Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Woman in Tech

You might have noticed that those who routinely denounce our president for playing fast and loose with facts reject any fact that would disprove their deepest ideologically-driven convictions.

You can regale them with information about the biological differences between the sexes, you can provide a mountain of proof showing that a boy who thinks he is a girl is really still a boy, and they will dismiss you as a bigot.

After all, they attend the Church of the Liberal Pieties. In the CLP version of the Bible, Ecclesiastes opens thusly:

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.  Bigotry of bigotries, saith the Preacher, bigotry of bigotries; all is bigotry.

Meanwhile, back in Mountain View, CA they have a problem. Google tried to solve the problem by firing James Damore, but his memo about the difference between the sexes continues to resonate. Naturally, those who wish to reduce the human species to gender neuterdom reject all scientific demonstrations that might explain the gender disparities in the tech world for reasons that have nothing to do with bigotry.

But, what do they say about women’s freedom to choose? You remember that great feminist mantra. Apparently, its scope is only limited to abortion. If a woman freely chooses to major in art history or psychology, thus making her ill-suited for tech jobs at Google, it just means that Google should hire more software engineers who are unsuitable for the job.

To balance the scientific facts that members of the CLP ignore, we turn to an excellent essay by Megan McArdle. Published yesterday on the Bloomberg, the essay explains why McArdle decided, of her own free will, exercising her own right to choose freely, to drop out of the tech world.

She recounts her own personal epiphany, which occurred while she was working in tech:

This will make me sound a bit dim, but at the time, it never occurred to me that being a female in this bro ecosystem might impinge my ultimate career prospects. Nor did I miss having women in the room. I liked working with the bros just fine. And the sexual harassment, while annoying, was just that: annoying. I cannot recall that it ever affected my work, nor that I lost any sleep over it.

No, the reason I left is that I came into work one Monday morning and joined the guys at our work table, and one of them said “What did you do this weekend?”

I was in the throes of a brief, doomed romance. I had attended a concert that Saturday night. I answered the question with an account of both. The guys stared blankly. Then silence. Then one of them said: “I built a fiber-channel network in my basement,” and our co-workers fell all over themselves asking him to describe every step in loving detail.

At that moment I realized that fundamentally, these are not my people. I liked the work. But I was never going to like it enough to blow a weekend doing more of it for free. Which meant that I was never going to be as good at that job as the guys around me.

McArdle generalizes her epiphany:

Thinking back to those women I knew in IT, I can't imagine any of them would have spent a weekend building a fiber-channel network in her basement.

I’m not saying such women don’t exist; I know they do. I’m just saying that if they exist in equal numbers to the men, it’s odd that I met so very many men like that, and not even one woman like that, in a job where all the women around me were obviously pretty comfortable with computers. We can’t blame it on residual sexism that prevented women from ever getting into the field; the number of women working with computers has actually gone down over time. And I find it hard to blame it on current sexism. No one told that guy to go home and build a fiber-channel network in his basement; no one told me I couldn’t. It’s just that I would never in a million years have chosen to waste a weekend that way.

The higher you rise yo the corporate hierarchy, the more important personal preferences and innate talent:

The higher you get up the ladder, the more important those preferences become. Anyone of reasonable intelligence can be coached to sit at a help desk and talk users through basic problems. Most smart people can be taught to build a basic workstation and hook it up to a server. But the more complicated the problems get, the more knowledge and skill they require, and the people who acquire that sort of expertise are the ones who are most passionately interested in those sorts of problems. A company like Google, which turns down many more applicants than it hires, is going to select heavily for that sort of passion. If more men have it than women, the workforce will be mostly men.

Astutely, McArdle notes that the upshot of the brouhaha over James Damore’s memo shows that women have power… only it’s a power to deconstruct what others have built. Since engineers only respect those who build, the power to deconstruct does nothing more than to make people angry.

She wrote:

The mob reaction did prove that women indeed have some power in tech. But the power to fire people is not why most people get into engineering. Good engineers want to make things. The conversation around Damore's memo hasn't made the world a better place, as they say in Silicon Valley. It has just made a lot of people angry.


trigger warning said...

Science and engineering are masculine disorders:

Check out Martin's CV.

Ares Olympus said...

Agreed - it's scary to try to be in any field where other people are clearly much more passionate about it than you are.

But the question isn't whether ubernerds love their job. The question is whether Google is the best company possible if ubernerds make all the rules, if foosball tables and sleep rooms bring out everything that is needed for Google to be successful.

The thing about ubernerds is they do crazy things like "Hey, wouldn't it be great to spend 4 weeks rewriting this 200k lines of code from scratch to make better use of the newest i7 intel processor multithreading capability?" And they can really do it, although before they're done, they might have a bright idea to rewrite something else from scratch first, and the original 4 weeks becomes 8, and then 12, all the while the original code worked perfectly well.

So perhaps a lazy woman programmer might come in handy who will tattle on such hubris, and save herself some open weekends that she doesn't have to spend rewriting her code to interfaces with the newest monstrosities.

Surely there must be a Dilbert comic like this?

Sam L. said...

Megan, two things. One, they really (REALLY) didn't want a really lonnnnnnnnnnng iteration of your bummer of a weekend. Two, building a fiber-channel network in his basement was NOT a WASTE of his time. It was PRODUCTIVE. And is illustrative of one or two differences between the sexes.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's an opposite case, 16-18% of elementary school teachers are male. Should we want more or less? We can guess male teachers will interact differently with kids, and there will be positives and negatives to that. Are there things that schools can do to attract more men? And what if this causes tension, because men see things differently? What if men teachers want foosball rooms to let off some steam?

And probably the answer everywhere is diversity is often good, and should be encouraged, even at higher cost, even if some of the most passionate are denied a place, if their skills are already over-represented.

Unfortunately my comparison faces since it is hard for me to imagine male teachers taking it personally if a woman teacher wrote a memo that mentioned that women are more empathetic than men on average. A male teacher might even point out that the empathy-gap is a bell curve of two gender distributions where many individual men will have higher than average empathy even among women, and such men are more likely to be come elementary school teachers.

David Foster said...

Megan's post is good, but gives the impression that the tech guys of her acquaintance have few interests outside the field. Maybe this is true of the ones she knows, but plenty of engineers and programmers do go to concerts, read books, travel, play sports, etc.

Consider some well-known scientists and engineers of the past: Einstein was, famously, an enthusiastic violinist and read extensively about ancient Greece. John von Neumann had a a lifelong interest in ancient history. Alan Turing was a serious long-distance runner. Frederick Lindmann and Sir Henry Tizard, scientists who were key players in WWII British air defense policy, were both enthusiastic amateur boxers.

So, enjoying your work to the point that you will pursue it outside of required hours--as all the above men certainly did--does not preclude being interested in other aspects of life.

Anonymous said...

I was in tech for many years as an electronics engineer and later started a small software company. I retired at 50.

I stayed fairly technical to the end. The thing was, I noticed that to be any good in tech you have to keep a part of yourself connected to that 11 year old boy who is still in love with all the gee whiz stuff and willingness to explore, tear apart and build new things for the sheer inherent joy of it. When you lose touch with that 11 year old boy, you might as well hang it up and go into sales or middle management.

Most women never locate that kind of wonder. I read a lot of engineering and university articles encouraging women to get into engineering. The authors usually interview some sweet young thing starting engineering school and she often talks about wanting to get into tech to do some kind of social "good" and to "help people". Kind of cute, warm and fuzzy, but that doesn't get you to the moon, split the atom, etc. etc.