Coded Feminine: Diversity Protocols in the Tech Industry

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This is a guest post by Dr. Caitlin McDonald, author and data analyst.  Caitlin blogs at http://inamerryhour.com/ and can be found on twitter @caitiewrites

Can I tell you a secret?  I sometimes feel like a fraud.  I work in data analytics, with an increasing role not only in crunching the numbers to get out what we want to know but also deciding on the methods about how we arrive at that knowledge.  This includes a component of considering how we should store all the stuff we use to help us know how we’re doing.  But my academic background is something completely different; most of what I do now I learned on the job.

That feeling of fraudulence isn’t unique to me; there’s even a fancy term for it: imposter syndrome.  Many people, lots of them women, look around at other qualified people and conclude that there is probably someone out there who could do their job (or the job that they want to apply for) better, so maybe they shouldn’t be doing it (or applying for it.)  Most of the time I manage to keep this problem in check by reminding myself that so far I’ve managed to learn everything that I need to learn in order to do my job, and that in a relatively short time I’ve managed to advance my career, despite not starting with the same technical background as many people in the same position as me. But occasionally I still find myself feeling out of my depth.

I  recently went to the All Your Base conference in Oxford hosted by the White October group.  This is a conference on databases.  While there are lots of conferences on data, methods to interrogate the data, etc, there are relatively few on where or how we keep the data.  As a person who uses data, it helps to understand how this works.  You could argue that it’s the responsibility of the data architects and database administrators to handle all that side of things, and that as long as the rest of the people who need to use it are able to get what they want out of the data, they shouldn’t care how it’s stored.  But I think that we, the users of data, should get a say about the speed, flexibility, and content of the data we have access to.  Being able to reasonably speak about how those things can be achieved is an important part of the conversation about what we should be looking at and why.  I’m also a researcher by background and inclination, and any time you present me with a black box that I don’t understand, I’m going to try and prize it open to look inside.  (Plus I got a free ticket.)

One of the talks at All Your Base was on scaling the Internet of Things by Yodit Stanton.  Stanton mentioned that she doesn’t tend to use HTTP for the small sensors and devices that she puts on everything (from her Roomba to her cats…and also some stuff for work.) This is because the headers are so bulky and inconvenient that it’s not scalable to process that amount of data across a large number of devices.  Instead her team uses CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) and MQTT (Message Queue Telemetry Transport.)  But most of the web, as you know, still relies on our old friend Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Keep this in mind; it’s going to be important later on in this article.

Way back before I worked in data, I was (among other things) a gender theorist.  More than most people, I’m aware of gender as a semi-conscious performance that I make every day.  There are a lot of different ways of thinking about gender.  Some people perceive gender as a completely diametric binary condition with no overlap.  In this system, it’s a thing that you are rather than something that you do.  There are men, and there are women, and that’s it.  Another way of thinking about it is as a spectrum with masculinity on one end and femininity on the other.  This acknowledges that gender isn’t so discrete and that there are many factors affecting gendered experience.  But there are lots of other ways of thinking about gender–one of my personal favorites is Kate Bornstein’s Gender/Identity/Power Pyramid, in which you either want to BE or to BE LIKED BY the top-performing gender (at the moment this is heterosexual white men.)  In order to achieve success on the pyramid, people adopt specific behaviors, some of which are gendered.  The key here is that gender is something that can’t be separated from other types of power and privilege.  If you really want to get deep into the theoretical thinking behind this, go read some Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.  But Bornstein’s pyramid, illustrated by Diane DiMassa, gives a pretty intuitive sense of what they’re saying.

So anyway.  Partially because of this power differential between people, which happens in part to be gendered, we live in a society where ‘women in technology’ is a hot-button issue for a lot of people.  For some this is because there aren’t enough, or aren’t enough visible/powerful, women in technology.  Many people are working to change this: the AYB organisers put together a diverse set of speakers, managing to keep the white-guy component to only 50%, which is pretty impressive.  For other people, though, it turns out that the reason this is a hot-button issue is still because they believe women don’t belong in technology.

Most of the time I think my imposter syndrome is about me: it’s just a thing that I have, because I have it, and I have to quietly adopt strategies to deal with it on my own.  It’s not there because other people have made me feel that way.  But occasionally you find someone who does tell you (not you individually, but the entirety of your gender) that you do not belong, and that you are, indeed, incapable.

Unfortunately, this is what Monty Widenius, principal author of MySQL and MariaDB, said in response to a question about why he’d described the achievements of MariaDB in terms of ‘man-hours’.  He actually began his response with the words, “The problem with women is…”, and we all knew it wasn’t going anywhere good.  It turns out that the problem with women, according to Widenius, is that they’re not committed. They’re not capable of or willing to put in the hours that will make them really good.  He followed this up by saying that he really thinks this is a problem with men: they’re not able to let go of seeing work as the only way to measure their worth and consequently they don’t know how to achieve work-life balance.

Widenius’s remarks can be unpicked on the basis of gender: if men as a group are incapable of stepping away from work, it’s because society overvalues men’s time to the point that we can’t convince them to take time off for other things.  Here’s a great Quartz article on how Sweden, Iceland and a few other countries managed to sort out their gender wage balance by insisting that men take paternity leave in a way that didn’t force an income penalty on their families. 

But more importantly, the problem is not (necessarily) about gender in itself.  Laine Campbell, also a speaker at the event and the person who asked The Question of Widenius, and I had a conversation following the event which helped me solidify my thinking on this.  She’s also written her own response and a call to action around diverse teams, which is well worth reading

First, I don’t believe that sheer hours alone determines success in any area of life, whether that’s work or not.  Yes, there are times when you have to throw brute force at a project to make it work, and there are long-term commitments which do require a huge amount of people power, but that effort doesn’t have to be distributed in the way that Widenius described.  Pouring hours into something will definitely advance your skill at it (as per the 10,000 hours theory popularised by Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers“) but those hours don’t all have to be spent at once–indeed, there’s evidence that working productively requires breaks and stepping away from a task in order to come back to it later on.  (Besides, some new research suggests that sheer practice alone isn’t enough to determine performance anyway and this is very domain-specific.)

Second, nobody, regardless of their personal characteristics, should be so fully committed to a work project that they aren’t able to hold other commitments in their life.  Whether those commitments be caring for aging parents, looking after children, volunteering for the fire service, or finally writing that novel, everyone needs to find a way to support efforts they make in life beyond their paid employment.  If you can’t do that, you may find it hard to relate to the people who can…and those are likely the people you’re actually trying to provide services to, so it helps to know a little about what their lives are like in order to understand what they actually want from your product or service.  Diverse work forces are important, and this is not only about rectifying social inequality: they will help your product succeed.  If you’re designing a product which is focused solely on highly driven, competitive individuals who work 16-hour days, then you might get by on doing that too.  But most companies aren’t catering to those individuals alone and having different perspectives at multiple levels, not just in the marketing, research, and UX teams, will really help round out conversations about the product or service as as a whole.

One problem is that many people (not just Widenius) have is that they tend to assume they know what levels of competence and commitment can be expected from individuals based on their gender–or race, age, or a number of other personal characteristics that have no bearing on the matter.  (See Bornstein’s pyramid for some visual examples.)  If it were possible to shift the terms of the conversation to be about having space in your life to commit to things outside work–regardless of what those commitments are–we might be able to take the focus off gender.  Because actually, couching this problem in terms of gender is eliding the deeper problem of the expectation itself (that you can only find success by working 16-hour days) being fundamentally wrong.  I don’t think that we should stop talking about gender inequality: the effects of speaking about career capability in gendered terms does disproportionately affect a subset of the population and that still needs to be addressed. (I’m also not saying that if you really, really want to work 16-hour days, you should stop doing it.  Just don’t expect it of everyone you hire.  That’s a quick road to team burnout.)

One way of reframing the conversation about personal ability and commitment away from gender is by reminding ourselves that the way we think about gender now is just one option–it’s just one type of protocol, if you like–and that other ways of thinking about it are available, even if these are far less commonly used.  If gender itself is not a fixed concept, then maybe we can get less caught up in describing work/life problems in gendered terms.  Currently, I’ve settled into a rather predictably feminine performance.  I do this because it’s the most successful way that I have found to perform gender with the least effort that I am willing to make.  But I’m aware that other choices are available (even if I don’t think about this consciously most of the time.)  I wonder how many people at the conference were already aware of how much choice they have about this.  I wonder how many could think about their own gender in a different way, and whether that might enable them to reframe their relationship to the idea of ‘gender’ overall.

So back to what Widenius actually said: I find the great thing about being confronted with an undermining attitude expressed by someone else, especially a prominent person, is that it makes me realise how ridiculous it is for me to think those things about myself.  Inside my own head negative messages are difficult to fight against, but when someone else says it, the blatant untruth of those words becomes starkly obvious.  Some other people might find that being labeled with those words reinforces their negative internal messaging and makes them more likely to want to withdraw from the conversation.  But I feel very fortunate that for the most part I’m surrounded by people who do believe in my abilities and who encourage and support me through every new avenue I pursue.  With that foundation, a dissenting voice become stunningly, obviously out of place.

So thanks, Monty, for helping me get over my attack of impostor syndrome at All Your Base.  Because I–and every woman in that room–absolutely do belong there.

Finally, I want to say how painfully aware I am that the worst thing I’ve ever encountered as a result of my career choices is unfortunate words from people with disagreeable attitudes, unlike many of my female colleagues who work in the gaming industry.  These women frequently risk their homes, livelihoods, and have threats on their lives simply because they are women in that industry, or visibly so.  I’m grateful for all the (pro)feminists who make it possible for me to do my work not only without fear, but with the confidence that my abilities will be recognised and valued.  I want that to be the default state for everyone.  So I hope that people are calling out this kind of attitude not just at this conference, as the audience and the conference organisers definitely did, but everywhere they find it.

 

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