Thursday, June 28, 2012

Expect to fly


I love being a female developer. When I go to a hacker night, I feel like Scarlet in GI Joe, Firestar with Spiderman and his friends. Sysadmins and DBAs are happy to answer questions for a smile. In interviews and in conference speaker selection, I stand out. Colleagues open doors and invite me to happy hour. Teammates respect me and enjoy my company. My gender is an asset in my programming career.

Yet - when I meet another developer, I don't expect to be taken seriously.

It's a subtle effect. It took me a decade to notice, but much less time to cope with it. When I start on a team, half of what I say is a joke. That way it's okay when my words are laughed off. I demonstrate competence with good questions - these are more welcome than statements. When necessary, I can be very assertive, forceful enough that the men in the conference room can't blow me off. These strategies get me past the initial impressions, and within a few days I have the team's full respect. Gender is a consideration only before they know me.

The effect is so subtle I can't call it a prejudice. It's a shortcut our brains take: categorization. I do it myself. In my experience, women tend to contribute less in discussions. They don't fit the image of "strong developer" in my head. This adds up to lower expectations than for a man, at least for a short time. 

The scary part is that expectations influence behavior. Subconsciously we conform to the expectations of those around us. Because females are expected to be quiet, because they are interrupted more than men, women volunteer less. Which leads our subconscious minds to expect female developers to be quiet and contribute less.

The spiral of lower expectations can be reversed. For every woman technical speaker we hear at a conference, we'll take the next female developer we meet a little more seriously. For each woman who shows up to the user group, we'll be more likely to invite our female colleagues. Every time we direct a question to one of the women in the meeting, or ask an interrupting colleague to let the woman finish speaking, she's inspired to speak up more.

We turn this spiral around one tiny action at a time. Women, go to user groups. Men and women, recognize the bias and fight it - expect more from the women around you. Every woman can fly like Firestar.

11 comments:

  1. I don't recall what my unconscious biases may have been, but within 5 minutes of talking to you for the first time, you had my full respect of your technical competence. That's saying a lot, since you were drunk at the time.

    I don't think anyone should have to represent their gender or any other social category, but you are definitely an active negation of the worst stereotypes of female developers.

    Now that I think about, I probably have the reverse bias about gender. It's difficult for women to be active in any arena that is male-dominated, so I tend to assume that if a woman has the courage to do so, she must be driven and/or independent-minded. For the average male developer, that isn't necessarily the case.

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  2. A general consensus among me and a few of my male programmer buddies, is that the majority of women in IT are extremely good at what they do. They are typically passionate, driven, and very productive. That makes sense being in a profession dominated by males. It takes hard work to make it in IT and the women that succeed are typically the crème of the crop of all professionals combined, but that has just been my experience, as a male in the industry.

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  3. Your approach of asking questions is *critical* for any newcomer to any established social group, regardless of gender. Some see this as a weak position to be in, but you can ask questions in an authoritative way that reveals your general competence and capability, but specific ignorance on a particular subject.

    It is completely unreasonable to expect an existing culture with a long history and firm roots to accept the alien. If I go to another country there is a very good chance that, as an American, I will be met with odd glances, perhaps rude comments or gestures, and general grumpiness *until I learn to understand and integrate with the culture*. This phenomenon--distrusting the outsider--is probably a biological instinct for preservation. And it is by no means found only in male behavior. (http://notsolonelylondoners.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/the-curse-of-the-male-fashion-blogger/)

    The principle I adhere to is: treat everyone with civility and kindness, and if I give offense, make it right with the offended party. Everything else is merely people learning to get along, on both sides.

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    1. Newcomer to an established social group? Existing culture with a long history and firm roots?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_computing#Timeline_of_women_in_computing

      Of note are Ada Lovelace the "first programmer", the "computers" for WW2 ballistics calculations and the Explorer 1, the six primary programmers for the ENIAC (all women), Grace Hopper who wrote the first compiler, Mary Allen Wilkes who started the first OS, the list goes on.

      How about you do some research next time you base your entire post on the assumption that women aren't involved in computers, when in fact they have a bigger part in its history than men. It's simply not well-known because hey, guess what, the world actually is sexist.

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    2. Ada and Grace aren't in our social group anymore, snyex.

      Development doesn't have a long history or firm roots compared to the nationalities Nick was talking about.

      ncloud has a great point about questions being a good strategy in any case. "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions." - Mahfouz ... and a woman, too!

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  4. Armadillos are cool!

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  5. I think many engineers work through consensus. With that in mind, a new comer who makes bold statements without a solid understanding of the project is looking for trouble, regardless of gender. Even with a solid understanding coming into a project as a new comer and shaking things up can be a bad move if statements aren't made with respect. That sort of personality doesn't jive with that culture.

    I definitely agree with you about the role of expectation influencing behavior. I'm an urban minority and I have yet to see anyone who's had low expectations of himself become a success. A person's motivation is limited by their expectations.

    As far as the statement that "the majority of women in IT are extremely good" it sounds a bit like pandering to me. Though I suppose it could be true. Sounds corny if you ask me. The author of that statement maybe saying that due to his own low expectations of what women can achieve. Would he be saying the same if the job were done by a man? Who knows right?

    My personal experience is that there have been far more good(standard to above standard ability) to bad(incompetent).

    But I digress, behavior trumps ethnicity and/or sex as the leading factor of whether a person will gain the respect of his/her peers. Because at the end of the day people are lazy and more practical than idealistic. I think people tend to normalize anomalies, for better or worse, very quickly.

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  6. The effect is brief, because most developers do change their impression pretty quickly. It is more of a problem in meetings with people outside the team. For me, it hasn't been much of a problem at all, but for women with a less forceful personality, it could be.

    Any newcomer goes through a period of having to prove himself. The starting point for that leap is a little lower (or the bar higher, however you want to look at it) for anyone who doesn't meet the standard image of a developer.

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  7. I can't speak to your main point of not being taken seriously because you are female, having not witnessed this before. However, the larger point of low expectations is a valid one for both genders because of our new age culture, IMO. Coming of age now is the Barney generation who was told that winning is not important: it's just enough to play the game.

    Education has been dumbed down to accommodate the failing education system. In our school system, poor students are passed just to move them through the system and grades are inflated to enhance the records of lackluster teachers.

    Saddest of all is that the change in our culture has fostered a serious diminution of intellectual curiosity and the pride in 'doing it right'!

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  8. I hate to break the news to you, but it's not just women who aren't taken seriously when they first join a team. When you're on a new team, there is often an initial struggle with existing members to figure out where you stand in the balance of power. People want to maintain whatever "authority" they have. Asking questions, being diplomatic in general, and being assertive when necessary is the right approach. A book I read years ago comes to mind WRT to this topic: "How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed" - http://amzn.to/MaXr6y

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  9. Just thought I'd let you know that despite Javid and Chris here there are men who recognize the inherent sexism in the field, let alone the world, and aren't so blind as to claim they've never witnessed it before, or worse, invalidate it entirely.

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