Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gender, Race and Technology

The Atlantic has published an article,

in which they report on a study performed by Georgia Tech's Barbara Ericson that reveals that very few women and minorities took the AP Computer Science exam in high school. Full results here: [xlsx file]. I have a few thoughts about it, and they fall on both sides of the fence. There's no rebutting or debunking going on here because I can only go by what I see. Rather, I'm just sharing some thoughts on the subject based on that.
Before I move forward, some disclosure: in my corner of the tech world, I'm surrounded by women. My job is partly support, and partly development, and partly pure consulting. In my immediate working group there are four people: two full-time support (one male, one female) and two programmers who also support the products of their labor (one male and one female). Our immediate support manager is a woman. Her manager is a woman. HER manager is a woman. We support two segments of a business unit. One of these is managed by a woman, the other by a man. The IS development manager for this unit is a woman. If you're keeping count, that's four men and seven women. I'd say that the female of the species is pretty well-represented here. That's also two blacks to nine whites; a 22% black presence; which ain't shabby given national demographics that are under 14% black. This isn't a recent phenomenon, but has held for a number of years... since at least 2007 with some minor variation of the numbers. I didn't mention our Indian back office, because at that point we're not talking about the "American" gap; however, women do appear to be well-represented there, and of course all are ethnically Indian. This has also held true across many of the workplaces I've been in; but I am a developer, which is a small subset of IT workers.
The Atlantic's article draws some rather predictable conclusions here, and bemoans this "gap" as a problem to be fixed. Now, given my recent experience (above), there doesn't appear to me to be any innate technical advantage or detriment to being White and male, or Asian, or any other ethnicity; or to being any gender. That's "technical". This isn't my first job, though, and I'm no spring chicken. I've been a computer consultant for 24 years. There IS overall a vast preponderance of white males in IT in the US.

Here's the thing, though... for at least as long as I've been consulting (and that began about a decade after I started computing) we've been attempting to encourage women and minorities to work in IT. So I'm torn when I read this quote:
"Girls have been socialized into believing they need to be helpers," [Ericson] said. So her message to girls is "Hey, you can create apps to use in emergencies to help people. You can do all sorts of cool things. Computer science has wonderful potential to help people."
It's that "have been socialized..." bit that bothers me. First of all, it implies that the women have no say in it, and that they're doing what they're told. If that were entirely true, then they'd be computing, because we really want them to compute, and have said so for decades. And why do we as an industry really want the women to compute? Because we get a lot of unearned flack for being sexist, obviously. But when the women do not apply for jobs in IT, is it fair to blame the industry for that lack of participation? Really?

So I wonder first of all where this alleged social pressure is coming from? Adults and society have been pushing a "girl power" agenda for decades, with nary a result. I can't name a solitary "IT Guy" who cares whether he's working next to or for a woman. I honestly don't think that the people who are in IT are the major part of "the problem".

Peer pressure is the strongest of social pressure, and peer pressure is done by peers. If you want to find out why fewer girls take the AP CS test, then you might want to look at why they don't want to do it. And then I think we must ask ourselves some important questions:
  • is it really a "problem" when people do what they want to do? 
  • At what point do we allow people to make those choices in favor of the things that interest them, and stop trying to control them and manipulate them into doing what we think they ought to do instead? 
  • At what point do we just not worry about it, and let people live their lives and choose their careers unmolested?
Certainly it's possible that this isn't a matter of personal choice. Maybe girls are being actively discouraged or turned away from IT; if so, somebody needs to present the evidence to support that. But seeing as how "geek girls" are socially fashionable, and a staple of pop-culture back to at least "Knight Rider" in the 1980s, my expectation is that this is a tough thesis to support. Rather, I think that most young girls just simply don't want to do it.

If you're looking for social influences, let me point you to sources like Cosmopolitan magazine. Joanna Coles is Editor in Chief. Donna Kalajian Lagani is Senior Vice President, Publishing Director & Chief Revenue Officer. Michelle Herrera Mulligan is Editor in Chief of Cosmopolitan for Latinas. Yet according to this article [link], "nearly 15% of the articles were focused on getting a man, pleasing a man, doing things for a man, looking sexy for a man, understanding men’s thoughts about women, and solving relationship issues which were mostly caused by the man."  Ladies, it ain't guys telling you this shit. It's you.

What about race?

I suspect that some of the same social dynamics are at work with race, with the added complexity of economics Computers are expensive. Not so much anymore... I my personal work on a $300 machine from Walmart, but even this is expensive in some circles. Good, fast internet connections cost money. The only two ethnicities discussed in Ericson's analysis are Blacks and Hispanics, both of whom are in large portion economically disadvantaged. So a portion of the race gap could be in reality an economics gap.

But there's still a helping of just plain racism. Not the sort of racism expressed in hatred, but that expressed in lowered expectations, not just in Whites, but in those Blacks and Hispanics who would otherwise apply themselves to IT. But it could be that a Black guy or girl sitting down at a computer is told that he or she is wasting time or is otherwise discouraged by peers.  I don't know... I'm not Black, so I'd have to take someone's word for it. And and though I myself have certainly been told that sitting at a computer was a waste of time, my own self-image allows for such arrogance as to ignore the comment and do what I want anyway. The company that I do keep doesn't mind or care that you're Black.

And it could be that because I choose my friends with some degree of discernment, I've unconsciously insulated myself from the problem. Because it brings to mind a recent incident that bothered me greatly (and about which I can't share details) where the talents of programmer friend of mine were casually overlooked. If wasn't malicious or deliberate: it was just that... casually overlooked. I immediately spoke up to correct it, and when I later told her I didn't understand how she could not be bothered by that she said, "well, you haven't been a Black woman for the last 50 years." True enough. But I reserve the right to be bothered on her behalf, because no one should live in a world where those kind of assumptions are acceptable. To answer some inevitable questions, it was not a "White guy" communicating the assumption, and I don't think the assumption originated in IT. This sort of thing doesn't happen very often, but when it does it pisses me off. That's about all I'll say on that.

Definitely, I think there's a greater social hurdle to entering IT for Blacks, and particularly for Black women, who get a double-whammy. I've only known a handful of Black women programmers in my career. I don't particularly know how well these statistics hold for other minorities. Given the large number of Asian and Indian programmers of my acquaintance, I'd guess that they don't. There is no mention of these other ethnicities in Ericson's analysis. Only Blacks and Hispanics, and the economic situation of the two are similar. I suspect that instead of being biased in favor of Whites, the test may be biased against the economically disadvantaged.

I certainly don't think it's reasonable to conclude job-site bias or racist hiring practices for participation in a test that's offered to public school students by educators who are actively promoting the test to minorities.

Economic bias can occur in a number of ways. You may not have access to the resources... computers and net access. You may not have the leisure time to use them if you're working an after-school job. And even if you have the resources and the time, you may be discouraged by peer pressure from those of your companions who don't. Underlying these are social pressures from performers and media who glorify "thug life" and denigrate the "Uncle Toms" who choose a more productive lifestyle.

But if these are the reasons, then no amount of in-school promotion of IT can correct it, as we've seen in the case of white women, who do not share the childhood economic disadvantages of Blacks and Hispanics. Rather, the solution has to come from society, in making computing and networking affordable, and the promotion of Black and Hispanic geeks in popular culture.

Just don't expect it to happen soon. Ultimately, people will do what they want.