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Gender balance in high tech

Tuesday, August 28, 2001 by Dave Winer.

Good afternoon Permalink to Good afternoon

My summer hiatus is coming to a close, I've been goofing off a bit, doing a little work, and writing a bunch on the Web. Now I want to get the conversation started in DaveNet, so I'm going to pick up a few threads from Scripting News and run them out through email.

Movies Permalink to Movies

On Monday night I watched a poorly executed movie with an incredible cast and an even better plot. I watched it twice just to revel in its mediocrity.

In movies it's not such a big deal. You waste three hours and even then you feel good. In software we waste years, sometimes decades, on poorly executed movies with decent plots.

Windows XP launching Permalink to Windows XP launching

Microsoft reached a milestone in the shipment of Windows XP -- a golden master disk was delivered to their OEMs, but I wonder if the OS will ship because the antitrust process is also moving forward, and this release presses a lot of antitrust buttons.

With XP, Microsoft has reached the end of the evolution of the twenty-year-old MS-DOS codebase. This is good news because XP, unlike Windows 3.0, 95, 98 and ME, is not a crashy "consumer" OS. This is a major user benefit that so far Microsoft has been reluctant to promote. They should get over it and tell people that the blue screen of death is now part of the past for PC users, much as the C prompt faded away in 1990.

This OS release is also notable in that it does not contain Java, and it does hook into Passport, which is good news if you like the convenience of a centralized storage system, and bad news if you value choice. Once again Microsoft has intermingled code. They could have provided an API. This feature is a major thumb-of-the-nose at the US Department of Justice and the US Court of Appeals, and of course to independent developers. It seems certain that they will end up in court over this.

On a personal note, some Dave-designed software is shipping in XP, in the SOAP 1.1 support which is the underpinning of "Web Services" in XP. I'm proud of this, that SOAP could be part of the future of operating system development is something we dreamed about in 1998, and now appears to be becoming a reality.

JabberCon in Keystone Permalink to JabberCon in Keystone

Last week I went to JabberCon in Keystone, Colorado. It was great, we invented all kinds of new stuff, but like all geek conferences, the male-to-female ratio was about 50-to-1. On the drive back to Denver I had an idea. There must be conferences where the ratio is reversed. So let's pair conferences? A librarian conference at the same facility as a developer conference. They'd get better software and we'd get more users and kinder feedback? I really like making software for librarians. I wish they knew.

I peer into taboo Permalink to I peer into taboo

Now on to the really interesting stuff.

It's demonstrable that the leadership in the software world is male. Most, but not all of the reportage too. And software is developed by men with few exceptions. I'm not saying anything should change, there may be a reason men's minds are better suited to creating complex and dark caves and patiently retrying connections. Evolution created us differently from women.

Now, given that we're a male-only community, never mind why, a bunch of things fall into place. We don't work together. We reinvent each others' wheel. We're all fighting to be recognized. Me me me! We are a bunch of individuals, fighting for our own causes, not seeing the big picture, the benefits of working together. Of course it's this way, because we are men.

Now I plunge into the deep end Permalink to Now I plunge into the deep end

Men are the artists of our species, women are the infrastructure. Art and war are the same thing. People overlook the creativity that comes from war, it's painful at a species level, but it's there and really good art is as destructive as war, creating space for new stuff as we reinvent ourselves, at a rapidly accelerating pace.

In the early Web there were domains that were almost exclusively female, such as librarians, as discussed above. Women took the lead in building the early Web. That's how apple.com got on the air. Everywhere I looked were secretaries and librarians, doing the organizing and writing. The Web is a structure of processes and documents. Women get that in a way men don't. Evolution created them that way.

Some people think I'm a sexist Permalink to Some people think I'm a sexist

Probably no technology at any point in history had any real amount of feminine energy, but we could do it now because there's been a change. Women have more freedom now than ever before, but it won't get any better if they have to behave like men in order to to be leaders.

We need change in both genders to accomodate changes in technology (mostly birth control, I suspect). We'll do better if each gender can respect the unique capabilities of the other and the same gender. We need art and we need civilization. We've had 20+ years of intense art. Now we need to connect it all together, and we need help to do that, because we're mostly men, and men don't do civilization.

We touched on this, very tangentially, in the closing cocktail party at JabberCon. A Scandanavian man whose name I didn't get said it's like this (cut-throat and destructive) in all other professions, software is no different. I countered by saying that there was continuity in other art-forms that we don't have in software. No one thinks of big corporate bureaucracies as being capable of art in any other area that I know of, not even medicine, or car design (the creative people are at least identifiable).

It's even worse than it appears Permalink to It's even worse than it appears

In software we believe that an entity of 45K people can create things, when if we applied the scientific method, we'd see clearly that they do not. Individuals create things, and at that we've done quite well, all things considered. But we have never consciously decided to have a civilization, and I believe we need to do that in order to have one.

The irony is that our technology is most useful in creating civilization, for sharing knowledge, managing processes, creating connections. Emphatically it's not just a dark cave that's fun to create, over and over; it has applications that can transform civilization.

But today our culture is indisputably ruled by male energy. It's also why we get in trouble over and over. We can never win. This year PC sales are declining while Moore's Law rages on. There's no better way of illustrating the power of our selfish individuality. That we're in trouble now is a very clear indication. Something is seriously wrong here. Something has got to change.

I know, I'm a terrible person Permalink to I know, I'm a terrible person

I ran the previous sections as an article on Scripting News over the weekend, and as you might imagine, it provoked a strong response because it is so ridiculously far from being politically correct. (Which of course is not the same thing as being incorrect.)

I know these ideas are generalizations, male and female energy come in all kinds of packages. The forces of evolution have been working for millions of years, the changes in our society due to new technology for much less time. These are the things I think, the things I notice, based on a mere 46 years of living. I've been called names, labeled a sexist and an anachronism, but so what. Save yourself the trouble of making it about me, I'm just one person. Think bigger.

I notice that there aren't many women standing beside us, helping us, working with us, in our male-dominated industry. Women seem to listen to other women better than they listen to men, and men don't listen at all.

I envision something greater, more inclusive, more fun. This is my way of expressing that.

I hoped to hear about people's visions, and wanted to share Donna Romer's thoughts on this. She is an entrepreneur-in-residence at the EastWest VentureGroup in Los Angeles.

Donna Romer on gender balance in high tech Permalink to Donna Romer on gender balance in high tech

Dave, I have to say that I read you every day, and while I don't always agree with your views on various topics, I do greatly support the "voice" with which you write and the range of topics you pry open.

I have been writing commercial software for over 20 years, everything from desktop apps to enterprise systems. Over the course of my career, I have typically been the only woman on an all-male team of engineers for most of the projects that I have worked on. My experience has been quite different from what I have read so far from your other readers, particularly on the peer level. Let me emphasize the "P" word. In general, I have found that when there is no hierarchy involved, there is no difference between male and female roles on an engineering team. It is about the size of the group, what you know and your cleverness at solving problems that is important. As soon as there is a strict set of levels for people, then the alpha male dust goes flying in all directions.

At the same time, entrance into that peer group is what this discussion is all about, primarily. The issue is why women are not interested in computing. Well, it may be the same reason why a lot of men find computing unappealing as well. I actually don't think that the reason is "necessarily" a gender one. Try asking a man that you know why the computer industry was not appealing to him for his career choice and you might find some interesting responses.

I am interested in this topic, so have asked several people this one over the years. Usually they say things like:

1. It is too solitary of a profession.

2. I wouldn't like to work in a field where there is only one way of doing things.

3. It seems so dry.

4. It is too logical and not creative.

5. You have to be a control freak.

Strangely, this doesn't sound at all like the work that I have been doing for the last 20 years. Most of the time I have been part of an interactive and wildly social group of people, who each have a point of view for problem solving and system creation. Logical? Some of the most illogical things have been done in the name of computer science. The only one I can't refute is the control freak one -- but then again, there are shades of grey.

Is there a male conspiracy to keep women out of computing? Heck no. But there is a computing gatekeeper in the form of perception that deters a lot of people. Once into the profession, is there discrimination? You betcha! But that is true across the board for women in all professions.

There is no doubt in my mind that gender balanced engineering teams are a very, very good thing. My experience has been that groups are more self-organizing when that happens. It usually means that the normal forms of hierarchy are subverted, and people have a more open form of communication. And as far as I can tell, developing software is all about peer level communication and cooperation within your group, and with your corner of the industry! When I finally moved into technical exec positions and started implementing teams with these characteristics, I was amazed at the "mostly" successful results. People were generally happier and more creative, committed, open minded, etc. when the tone quality of the group is about clarity and cooperation and not politics.

So what can we all do to help our industry keep evolving and be more inclusive? It is not the affirmative action thing that most people offer. Instead, I think that all people involved in software need to look hard at the social groups that we form to do our work. Blow apart the hierarchies, build radically different, self-organizing teams, create groups with extreme communication, share excellence, and then see what is attracted to that structure.

And anyone who gets into positions of technical leadership man or woman, can promote a part of the solution because it is good for everyone.


Comments Permalink to Comments

Thanks for the great story, and congratulations to Ms Romer, who was the first person who responded to the top level, not the details, of what I wrote, or challenged my right to say it.

In case it isn't clear, there was a strategic reason for digging this up. This time around the loop I want to make sure it's not just the destructive and self-important that speak. I want to be sure that people who love The Big Picture have a voice. I don't care if they're from Venus or Mars.

I think the differences between the genders are below the superficial level. So far we've managed to glorify the superficial differences, to the disempowerment of all.

Instead, let's use the new networking tools to open the industry to everyone with a mind who wants to participate, find a new more interesting balance, and then see what happens.

Dave Winer

PS: The movie was Pay It Forward starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment.

PPS: I have never spent so much time editing a piece. Finally I just have to publish it, and hope for the best. ;->

© Copyright 1994-2004 Dave Winer. Last update: 2/5/07; 10:50:05 AM Pacific. "There's no time like now."