Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The invisible hand that isn't there


Amber nails it, but not in the way you might think.

Where are these opportunities? You don't see the opportunities that no one offers you. You don't see the suggestions, requests for collaboration, invitations to the user group, that didn't happen.

Where are these obstacles? Also invisible. They're a lack of inclusion, and of a single role model. They're not having your opinion asked for technical decisions. They're an absence of sponsorship -- of people who say in management meetings "Jason would make a great architect." Jason doesn't even know someone's speaking up for him, so how could Rokshana know she's missing this?

You can't see what isn't there. You can't fight for what you can't see.

In the post that triggered Amber's tweet, Tom describes the subtle, behind-the-scenes influences that make a career. Success is built on a hundred fortuitous circumstances. Lack of success is a thousand paper cuts. And since it's always been this way, why would a sliced-up person even notice? It feels normal. Like a child with poor vision, they don't even know anything is wrong until someone takes a broader perspective, makes a comparison.

How can we make this comparison? At the aggregate. You don't have to look far to know that at the aggregate, women and minorities are strangely missing. Women who are here are leaving.

This isn't overt discrimination, it isn't intentional, it's simply how our pattern-forming brains work. When people like me think about technologists, the image that comes to mind has pale skin and grows a moustache in November. People aren't trying to exclude anyone, we're just human. If you disagree, read some numbers.

Tom gets it wrong when he realizes there are "certain opportunities I get that women have to fight much harder for." There's no fighting, you can't fight for opportunities you don't see. Instead, there is waiting. Wait forever, wait until they're tired of feeling out of place. Until some other career offers them the encouragement they don't realize they're missing.
It's vague because no one can see what isn't there - until we back up and observe the indirect effects.

The invisible hand isn't pushing up down - it's pulling others up. Let's work on pulling everyone up.

So how must we be vigilant? I'll tell you.
  1. Create explicit opportunities to make up for the implicit ones minorities aren't getting. Invite women to speak, create minority-specific scholarships, make extra effort to reach out to underrepresented people.
  2. Make conscious effort to think about including everyone on the team in decisions. Don't always go with your gut for whom to invite to the table.
  3. Don't interrupt a woman in a meeting. (I catch myself doing this, now that I know it's a problem.) Listen, and ask questions.
  4. If you are a woman, be the first woman in the room. We are the start of making others feel like they belong.

The good news: once there are several women on every team, in every conference session, in every user group, then the bias will naturally shift. Same for other minorities. The bad news: it takes a generation. So be patient, and be encouraging. Encourage people to enter the field, to stay in it, and especially to lead. Sometimes all it takes is a suggestion.

10 comments:

  1. So, I guess I should clarify the point I was trying to make, which was more a plea for anyone to be able to show demonstrably to me that this is happening, with specific evidence and scenarios. The plea was not to be a rabble-rouser, though I do not believe in the invisible hands, and would love to be convinced otherwise, but more because it seems silly for everyone to be running around acting all wild about discrimination and how to solve it without anyone bothering to actually do a root cause analysis and figure out what the actual problem is. Or if there even is an actual problem. Perhaps we're really just slowly learning how to be a bunch of normal, interesting people with diverse interests, and there's no need to force that. By "we", I mean everybody, not just ladies.

    Oh, I've found a tweet from you that hits the nail directly on the head! https://twitter.com/jessitron/status/271265284671803392 Good then, we must be in agreement. :D

    Really, though, I am not in favor of the ivory towers going up around various groups. It seems like gender-only initiatives, race-only initiatives and even worse, race AND gender -only initiatives only make the problem worse. Especially when half the people involved in the initiative are constantly acting like victims of.... who knows, if someone could actually say something scientific, we wouldn't be having this ...conversation...? It often smacks of affirmative action.

    When I first began developing software, I readily joined that rallying cry. As you say, it looks like there's a problem, just look around! Where are all the broads at? But then someone said to me, "Ok, so what do we do? Hire more women because they're women?" That made me stop dead in my tracks long enough to have an important realization: just because something *looks* like a problem does not actually mean it *is* a problem. Perhaps it used to be a problem, has solved itself, and is currently in transition to "normalcy." Ok, so that's obviously a little more specific than my analogy was intended to be, but I think you get the point.

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    1. dang it. did my reply show up as a regular comment? why is this so hard!

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  2. I've gone the other way. I didn't think it was a problem for the longest time. I freaking love being a woman in tech. I am most comfortable when I'm the only woman in the room. I love when people come up and talk to me.
    Recently I realized that most women aren't like that. Especially introverted women. They feel out of place in a room full of men. They don't want to be super-assertive, so they aren't heard at all. They want to be left alone in the hallway. Being part of a small minority is a big deterrent.
    Now that I'm speaking and writing, I look around for role models and there are even fewer women -- none in St. Louis.
    It isn't "hire more women because they're women." It's "give more consideration to the women who apply because they're women." Because the study linked under 'read the numbers' in this post proves that the bias exists. We need to consciously overcome it, each of us.
    There aren't more women in tech because there are so few women. It's a chicken-and-egg problem, having women as examples and role models and changing the patterns in people's brains will solve this. To get them there we need to take special steps. This is why women-only or minority-only scholarships are good. They're a step to getting over the hump, and once we're 33% female it won't be needed anymore.
    That's my theory.

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  3. http://blogs.tedneward.com/2012/11/23/On+Tech+And+Football.aspx

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    1. Thanks for the link.

      A perfect example of meritocracy in action: the people in charge feel great about themselves, because they're clearly better than the people who didn't get there.

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  4. That link I posted above is a response to your piece. The first few paragraphs don't get there but eventually it does.

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  5. Thing is, this happens to everyone. The evidence in the study is pretty damning, but in my experience it's been more about who you know. In a perfect world we'd all be elevated based on our abilities, again in my experience that rarely happens.

    It comes from the top though. I think a lot of males are in top positions so females have a disadvantage solely because males will more or less likely get along better with other males. I mean, I don't pretend to understand the opposite sex, so given identical resumes who do I go with in my gut? I'd bet a woman would do the same.

    Is that fair? Nope, just the way it works. And I've been passed over for a promotion because a female co-worker who was terrible at her job, was better friends with the boss.

    I do agree with Ted though. Most people when confronted with expertise or experience will listen. Anyone, female or male will rise to the top if they want to. And if they aren't satisfied, then it's a free country, create your own company and kick all of their asses.

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  6. So, how is it possible to confront with expertise somebody who has no interest in it? Say, Jason gets 15 minutes of a decision maker's time, and Rokshana gets 0. Try to showcase your expertise within 0 seconds.

    Just you implying that you would give preference to a man's resume because it's a man tells that you would give practically no time to consider expertise of a woman (especially while seeing them as an alien race); and you believe neither would the majority of men. The rest is just hypocrisy and concern trolling. "Once I had a one co-worker experience" sounds kind of "starvation in Africa? no biggie, once I didn't eat for 2 days myself".

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  7. What an interesting read! I am not exactly sure how I came across it considering that I was looking for a skin lightening solution, but whatevs, nonetheless, keep it up!

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