Saturday, January 25, 2014

Star Trek and Computer Science

I was a geek as a teenager. In choir, I got in trouble for reading my Star Trek book during idle time, instead of whispering to each other like the other girls. I quit choir, and I joined the local Star Trek Club, along with my one geeky friend. Then in high school, my one geeky friend left for private school, and I was alone in my awkwardness. At lunch, I sat at "the retard table" because it was the one table that rejected no one.

I never thought about programming as a career, but I did some. On the little Macintosh at home, on whatever the equivalent of Access was. On my TI-85. On the Apple II-e at school, where I learned to make LOGO beep songs, and then learned about infinite loops. No one else I knew cared.

Those teenage years were the hardest. It's a good thing I had Grandmarti.[1]

Everyone wants to feel welcome. People go where we anticipate a feeling of belonging. Yet when we get a feeling of belonging, really get it, it isn't in a large group. It's one on one. For my young self, this was Grandmarti. She was the person always happy to see me, who wants to hear what I'm thinking about. That person I connect to as a fellow being, with feelings and interests as varied as my own. Real connection happens between individuals. We search for this by heuristic, looking for a place where we fit in better than others, a group of people like us.

I didn't fit in with the other girls at school, never had a group of girlfriends. Then in college, I went to engineering school, where it was easy to become one of the guys. I like being the center of attention in subtle ways, so it never bothered me to be the only woman in a group of up to ten people. By now, that gender ratio feels like the normal state of things.

My situation is an exception. In general, when a person walks into a group, and there's an obvious physical characteristic that's different between the person and most of the other people, it puts the person on edge. Perhaps it's a man joining a table of women, or a black person in a room of a hundred white people, or you walking alone into a dinner party of couples. There's a heightened sensitivity to subtle social signs. A person's subconscious searches for clues: "Is this difference relevant? Do I belong here?"[2] If the women are talking about pregnancy and the couples are holding hands, then the odd person out feels excluded. Without aiming to isolate anyone, the majority have signaled that the difference is relevant. The feeling of belonging is fragile when there's an unmistakable physical difference.

My hometown was such a desert of geek culture that I didn't know Monty Python existed until the summer after 10th grade. That was Missouri Scholars Academy, a 3-week summer program for the smartest kids in the state. It was the first time I found peers who considered intelligence a virtue. Finally I felt accepted, welcomed, even attractive. When it ended, my new world caved, and I cried for days.

That feeling of exclusion and then suddenly belonging, many of us geeks found our tribe with each other. And somehow, many of us also became programmers. It is among programmers I've met most of my closest friends. People who taught me about philosophy, joy, sexuality, science, and learning. Individuals with whom I find the deep sense of belonging I always wished for.

Halfway through my physics degree, my aunt and her friend found an internship for me at Federal Express. It was computer programming, and I figured I could do it. Sure enough. At that job I learned that I like 9-5 work, and that programming is in demand, fun, and easy for me. I added a minor in Computer Science.

It wasn't a career I considered. People never consider every possibility - we'd go mad! Humans always make unconscious decisions about where to direct their attention, based on visual cues and verbal suggestions, subtle and explicit. I was lucky that people pointed me to this option.

So many geeks code that there's a stereotype in our culture: programmers like Star Trek and Star Wars. They stay up late and drink a lot of Coke or Mountain Dew and play video games. Heck, we have conferences themed around the latest Sci Fi movies, bacon, and beer. Those of us rejected for geeky predilections in our school days now rejoice: geek-culture icons, once a marker of exclusion, now hallmark belonging in this new tribe we have created. And a powerful tribe it is! As programmers, we can make good money, express ourselves online, even change the world.

Together, we are building something even bigger than it seems. This profession has a unique combination: very intelligent people, many with backgrounds that leave us with little attachment to existing social bounds, with a mandate for creativity and leeway to set our own work conditions. We've given rise to whole new ways of working together. Collaboration, knowledge sharing, building on each others' work. Academic professions have conferences for "look at what I did," while programmers have conferences for "look what you can do with this idea or technology." Ideas grow when shared. We are changing the world.

It's such a powerful tribe that some of us look around and say, wait. Why is this important group so monocultural? Why are we 95% white[3] in a country that's 72%? Why are we 80% male? Each of these discrepancies is a spiral, exacerbating itself. It doesn't have to continue this way. The gender discrepancy, at least, may be mediated by social signals we can control.

It happens that Star Trek fans are mostly male. This is probably for historical reasons; the first series portrayed women mostly as territory for Kirk to conquer, while the subsequent series are progressive. It happens that video gamers are mostly male for much more logical and horrible reasons. For whatever combination of causes, Star Trek fandom and video games and staying up late drinking soda are perceived as masculine. Signs of these are read by most women as social cues of not-belonging.[4]

Personally, I've always liked Star Trek, and I enjoy League of Legends. (My favorite character is Jinx, because she enjoys havoc and lacks giant boobs.) Many other women appreciate science fiction and video games. So why should we care that some women are turned off by them?

It's a matter of numbers. If we want programming to be more than 20% women, then we need more than 40% of women to feel welcome. We need most women to feel welcome.

The data say that most women feel less welcome when the programmer stereotype is evoked -- even when it's evoked by a woman in computer science. These people go seek a feeling of belonging in another profession.

Our badges of newly-found belonging have become badges of rejection again. Now they're working in reverse, rejecting everyone but geeks.

As a community, we programmers share some ideals. We strive to write better software. While we use various tools, we agree on goals like readable, reliable code. We want to solve useful problems, and solve them well enough that we don't have to solve them each a million times. We explore new methods of collaboration, and reflect together on how to get better. For examples and allusions, it's convenient to draw on our shared background of Star Wars, Civilization, and Super Mario.

Maybe we shouldn't. If the geek-culture references reinforce a stereotype that drives potential programmers away before they even get started, maybe I should put away my Picard slide and stop referencing the Prime Directive like everybody knows what that means.

Hide away our geek identities?[5] What does this mean? Letting them reject us and push us back into isolation again?

When we form this tribe, come together and enjoy each others' intelligence and humor, what is important? We share cultural icons, and we share cultural values. Some of the icons signal exclusion to people who might otherwise contribute. In school people rejected us for being geeks. Now we have the power, we have a choice. We can reject those who once rejected us. Or we can reject rejection.

There's nothing wrong with Star Trek. There's only perception, perception that Star Trek is masculine and that programmers are Trekkers. It's enough to turn a smart, mathematically-talented cheerleader toward another career path. It's a perception that hurts us.

I'm not ashamed of geekiness. I'll happily share my geeky hobbies with anyone who wants to chat. I'll also share my interest in cognitive science, home birth, complexity theory, polyamory. It's at the individual level that we achieve connection, where the enduring sense of belonging comes. Sharing my full self with another person gives me that chance.

More than 10 years into a perfectly ordinary and happy programming career, someone suggested I get into speaking. I'd never considered it - maybe because I'd never seen a woman speak about programming. It turns out I'm a whiz at that, too. Still, I don't consider myself ambitious: I value candidness and personal connection over prestige. How can I, as a geek, be candidly me and not drive anyone away?

My time on stage is limited. There's plenty I could share that might distance people from me, but what matters for the profession is only what coincides with the stereotype. I can skip the dungeon crawl example and code about my sock collection instead. Boring? Maybe. But it doesn't divide the audience into geeks-who-belong and those-less-worthy. This avoids reinforcing the problem, but doesn't solve it.

How can anyone eliminate a stereotype?

Can't: you can't fight against anything, can't aim for a "not." We can only aim for something else. Currently when the majority of our culture thinks about "programmer," they hit upon the stereotypical geek, which also happens to be white and male. The alternative stereotypes we've seen so far are even worse: the neckbeard, the brogrammer.

Can: we can choose a better stereotype. What cues might correspond to programming potential? A likely programmer is smart, analytical, curious. They question traditions and violate irrelevant social norms. They share information: honesty, even bluntness. What visual cues associate with these qualities? Perhaps a preferable programmer stereotype has purple hair, a book, and colorful socks.

It's ridiculous that we should put away our Star Trek slides to make women feel more welcome in our profession. "Ridiculous" doesn't mean "false." In today's culture, geekiness is by white men, and programming is for geeks. If we care about welcoming a fair number of women and not-white people, we don't ask all of them to change. We tweak the system and the environment. We accommodate the perceptions they have, until those perceptions change as we get to know each other as individuals.

I am lucky. Lucky to be an outlier in many ways: geeky enough to be one of the guys, smart enough to make up for gender bias, confident enough to laugh at people who doubt me. Lucky to have received outside suggestions about programming and then speaking. I'm not alone, but I am an exception. Welcoming a handful of women is not welcoming women.

I'm going to be as geeky as I darn well please. I'm also going to be as programmery as I like. I won't make the assumption that the two are interdependent.[6]

This feeling of belonging in a group, it doesn't get stronger with exclusivity. It gets stronger by extending that belonging to others. Grandmarti always welcomed people into her home, people from different classes and races and backgrounds. She learned from every one of them, and our family was richer for it. Programming is awesome, our community is awesome, as we learn together about thinking and collaboration and our own humanity. Let's not keep it a path for geeks: make a path for people.[7]

---------------------------------

[1] my grandmother
[2] it's called stereotype threat
[3] I made this number up. Anyone know the real number?
[4] full article
[5] identifying with any interest is overrated
[6] Separation of Concerns
[7] path is not covariant in this sentence





3 comments:

  1. The "whatever the equivalent of Access" on the Mac was probably Filemaker Pro.

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  2. I enjoyed hearing about your experience, and agree that diversity is worth making an effort for.

    I do want to provide some historical perspective though. Historically, being a programmer was stigmatized as a "nerd thing". The lack of diversity we now see is partly the result of this: only those who were self-identified as nerds or were OK with being misperceived as nerds went into the profession. ( Confession: _I_ didn't go into CS when I did my degree in part because of this. )

    What has happened since then is that tech has become "cool", and jobs in tech have become one of the few in-demand and lucrative gigs around, so suddenly a lot of people who are in demographics that might have shunned tech in the nerd-stigma days now want in.

    As I say, I prefer diverse environments, and have been lucky enough to have always had them, so I know the value of making inclusive choices.

    I just want to ensure that we remain empathetic to those who are reluctant to give up their "Star Trek tribalism", understanding their own history of marginalization and stigmatization, and that we don't allow a very sophisticated form of nerd-bashing under the guise of "power-structure critique".

    Thanks for the interesting post!

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  3. Thanks for posting this. I agree 100% with your point, but IMHO the headline should really be 'Geek Culture and Computer Science'. Picking out the one show that pictures an ideal, super-inclusive society like no other (TNG, for me and others in my generation, is the default 'Star Trek') seems odd, if not a bit sensationalist. I've never perceived TNG as particularly geeky. The biggest fans I know are my uncle, a healing practitioner, my wife, a teacher, and a friend who's doing a PhD in gender studies). Equating Star Trek and geek culture might actually enforce the problem you're addressing, by alienating people who'd love TNG's enlightened idealism, but are turned off by anything hack and slay, LOTR, lightsaber fights, or whatever else that is considered geeky.

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