Blog of Sara Jakša

The Problem with Women in Tech Initiatives

When I was in the PyCokSK, I did my first lightning talk. And it was a rant (which, yes, I was aware of it being a rant at the time) about the women initiatives for programming. I don't have anything against women in programming, I am a woman in programming, but I find the whole fascination with the 50% representation goal weird. Why is this even the goal at all? What would achieving it even mean?

I will first say something, I don't understand feminism. At least, I don't understand what is the third wave feminism, because legal differences between genders, I can get behind why the world is most likely a better place without it. I did get an introduction to it from a bit of unlikely source, but I still don't understand it. Not only that, I think it had a negative effect on my life (knowing about it). Let me explain.

It started like this. I was abroad in Bratislava, and I, along with three of my other classmates from second year cognitive science, I took the philosophy of artificial intelligence. And every two weeks, we had a couple of articles and books to read, to have a discussion on them. In of of these, we had to read A Cyborg Manifesto by Haraway. I mean, I consider myself pretty smart, but I know that when I got to the end of it, the only thing that I felt was utter confusion of what-the-hell-did-I-just-read. I think I read it again, because I was absolutely sure, that I got something wrong. But no, it was not any clearer afterwards.

Well, I knew that at least two of my three classmates are going to read all the articles, and I shared a Monday class with one of them. So after a class, I came to him and asked asked him, if he would be willing to explain the point of the article with had to read for the philosophy of AI class, since I did not understand it. He was willing, so he wanted to know, which one, and I told him. His reply was that he liked the article and them asked me, which part did I not understand. And my reply, to a guy that said he liked the article seconds before was sort of like: "Everything. The article was constantly talking about oppression, like it is just given that it exists without any explanation." His explanation? Well, apparently this is what a third wave of feminism is.

I got a pretty interesting lecture/conversation out of it, and then I read a couple of books about feminism, trying to figure out what the hell is this. And after reading and thinking about it, I started noticing the whole groups ratio. The first thing that I noticed was, that since primary school, I did not had a single groups I was a part of, that involved more than half of women. I mean, in primary school I had dancing (mostly if not all women) and handball (where trainings were women only). But even in primary school, my best results were in mathematics, logics and physics, and there were more men there than women. In my school and in the competitions after the school level. Maybe if languages would be better for me, things would be different, because preparations for languages did hold more women, but I was never good at this. I mean, my English teacher told me, that she thinks I will never be fluent in English.

Considering that people go into STEM when they have high numerical but lower verbal intelligence, that should be the first sign for me to go to STEM from the start. Surprisingly, nobody ever tried to discourage me from that. And there were a lot of things people try to discourage me from, but from doing the supposedly men-oriented stuff? Never, not from family, not from society and not from school. Instead they tired to discourage me from going to what was perceived as high school for richer people (but still public and free, but I would feel isolated and lonely - I guess sort of like this guy, though I could not read it to the end), from going into economics (this one was from my family, and I am starting to understand why), from learning languages (we already touched upon this, right :) ) and so on and so on.

But let me see the things that I am currently a part of. At rhe lectures in cognitive science, we have a master seminar, and there might be more women, but not by a lot, but for most of the study it was about even. In the Python meetups, there are mostly men, with just some women. In the UX meetups, there are more men than women, though the ratio is not as skewed as in Python meetups. The place I worked with, well I saw one other woman so far, but I was not introduced to her. Instead I was introduced to a lot of men and I had status report presentations, where I was the only woman there. I guess I should be feeling isolated?

The problem is, I don't. For years, I had sometimes been the only woman in the room, and I did not even notice. At the start of the university, I was a lot of times also the youngest person in the room, by a large margin. In recent years, it is not that much true anymore. So I guess, I should be feeling scared and a victim? That there should be more people like me with me, so I would feel safer? More able to express myself? But the problem was, that I entered these groups because we had similar interests (like programming) so it was not hard for me to be myself.

I can also see the effect on other people. For example, in my native tongue, each noun used for the person can have both the female and male form. And I remember the last time, somebody used a male form of the word programmer to refer to me. Immediately, they started to apologize. And I was like, I don't care. I am sure most (but not all) would not care either. I heard stories from people, that are afraid to say that they disagree with this doctrine, because they are white, strong males, and so have no right to say it. And that the only reason why I can say it is because I am a woman. But apparently I am safe, because I am willing to say that from time to time.

Which is another good point, that as long as I am willing to say what I believe in, there are always going to be people that will agree with me on it, and this is a way to start finding them.

So, back to the point, I don't like being aware of the gender ratio of the group, because it is simply not important. I would have rather been in ignorance. Because now I am aware of it, without still understanding why this is a problem for some people.

I mean, somebody has to perceive it as a problem, because otherwise we would not have so many programs for teaching programming to women. In the article stereotype threat, they do suggest, that creating safe environments can help with fighting stereotype thread (assuming that this is a problem). But their examples are all like the upper three, make gender separated education in math, for example. And while I did not go deeper to read the original study, they made it sound, that gender imbalances make people feel less belonging, and this leads them to have less interest in participating. So, they are basically another groups of people, that I don't understand?

I had an interesting conversation this week. I was out on lunch and the talk came to how women are less direct. I then replied that this is also problem for some men and it would be easier, if there was less of that. I did had to admit on the end, that with women, this problem is more frequent. But it was interesting in the pause, that they never connected this problem to any males before. It was a classical stereotype.

There seems to be a lot of possible explanations for the differences, that they could fix. From stereotype thread making math less enjoyable and less interesting to women, as touched upon in the article stereotype threat. But when I was reading the meta-analysis of the gender differences, the biggest difference seems to be in interests. For example, there is like a Cohen.D difference of 1 between men and women. For some subsets of STEM, like science and maths, the differences still exist, but they were smaller. Just like they are almost none of the differences in intelligence (when looking at the effect sizes), and only some in masturbations and porn use and different illnesses, like depression and ADHD. Though this one checked the difference in the mean. Because when researching intelligence, it seems there are no differences in the mean, but they are in the variability. Even so, if there is not difference in mean, then the genders overlap a lot.

And it seems that disposition towards mathematics, science and engineering (where there are differences, see above) and creative tendencies (not sure if there are any gender differences there) is what makes people enter STEM, like shown in the article. And it seems, that if the people are interested in more their gender stereotyped or reverse gender stereotyped activities when children, in seem this would continue in the future, as shown in this article. But they there are studies, that show that the more women peruse romantic endeavors, the less interested they are in math. This reminds me of a podcast I listened recently. There one of the points (among many) was, that we need to pick the life we want to live, and imitating somebody's job would only work, if we also take their lifestyle with them. What then this makes me wonder is, what lifestyle do people in STEM have? The other thing is reminds me of, is the difference between Empathizing and Systematizing.

When did this piece become the excuse, to dump all the facts about gender differences?

Well, the point that I was trying to make is, that men and women are on average different. So that means, that there will never be 50% gender ratio in most things. And pushing for that, just to make some people feel less isolated, is a goal that I do not understand, and might not even be needed, if we put less emphasis on the gender ratios in the first place.