In which a really fascinating little study piques our interest and suggests some thoughts. Please, I mean no harm here.

Trisha Gee tweeted a link to this fascinating article by Aline Lerner: We built voice modulation to mask gender in technical interviews. Here’s what happened.. The amazing Sal Freudenberg brought the article to my attention, making it a three-rail shot to get to me. I’m glad it got here.

I’ll wait while you read it. Please do.

I’m going out on a limb here, to write about women, technical ability, success, and whatever else comes to mind. I expect that I’ll do a bad job of it but please try to read through my stupidity and clumsiness to the essential good bits.

The article itself

The article reports a surprising result, different from what one might expect. Chet and I have spoken often about the experience in musical auditions, where the candidate plays behind a screen, with gender cues hidden. In that situation, as we understand it, women get far more offers than they do when gender is visible. This is a damn good thing in my opinion. People deserve a fair shake whether they are male or female or some other thing, whether they are black or white or some other color, independent of any characteristic other than their ability to contribute in the realm the interview is about. Music, programming, whatever.

I expected that the voice modulation that did would have increased women’s chances in the interviews, and that was not the case. They did, however, discover an interesting difference between the men and women: the women dropped out sooner. And when the drop-out rate was compensated for, women did about as well as men.

This is early days, not as scientific as one might want, and so on. And it’s very fascinating. I hope that more work of this kind will be done.

My experience with women in tech

I have had the privilege of working with some absolutely great people. In this section, I’m talking just about “programming”, some generic idea about producing software by typing it in and bashing it until it works.

I used to think I was pretty good at programming. OK, actually, I used to think I was a bloody genius. However, I had, in early days, the privilege of working with quite a few people who were clearly better at it than I was. (I know, this is hard to believe. Trust me, it’s true.)

Back in the day, I’d have selected a few male programmers and said they were clearly just plain better than I was. There were fewer women programmers in my team but there were quite a few and they were all damn good. Back in the day, I’d probably not have said they were better than I was, but no one asked, so we’ll never know for sure. What I did know then and still know now is that when something had to get done, I could count on the women more than I could on the men. The men were geniuses, unquestionably. Some of them were pretty steady, too. But when it came down to “this has to get done”, looking back, I can see that I generally gave those assignments to the women.

As for the genius thing, in the team I’m thinking of, it’s likely that the women were also just plain better than I ever was. A difference was that they were less aggressive, more careful, and more … well … self-effacing. In one of those barking males deciding a technical issue by seeing who was the bigger asshole meetings, the women would just sit back quietly. Then, when the barking was over, they’d build whatever had to be built.

The more I think about that, the worse I feel for not realizing at the time what was going on. That said, I probably promoted more women than I ever did men, proportionately, because I felt they could be counted on. So at some level, I knew what mattered.

My general experience with women

I have always preferred the company of women to that of men. I’ve had about one good male friend at a time, and never been one to hang out much with “the boys”. (That said, I don’t go to many sessions with “the girls” either but I think that’s mostly because they never invited me.)

In school, I always had a close girl friend1 and rarely a close boy friend.

My parents were wonderful to all of us boys. (I’m the oldest of four. The youngest was 14 years younger than I am.) When I report what follows, I am not reporting any kind of trauma or mistreatment.

My father was an alcoholic. This affected his health and his work. Things went well until about the time I went to college. Dad got fired, got a lesser job, got fired, wound up working in some grubby office downtown at some BS office job. Somewhere along there, he died.

My mother had mostly raised the kids. Not that Dad was away, but her job was typical 50’s housewife. When things went bad, she went to work. She had taught school, and got a job doing so again. This was probably at an age of something over 50. She was able to teach for a while without a suitable teaching degree (she had some kind of BA if I recall) and so while she was teaching, she went back to school and finished up a teaching degree to let her keep doing it.

She kept the family together and brought in enough money to be sure that the younger boys got through college, though they all chipped in themselves, got support, and so on.

Mother worked at the school long past retirement age. After teaching, she took over the library. At some advanced age, she worked only part time in the library. She took in college girls as roomers. She kept doing things like that until she finally died at 93, shortly after giving up smoking.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a role model.

Now let’s talk about my wife. Ricia literally walked miles to the one-room schoolhouse. Her parents had very little, though she never starved or lived in the cold. She worked at the local newspaper. She put herself through college, completing a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s, and an MBA.

She is a tireless, relentless worker. Whatever has to be done, she just does it. This contrasts sharply with me, in that I am whatever the opposite of tireless, relentless worker is. I am (or was, I’m old now) bright, sharp, sort of a leader, made things happen. I was not famous for getting things done. Sometimes, OK, I was relentless and stuck with things, but mostly I’m lazy. If I were not scary smart, I’d have never amounted to anything. As you can see, arguably I’ve not amounted to much anyway.

Looking around

As I look around at the people I’ve met in life, from kindergarten to my current dotage, the women stand out. Oh, in this business I meet more men, because there are more men. And they’re great, make no mistake about it.

But the women, my god! They put up with so much crap, they go through so much. And they shine like stars, whether they’re kicking my ass at Javascript or at testing or at teaching or at understanding what people are about.

There is a problem …

When I look at a person, I can almost always determine their apparent gender. I admit to occasional confusion, and I know a few folks who’ve informed me that their gender isn’t what I might have thought it was.2

Anyway, when I encounter a man who is truly marvelous in our profession, a Kent Beck, a Ward Cunningham, any of tens or hundreds of marvelous men, I’m fascinated and delighted. When I encounter a woman equally marvelous, I’m all that and (please forgive me) I’m also attracted to her. I’m not going to date her, mind you, or ask her out, or touch her. Hell, I wouldn’t know what to do with a woman if I had one, at this age. But I’m attracted. Fascinated a bit more. She doesn’t have to be pretty. She doesn’t have to be young. I’m like one of those Scotty dogs, is all. (See preceding funny story.3)

Why are you making this stupid confession?

Well, probably, a bright woman whom I encounter might get the correct impression, that I’m attracted to her. What’s sad is that she might then think I’m trying to get a date or whatever people do now. That might make her feel less good about the fact that she’s a shining star who has caught my attention, not because of what she’s wearing but because of what she says and does. (OK, yes, I do notice what people are wearing. Remember that white suit that Arlo wore a couple of conferences ago?) It’s a well-known fact that taller men get better job offers and that people wearing “the right clothes” get better interview ratings, and yes, even if your hair is obviously dyed, if you’re a redhead I assume you are a goddess. I’m sorry about that, and I swear I do everything I can not to like your ideas better because of it.

But I’m human.

We’re all human

If you’ll take one of those on-line tests that identifies bias, you’ll find that you’re biased. Try Project Implicit if you don’t believe me. We’re all human, we’re all biased.

I confess (some of) my biases here, so that you’ll know that I have them, and more importantly, to suggest that just because I have them, it may not be to your disadvantage.

More importantly, it might not be to your disadvantage if some other person notices that you’re a woman or a man or gay or straight or black, brown, yellow, or that weird beige color that I am.

It might just be how humans operate.

Back to the experiment

In the article, Aline Lerner hypothesizes that perhaps women, as a group, think less well of themselves than men do, and therefore drop out of a “competition” early. My own suspicion is that men really don’t think well of themselves, but that they are trained to hide the fact behind bluster and trying harder.

I believe that, in men, anger equals fear. They are afraid, so they roar, hoping to scare you away before you hurt them. This is not a good thing, since sometimes they hit you or shoot you or something, but it is a thing. It’s not that men don’t feel inferior. It’s just that when they do, they are likely to fight back.

Now, to the extent that the “attrition” theory is correct, if we want more women in tech, we may need to address not an anti-woman bias, which may not really be operating as much as we may think. We may need to address, somehow, a thing that women do to themselves, when they sometimes take a failure on board in a way that some men may not.

To oversimplify profoundly, maybe some women say “I must not be very good because they didn’t like me”, where some men say “Fuck those bastards for not liking me, I’ll show them”. It wouldn’t take very many people thinking along those lines to make a difference in the final ratio of women to men.

Another angle, that I’ve talked about before, is this one: maybe, just maybe, when we see what appears to be gender or race or whatever bias, it isn’t what we think it is. Maybe we take offense where it isn’t offered. In doing so, maybe we harm ourselves.

One of my random email sigs is this:

If another does not intend offense, it is wrong for me to seek it;
if another does indeed intend offense, it is foolish for me to permit it.
– Kelly Easterley

I found this, long ago, on some forum somewhere. Kelly’s handle was “semi-cool blind chick” by the way.

My concern is this: If someone says something, and we take offense at it, concluding that they are biased against fat old men, or black people, or beautiful young women, or non-cis people, or whatever … well, maybe they aren’t biased in that way, or maybe they are even trying to work against that bias and not doing a very good job of it.

Even if they are biased, and they might be, it may not help us to take it on board. The article at least suggests that the reasons for things may not be as they seem to us at first. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t get the job, not because someone is biased against us, but because we take that on board and perform less well, or give up sooner, because of it.

Me, I try to listen better to a person of color, a person who’s from another country, a person who’s even more weird than I am. I try to compensate for my biases as I know them. That said, if you’re a woman, I refuse to try to listen less well to you because of my known fascination with competent women. A man can only bend over backward so far. Sorry about that.

Over the long haul, we need to improve society, we need to remove bias. I am not optimistic that we can do that completely, nor that we can do it quickly. In the meantime, each of us has a responsibility to ourselves, to use our talents and our emotions to give ourselves the best possible life.

If you’re plagued at all by feeling that some people are “against” you, or don’t appreciate you for the right reasons, well, it’s OK to have those feelings.

And I’m suggesting that those feelings, while valid, might not be founded in reality. And I’m suggesting that, in the end, what you do with those feelings will have impact on your own life.

So choose wisely, that’s all. And good luck to us, every one.

Related thoughts:

  1. I mean to distinguish here young males from young females. We used to say boys and girls and it was OK. I don’t even mean “romantic” friends here. Just the ones I was close to. (In some other article I’ll write about what a washout I have always been when it came to romance.) 

  2. I find that fascinating too. The connections between us as gendered (and sometimes not-so-gendered) beings is an important and deep thread. Deep? One of my brothers is gay. He told me that he knew he was “different” long before he ever knew what it was about. I suppose I’d have known, too, but I didn’t develop any form of “gaydar” until much later in life. Point is, I think those gender things are deep in us and important.3 

  3. Funny story: at a two-family event a few years ago, my brother was there and another fellow from the other family, who was also gay, was also in attendance. They were meeting for the first time. My brother described the encounter as being like those little magnetic Scotty dogs that BING! suddenly turn and look at each other. These things run deep in us, they really do. And that’s just fine, and it’s pretty much just how things go.  2