emergency weblog; or: epersonae; or: elaine nelson

in which I write about stuff

reaction rant

in which my head asplodes.

Categories: General, Professional

I like Joe Clark’s writing, most of the time. He’s smart and funny, if often brutal, and I have immense respect for his acerbic writing on accessibility, web and otherwise. But his latest blog post strikes me as almost entirely wrong. I rarely write directly on the women & technology discussions — on that topic, I link to others and participate in the Ada Lovelace Day writing, and that’s about it. But this just got me fired up to the point where I had to write something. To pick it apart a bit at a time:

“First of all, it can’t be simultaneously true that women and men are equally suited to “technology” jobs and also that women have specific immutable characteristics that need to be catered to.”

Sure it can. Some characteristics that may need accommodations are not related to one’s actual skill in programming. But more to the point, some of those common gendered characteristics are in no way immutable; they’re cultural. Assertiveness, which is something that Nicole wrote about, and others have written about previously, appears to be much less of an innate characteristic, and something that is deliberately groomed by our culture, and groomed out of women, both subtly and overtly. (Did he read a different Pink Brain, Blue Brain than I did?) And hey, it doesn’t have anything to do with programming skill, either!

“Some of those savants have exactly the qualities needed to program computers – actually caring about programming computers, for one, and a willingness to expend virtually unlimited time on the abstractions implicit in computer programming.”

Are these really the best or only qualities needed to program computers? (“Expend virtually unlimited time”? Really? Is that at all a good thing for anybody?) Does one really need to be a savant to have them? From Nicole’s post: “When Harvey Mudd changed their CS program admission criteria to accept a broader range of people, and stop selecting for the socially-challenged-uber-nerd[s], they found that everyone’s grades improved. It benefits everyone to have a diverse group of people in our field.”

And none of this is related to whether, even if it were true that being out on that extreme end of skill were desirable, that the resulting culture should be so aggressively macho. Nicole’s comparison chart of cowboy-coders vs good developers is a handy reference to the problem with hiring “savants.”

“Child-rearing isn’t discussed.”

Hmmmm: “Recognize the need for work-life balance. Most women still have primary responsibility for children and home. Women need to be equals at home first, but perhaps companies can make it easier for them to get access to awesome childcare and flex time.

I also seem to remember several of the commenters mentioning the specific issue of child care and conventions. Also, this is a problem for women with careers in every field, at least outside of Scandinavia. (See article about Sweden from the NYT. Changes in policy can in fact make for changes in culture.)

“Hostile work environments are real” vs ““Underrepresentation” is an insulting concept.” and “there are exactly as many people who choose an occupation as there should be”

(This is where my reaction ran off the rails.) Fuck you. No, seriously. Fuck you. My mother was so excited to get her first job after going back to school when I was a teenager, and it was RUINED because of the misogynist assholes that she worked with. She left a male-dominated workplace — as in, she was the only woman on the production floor — and retreated (?) to a woman-dominated field. Admittedly, she’s damn good at her current job, but I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t have been good at that one, too.

She was driven out of that occupation, because life was already hard enough as a widow with three kids and two mortgages without having to deal with that kind of bullshit. Her spirits were crushed day after day, until she was giddy with relief to be quitting THE WEEK BEFORE CHRISTMAS. (It brings me to the edge of tears remembering that time. Mom worked HARD to get where she was, and those fuckers ruined it. She didn’t talk much about it, because that’s who she is, but us kids definitely knew the score.)

Women become underrepresented when they get forced out of a profession, either being headed off at the pass during their education (“even the best women in a CS program are far more likely to drop out than the worst guys”), being told by the culture that they wouldn’t possibly want to do that, or by blatant harassment.

And actually, having worked in a college with dental hygiene, nursing and early education programs, there IS concern about the underrepresentation of men in those training programs. One problem is that “women’s work” in general pays for crap compared to “men’s work,” so men don’t care so much about it. (IIRC, there’s a well-documented history of pay declining in fields where women enter in force, so that it becomes a self-reinforcing loop. Librarianship comes to mind, though I don’t have references, ironically enough.)

Sure, two more (three more?) blog posts won’t do anything, but there are things that will. The culture of a profession is that: a culture, and cultures can in fact change. For one thing, sufficiently hostile work environments are illegal in the United States, and quite possibly more people could be filing lawsuits. (Sometimes I wish mom had fought back about her hostile work environment, but it was 1990 (?), and she was exhausted.) Or, people could listen to what women like Nicole are saying and take them seriously. I’m also trying to remember which college (the same MIT study that Nicole mentions? Harvey Mudd?) that took some very specific steps, and they were able to change the culture and gender balance there. This is not brand new, nor is it rocket science.

“That’s what you’re really saying when you make the claim that women are “underrepresented”: That women haven’t made the right choices and that men need to be displaced.”

No, that’s not at all what I’m really saying. The tl;dr version of “what I’m really saying” would read: “Men and women need to be able to pursue the careers that are most fitting to their talents and interests. They aren’t always able to do so now.” I believe that sincerely.

There SHOULD be more men as nurses or elementary school teachers. I had great male teachers in 4th and 5th grade; I think they were a important balance to the dearth of men in my home life in those years. And similarly, there SHOULD be more women writing software, coding websites, or yes, even being construction workers. And yes, women in the past HAVE tried to make inroads into some of those dirty/dangerous professions, and faced much worse than anything software doodz have dished out. See Nicole’s comment on working as a carpenter…and my mother wasn’t trying to get a job as a programmer!

“I doubt the sincerity and intellectual honesty of men who claim to be upset over this issue.”

Really? REALLY?! You don’t think they’ve ever seen someone they loved get crushed by gender discrimination? Just that they’re trying to prove their sensitivity? (What, so they can get laid? Stereotype much?)

“Proponents of women in technology insistently maintain their cause is just, implying no other cause is.”

Wanting to see more women working in technology does not mean that I don’t think there shouldn’t ALSO be more people with disabilities (some of whom may even be women!) or gay men or ethnic minorities or [fill in the blank] working in technology.

This isn’t a contest. It’s an effort to ensure that a profession that has a huge impact on the rest of society is open to all of society, that there really is a free choice. Because saying that there’s a free choice now, without looking at the context, is BULLSHIT.


This post wasn’t hard to write, but it was tough to edit and difficult to decide whether to publish, for a lot of reasons. (Special thanks to kitchenMage for reading an earlier draft, encouraging me to post what I’d written, and finding the URL of the NYT article on family leave in Sweden. Thanks also to C for letting me bounce some of this off of him, and for being even more foul-mouthed in his reaction than I was.)

Note: if you haven’t commented here before, your comment will be held for moderation, and it may take me a bit to get to it. And if things get too nasty, I’m entirely willing to close comments. This is my website. You’ve got something to say that I find totally offensive? Then as the MeFites say, GYOB.

Comment feed

8 Responses to “reaction rant”

  1. Joe Clark says:

    I stand by everything I wrote, which was carefully qualified and is, in any event, my opinion whether you like it or not.

    But, at the most fundamental level, the computer does not know you’re a girl. On every other aspect we can have a discussion. “Fuck you” isn’t a discussion.

    Your fundamentalism isn’t better than my fundamentalism.

  2. Stubbornella (Nicole Sullivan) says:

    Thanks for daring to publish this. I was hoping someone would reply to Joe because it seemed like he had missed the mark in his article.

  3. Dave Gregory says:

    Thanks for the great reply to Joe’s post. Being a male that is honestly interested in more “good women programmers” in the business, has nothing to do with proving sensitivity.
    I’ve seen my mom, pushed out of a job that she was extremely good at.
    I’ve seen my wife come home from work, discouraged every day.

    Beyond that is the fact that there are lots of male developers that plainly, suck at their job. (and some female developers). What I want over anything, is to see the quality of developers increase as well as the diversity. If there are more quality

  4. Elaine says:

    Am on my way to a lovely afternoon bike ride, just approving comments in moderation & taking off. Will read & respond later, thanks for writing.

  5. Elaine says:

    Thanks, Nicole & Dave, I appreciate the good words.

    Joe: it’s not really meant to be a discussion; it’s as described on the label: a reaction rant. I’ve got nothing else to say at this point.

  6. bill says:

    “I doubt the sincerity and intellectual honesty of men who claim to be upset over this issue.”

    And I suspect that whole post was you trying to pretend you’re not frightened of women.


  7. afterthree says:

    Fantastic post. I’m a woman working in the tech industry as a “nerd translator”, and sometimes my male tech friends and I get into discussions about these topics, and well-written posts like this one that I can link them to and say “This! This is what I meant when I said _____!” help a lot.

    Thanks, and keep writing.

  8. Daedala says:

    One point that hasn’t been addressed is this: the function of privilege is to cater to the privileged group. It’s just that’s the unmarked state, so it isn’t seen as “catering.” Whereas doing anything to accommodate the nonprivileged group is seen as catering — even if it’s just granting equivalent privileges.

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