Sunday, 24 June 2012

The subject of women programmers is boring


I've been challenged to do a session at a very large conference around women in programming.  Which leads to two reactions from me 1) wow, what an honour! and 2) *sigh*.

The problem with these sessions is that you're preaching to the choir.  Those who turn up are a) women or b) men who are sympathetic and supportive to the cause.  People who are actively discriminating against women or, more commonly, those who don't know their actions are hurting diversity in our industry, are the least likely to receive the message.

This tends to lead to the same types of sessions - yes, our industry under-represents certain segments of society (i.e. women); yes, we all agree this is a problem; yes, everyone in this room is trying their best to do the right things; no, we have no idea how to fix it at the industry-level.

These sessions are boring.

How do you make this subject interesting, relevant, and appeal to the types of people it really should target?

I'm considering all sorts of games with the title, even going so far as to put "Boobs" in it.  I very much doubt that will make my final selection.  I'm thinking hard about the format, I definitely don't want it to be preachy, I want it to be informative, collaborative, and, preferably, funny.  Not too much to ask, right?

In programming, if something is difficult to do right, it's a sign of a smell - the feature being requested might be contrary to the purpose of the product; the application might not have been designed around the business's real requirements; there could be a large amount of tech debt that should have been cleaned up along the way but wasn't; the requirements might be fluffy, changeable, or simply outright wrong.

Does the fact that we can't get these sessions right point to a smell as well?

Are they pitched at the wrong people?  Are we saying the wrong things, suggesting the wrong ideas, tackling the wrong problem?  Should we even be talking about women in technology?

Or am I just the wrong person to do it?  I don't even want to be the spokesperson for women developers.  I can only be the spokesperson for me.

Overall I can't help but think we're missing the point again.  If I think that events aimed at girls are wrong, then I think that sessions at conferences aimed at highlighting the missing women there is also wrong.  But this is a great audience to reach - these are people who want to further their careers, who are likely to be putting in extra hours to improve themselves/their company/the industry.  Give a techy a tricky problem to gnaw on and there's no-one happier.  And what could be more tricky than the seemingly-unsolvable problem of attracting greater diversity into technical roles?

The answer might lie in shaping the problem such that it is interesting enough, difficult enough and technical enough for us.

Or maybe the answer is simply accepting the fact that you're not going to change those who are part of the problem, but you can change the message you are giving.  I know many men are tired of being berated about this issue because they're already doing the best they can.  I know many women are bored of hearing about it because they're already here.  Maybe it's time to look at the problem differently and suggest an alternative approach.

If only I knew what that was...

17 comments:

  1. Being a complet atheist I like to go to Churches and even listen to a mass once in a while. Most people inside the church are already convinced that god exists. The preist is just there to reassure them and to give them more information so they can... spread the word around them.

    I think the final goal is to "spread the word". That's what religions do, societies politics, laws, companies with their business rules, user groups with their preferred technologies, human rights, animals rights... Everybody is convinced about something and usually talks to people who are convinced too (except at Speaker's Corner but that's so British ;o) So, when you talk to a convinced audience don't go "it doesn't serve any purpose as they agree with me" but rather think "even if 5% of the audience spread the word around them, that's a good start".

    So like Paul, keep on the good spreading work and you'll see, the world will be a better place.

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    1. Thanks Antonio, that's good advice!

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  2. I second Antonio. It's likely that some people attend the session which don't know what the problems which women are facing are. They are not against women (or any other minorities) and only think about the lack of them when they are faced with it.

    You can give the people ideas on how to make the situation better. I think it would be interesting to ask the audience if they know any people which are clearly against women and if they could cite the reasons (if they know). Than it could be discussed how to get these people to revise their prejudice views.

    At last it's all about communication and having this topic on a conference will make the people communicate :)

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  3. Crazy idea: frame the talk as a way to find and retain great male programmers. Then, outline a series of things you don't want to have happen in your workplace so that it is maximally welcoming to male programmers (where you simply invert women with men in your normal points). Don't even mention women programmers in the abstract or the talk. Obviously, this is subtle, but it is also much more likely to get non-believers in the door.

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    1. I like this idea - I hate singling out women, and I think there are changes we can make that will be good for everyone.

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  4. I suspect the problem is really society at large: gender/sex stereotypes are imposed from age 0. The current state of our industry is really just a reflection of that. So instead of trying to change our industry by changing the whole of society, let's get into guerilla marketing of software development (and STEM generally) to girls and young women.

    Western society demands that women be focused on personal appearance and motherhood: clothes, make up, dolls, etc. (sweeping generalization, but…) But why aren't women at the centre of the design and creation of these things, and the creation of the tools used to create these things. Women should be more than just consumers of the final product.

    By going in to schools, colleges and universities and asking girls and young women what they want to change about the way things are done in the delivery of the products that they will undoubtedly already have been forced into thinking are important, it may be that some will get an interest in the software used, or the science used. Even if we can increase the number of women in software development by 10% over the next few years, it will begin to change our industry for the better.

    Sessions at conferences such as the one you have been asked to present are opportunities to rally troops and create activities. So rather than a review style session, make it a planning session for people to actually do stuff. What is the headline message? What are the activities? Who? When? Where? What is the manifesto? What are the pitfalls and things to avoid? How do we make this work and not appear like a futile exercise?

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    1. This echoes something a colleague just said to me, and it's something I buy into - the problem is definitely a perception-of-IT thing. The way schools have been forced to teach it doesn't help either. I definitely think getting into schools and publicising what we do is an important part of increasing our diversity.

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    2. And I'm afraid it is down to women such as yourself to lead on this sort of thing. No matter how supportive of "the cause" men are, they cannot be seen as the leads in this and have it be successful. We can support the likes of yourself though; let us know what we can do to help you do this stuff.

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  5. Hey Trish.

    I agree with your analysis that part of the people who are attending the session are already well aware of the situation and, unfortunately, there isn't so much new to bring to the table in such a talk: we know the situation, we partly know about the issues and reasons, attending women are living those issues every day, attending men are supportive of the cause and willing to help but don't know what to do.

    And indeed, it's not always fun to attend such sessions as a man who is supportive and wants to help when it is to hear about what other men are doing while our hands are tied, more or less, because we don't have any idea on how to help (except at a local level, e.g. in our own company or realm of friends, which is better than nothing, undoubtedly, but we really would like to do so much more). But then again, we're a big part of the problem, so we can't really complain if we get a slap on the head from time to time on that subject :)

    On the other hand, while there have been quite a few talks at quite a few conferences and well publicized blog posts, articles and discussions around that topic, you probably have 70 to 80% of "preaching to the choir" attendance. But never 100%. And even if you can only deliver a message to 30, 20, or even 10% of the attendance who are going there because they're curious, or because they've been taken there by a coworker or friend, isn't that useful already?

    We all want to be able to do something on a leverage that is just so much higher, but the problems are so deeply rooted into our society, into politics, into culture, into systems, that we probably can only act at a very small and local level (when noticing unacceptable behavior at work, or amongst friends, at school, when raising our daughter(s), etc...). It's frustrating, and it is going to take time.
    And then, even with the best intentions, we (men) keep making mistakes unintentionally, because we don't always necessarily notice that our behavior is sexist (that's the deeply-rooted-into-culture bit).

    Ah well... right, frustrating.

    One thing that really did not work well though was the BOF session on that topic we had at Devoxx 2012. As much as I can understand that some of the women in the room wanted to point out how difficult such situations are, I don't believe it's useful in any way to spend the whole session talking about personal examples. In such a BOF, the people who attend are 100% preaching-to-the-choir audience. No idea how to organize it better off the top of my head, but BOFs like that should really be focused on solutions.

    The organization of FOSDEM 2013 is going to start soon, I need ideas on what can be done there (6000+ open source contributors are attending, we should really do *something*... :))

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  6. But then again, we can also try to have a somewhat more positive view: if the usual talks and sessions on that topic have become boring, preaching to the choir, possibly pointless (although, as said, those 10-20% ...), then that is already *some* progress on the matter. Yeah, I know, it's not enough, by a long shot, but still.

    1) spread awareness, make the issues known to the wide public, gain support for the cause
    2) think of solutions, propose solutions, things everyone can do to support the cause
    3) solved?

    Time for "women programmers" 2.0 talks?

    Partly, yes, definitely. But I'm convinced that there is still a substantial proportion of men out there who aren't aware of the harm they are causing or who just plainly don't want to change their behavior (probably due to deeply rooted (mis-)culture and (mis-)education, same as with racism or religion (ok, that's my atheist side, sorry ;)) and who need to be worked on through social pressure in order to rethink or at least reconsider their "truths" (it always starts with a doubt :)).

    Maybe target talks at that latter audience? Hijack a session, because they wouldn't attend if the topic was "aw, boring, that feminist stuff again", and try to put a doubt into their set of unshaken truths (of the likes of "women are not good at scientific things") ... ;)

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    1. Thanks for all your thoughts. It is good to hear people say that it still needs to be talked about, I'll bear in mind what you've said when I'm coming up with the material.

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  7. >>> Should we even be talking about women in technology?

    How about no?

    You should be talking about the technology itself. Start by removing the gender from the spotlight. What you are doing is herding a tribe. It's the wrong kind of message.

    Your gender, skin color, sexual orientation, hairstyle, etc.. just don't matter in programming.

    It is true that some of the more nerdy types of young boys don't know how to interact with pretty girls, but that's just life. Since there're far more nerdy boys in programming than in the other industries you cannot avoid them completely.

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    1. I don't think the problem is that the nerdy guys in technology don't know how to talk to girls. But we definitely have a problem with attracting people of all diverse backgrounds into the industry and this is the area that I think needs work. But I think you raise an important point, which needs to be publicised outside of just our industry - it's not about the genetic things that make up how you look, it's about how you perform as a programmer. I think that is an important message.

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  8. "Your gender, skin color, sexual orientation, hairstyle, etc.. just don't matter in programming."

    The only thing that matters is that you don't have childern and still live at your parents place, and have a lot of free time to keep up with technology!

    (...and geeky glasses of cource!)

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    1. Yeah, that's the stereotype. Real life is different though, the geeky boys have long ago moved from their parents houses, have their own families, kids and mortgage.

      Over 90% of emplyees in my workplace have kids. I have three. It's true that I can no longer afford to spend sleepless nights learning about technology (as I used to do), but the accumulated experience helps a lot.

      (Glasses are - of course - mandatory 8-p)

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  9. Interesting post.

    I understand your frustration, Trisha. As Antonio wrote, someone has to tell the story to the apostles so that they can write the Gospels. Unfortunately, it draws time and energy from other activities. And our presence in user groups, addressing technical issues, working on interesting projects, meeting the youngest and teachers is more important than talking about women in IT.

    You have many options
    - Give away solid arguments and promote interesting actions
    - Make a slide deck they can reuse which can be disseminated
    - buzz, I guess a naked man should do the trick. I recall that Antonio had volunteered at Devoxx 2011 in case a naked guy is needed ;-P

    I like the idea of swapping roles. When I start writing this reply I had another idea. Langage is also a discrimination ;-). In IT everything is done in English, conversations in user groups, international conferences. I'm French, you probably can't figure out how many time I spent writing this reply in English and hopefully wordreference.com is speed. Being a woman in a world of IT geeks is similar. It's living in a world which codes are unclear, never be sure that you really undestood all the nuances and wonder whether something is a mockery or not. And finally no longer be considered a woman once you're considered a geek. The other side of the problem is to be reduced to a class and conjure up images of French food, Haute Couture fashion shows and rude Parisian waiters. But I don't recognize myself in theses images. Sneaking discrimination, hard to notice until you live it. Give your talk in French (or whatever language provided that it's uncommon for your attendees) and place them in an unconfortable situation, men and women alike. ;-)


    For Loki, I guess I had a conversation with you at Devoxx 2011, and the Duchess BOF was painful to me too. Women moaning on the same subjects again and again, what the point ? Some people are dishonest, it's not fair. We didn't stand back from these stories. I hope that at leat it was a relief to these women.

    I think bringing in women to FOSDEM is not the goal. Small number of women in conferences is just a consequence of the small number of women in IT. The point is what whould be enough interesting to motivate them to come.

    Some ideas as they come
    - Be a meeting point for women's groups in tech area al over europe (Women in Mozilla, Linux Chix, Rails Girls, Duchess, Sorceresses Code, ...).
    - Less "beer oriented" communication. It's reminds engineering school's drinking sessions. It might not be the official communication, but It's often presented that way. The list of talks does not convey the ambiance, and one might think that the same information is available on the Internet. In reality people talk a lot between sessions (and after the sessions, over a beer, that's right), bet on techs, meet an open source projects and decide to join. Duchess and Code Sorceresses can help (I've been sick around FOSDEM 2012)
    - Encourage to do hands-on or hackatons. From what I see in Paris, we reach more women with this kind of sessions. It's considered more productive and therefore more attractive. It is also a way to bring in women to open source projects through hackatons, provided they're welcome.
    - Invite women (yes, I got it's free) and give them a "press pass" to interview speakers they probably don't dare to approach and write technical articles. I'm aware it's discrimination, but with a compensation.

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    1. Good points, I might nick them and put them into the session :)

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