Monday, March 17, 2014

Women in Tech: It's Complicated


"Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." -- Oscar Wilde


There is a reason tech is a boys club, and it's not because girls are bad at math or science - or even that girls were discouraged from taking those subjects in school. It is not because men have conspired to keep women out, or that "brogrammer" culture is somehow "anti-woman."

The elephant in the chatroom is this: engineering is low-status work.

Premium salaries paid to young people would seem to imply otherwise, but there are lots of high-paying/low-status jobs out there. Crime being the most obvious example. The key factor is that all status is social and women are practically hardwired to recognize the difference between winners and losers. Men are too, but our responses different.

Status is a matter of position and esteem relative to others. Men who manage other people have higher status by virtue of their authoritative role. When men manage "ideas and things," they are not managing other people. Without subordinates and direct reports, there is just nobody to be above in a hierarchy. 

Given the amount of focus and concentration engineering problems require, technical skills buy a great deal of individual autonomy for spending time on solutions. But solving problems yourself trades away any investment in relationships. Without a complex understanding of how power and organizations work, it's hard to know what you have exchanged for the freedom of working and thinking alone.

But first, let's face some facts. Suffragettes didn't throw themselves in front of the king's race horses so their great-granddaughters could become your IT guys. With the sexual revolution from the 1970's on, if a woman with any drive was suddenly presented with the opportunity to become a doctor, lawyer, civil servant, banker, executive, dentist, or other profession with command and status, why would she even consider IT?

We don't need to make sweeping generalizations about women (or men) to perceive the trade off between the relative autonomy of tech and the power and status provided by professions and institutional roles.

Educated women are not only in demand, but they are even preferred by the hiring policies in large institutions that provide stability -  and by virtue of their numbers and hierarchy -  status. Look around and you may notice that media, public service, banking, academic administration and other fields that favor credentials and organizational, fitting-in skills over outcomes based performance and risk taking, are stacked with women. And it's not because women don't have the skills.  It's because when you measure jobs as a balance of money, prestige and stability,  institutions offer the best deal out there - and women are taking it.

The political skills required for these kind of get-along jobs have not been practiced by young men in any meaningful way either. The arrival of the personal computer in the 1970's and 80's, then the internet in the 90's provided a way for boys to focus their mental energy, but without a social challenge.  Machines don't disapprove, and they don't negotiate, lie, or fight back. They were a way to build your own controlled environment in the response to the unstable relationships of the time. A lot of boys just withdrew into technology because it gave them power and freedom that wasn't available to them in their social lives.

Boys in the 80's and 90's just did not build the social skills and networks necessary to succeed in relationship driven businesses. As a result, while they may be paid relatively well, there are few business networks remaining for men that aren't ex-pat or ethnically oriented, and they are usually from less modern, pre-feminist societies. The new networks almost exclusively have women at the center of them, organizing the parties, conferences, events, fundraisers, causes and generally owning the role as social gatekeepers. The networks are a huge asset, but not for people who trade on their ability to solve math problems.

Young men (with relatively few women) built the internet as a way to seek one another out and organize based on shared interests. It was also to trade porn, but necessity being the mother of invention, it was the needs of young men and their desire for status among one another that drove the invention of high speed network technology. Before social media, the internet was an almost exclusively male society.

Yet without women, the internet was considered un-serious, childish, even a bit menacing. The internet was a fundamentally anti-social domain in which scores were settled by exchanging humiliations (epic usenet flame wars)  and taking control of territory by hacking networks and machines. Commenters on blogs today are almost universally male, and typically characterized as the impotent, feministic hate figure who is equal parts loner, stalker, sex offender, and compromised, secret homosexual.

They are not the brutes, tyrants, rogues, womanizers, and bastards who you find in the professions, and whom, if you asked, a lot of women would probably still "hit it" after a crantini or two. The internet, and by extension the technology business wasn't a place women were kept out of. It was something women avoided because it was lame. It was lame because it was full of socially disconnected men who weren't worth competing for.  The question of why there aren't more women in tech wasn't considered a problem until computers could be used as a means to organize real relationships and represent real political power.

If you want to understand why women and girls born before the internet didn't get into tech, it's because the obscurity of tech drained it of any political or social capital that might confer the status that girls understood and wanted.
 
Hackneyed tropes about women being more "social," "nurturing" and "cooperative" obscure a key fact of nature, which is that the female animal is a purpose built survival machine whose unblinking, lethal intelligence has been refined over some thousands of generations toward the singular goal of improving the odds for her offspring - by securing their status in the pack.

Hedy Lamar's contribution to spread spectrum communications wasn't so people could talk to each other and gab about world peace, it was to build better torpedoes. Women are perfectly capable of succeeding in technical disciplines. Given their drives, when they put a mind to it, probably at least as well as men.

The real reason women don't get into tech is because, intuitively, I think they just know better.

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