing products or set development priorities in open source projects.
The failure is overwhelming to consider, honestly. It’s embarrassing, humiliating and humbling. Fortunately, there are many people who feel the same way working in software.
My experience has been that my community is largely comprised of people who would really like our industry to do better. And not just in an abstract sense, but be better than the rest of society in our pursuit of freedom and equality. And that gives me hope that we’ll figure it out in my lifetime.
Ethics and morality are compelling, but often are not sufficient to drive business decisions unfortunately.
Years ago, though, I had the privilege of interviewing Anita Borg and Ellen Ullman for an article about women in technology. Ms. Borg pointed out that computers are supposed to be a physical metaphor for the human brain. If half of society’s input was missing from this process, would it not be a less rich, less accurate, and less *capable* simulation of our mental faculties?
Another point that was made is that women are thought to be (arguably 🙂 ) better at multi-tasking than men. So much of computing involves prioritizaton of jobs and queue management: If women were more involved in computing, would computers be better at prioritization?
Great comments, although I’d differentiate multitasking from prioritizing – doing many tasks at the same time is different than creating order of importance in these tasks.
Multitasking isn’t always an attribute – while I admit to doing it as well, I’ve learned that stopping to do each task well, one at a time, can often bring better results (i.e., do one thing well versus five things so-so).
Some food for thought 🙂
I totally agree with your second point: Focusing on a task yields deeper, more complete results. For better or worse, women’s time is seen as more interruptible, and I think that’s why we get more multitasking requests. Many of us women have to ‘push back’ or accept being less likable/available in order to get that concentrated time – worth the cost, imo.
Re multitasking not equalling prioritization, you’re also right on. But prioritization ability *becomes* important when multitasking. If you only have one thing to deal with, you don’t ever need to know how to prioritize.
One of the other things Ms. Borg said still rings in my memory: “I _want_ to have a system designed by someone who knows what it means to be interrupted to take care of someone else, to wipe a baby’s nose.” Lol, classic – I was just interrupted while posting this. Bye.
Love this. In particular:
“I feel obligated to represent women when I am just trying to do my job like any other person in the software industry.”
Very, very familiar problem.
Agreed. I was just at the Grace Hopper Top Technical Companies for Women workshop on Thursday with some amazing women leaders in IT speaking, sprinkled with HR execs of both sexes, who discussed women in technology as a smart business proposition, and it reminded me so much of sustainability. (Not everyone wants to save the earth, but everyone running a business wants to be profitable – so you have to hit many of them from that perspective. ‘The Ecology of Commerce’ discusses this issue well, when we take an economic perspective of using the triple bottom line approach, companies do better.) And the hope is there will be a side effect of changing some mindsets…
Well then tell more women to join the computer science program at universities. It’s by their own choice, not any, one’s fault.
@crg, it is substantially more complicated than a matter of choice. While it is dangerous to draw allusions I believe it is appropriate in some circumstances. Women choosing not to enter IT is like men choosing not be homemakers. Commonly (problematic and invalid) held beliefs say that men who don’t work outside the home are no men at all. This is atrocious injustice to all the great men who do this for their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands or wives because it is what they want to do. There are well known commonly (also problematic and invalid) held beliefs that men are inherently better suited to certain pursuits that involve logical or spatial reasoning. This is utter garbage of course similar to historical racist arguments of inferiority of superiority of one race to another.
There are real social barriers that need to be broken down, attitudes and beliefs that need to change and actions that need to be taken to fully realize the goal of gender equality that I know my mother and father both fought and continue to fight for. We need to carry that torch forward and not perpetuate illusions of this being a matter of choice.
I am fortunate to work with Verafin where we embrace women in all roles and where we benefit especially with our diversity of leadership. The difference this makes for us as a company is profound and it wasn’t a deliberate process it was the rising of the best without the prejudice and barriers of chauvinism to hold us back.
Finally! “I would like” instead of “we need”. Also, not an argument from an arbitrary desire for diversity or balance. Thank you for that. I grow tired of reading about how programmers need to be an exact representation of the larger population (it doesn’t) and worse, how “diversity” (which is good) somehow translates to “more women” (which ignores all other under-represented groups).