False Equality

It seems we’re having a controversial week here on Hacking For Christ, so let’s continue. [Just to clarify: the following post speaks in generalities – it has to in order to avoid massively cumbersome sentences. So when I say e.g. “men can do X but women can’t”, I mean “in general, men are much better at doing X than women”. I do not mean either “only men should be permitted to do X”, or “all women without exception are incompetent at X”.]

The UK Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, has launched a drive against “career sexism”.

“Career sexism is about saying that engineering, for instance, where only 10% of employees are women, is really a male-dominated industry. Construction is even worse.”

While totally agreeing with the principle of “equal pay for the same job”, I think that the feminist hyper-equality agenda is obscuring the fact that men and women are, in fact, different. The underlying thesis of Hewitt’s campaign seems to be that equality means men and women being interchangeable, and so we need to keep working “for equality” until these industries have an approximately even balance of men and women.

A book I’ve heard good things about, but not yet read, is “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps“. Its basic idea, which I agree completely with, it that womens’ and mens’ brains are wired differently, making each gender good at different things and bad at others.

My ex-housemate, Abbie, thought nothing of simultaneously ironing, talking to someone on the phone, and watching an episode of Friends. She’s a great multitasker. When I’m watching Friends, on the other hand, someone can loudly ask me a question and I simply won’t notice for 30 seconds, after which my brain will process the backlog and I’ll look up and say “Er, what, sorry?” This is what’s actually happening in a “Why Men Don’t Listen” situation. My brain is very serial indeed – I am not good at multitasking. My task-switching latency is measured in seconds.

Now, it’s fairly obvious that there are not many female computer programmers. I suggest that this is because single-minded concentration for long periods is a vital attribute for a programmer. You need to simultaneously think of the correct name for a local variable, while keeping in your head what you are doing in the scope of that function, that module and that application, and continuously zoom in and out mentally between those levels without losing track of any of them. And the very features of mens’ brains which makes them bad listeners makes them particularly good at this skill.

Great female programmers certainly do exist. I know – I work for one. But it is misguided to argue that there’s something wrong with the IT industry until 50% of programmers are women, and such an attitude will only lead to misery for the women coerced into a job they aren’t suited for.

24 thoughts on “False Equality

  1. You’re so right, gerv!

    We have to get some rational thoughts back into this ‘equality everywhere’ – debates! I completely agree, the most important is the equal pay for the same work to both genders.

    But to try to get 50 % into every industry is crazy and stupid. In a similar fashion, we could try to get 50 % of all prostitutes to be men. Hah! (Well I am located in Austria, where prostitution is legal).

    Cu, Chris

  2. But how do you *know* whether the lack of female programmers is caused by discrimination (subtle or obvious) or by a lesser degree of ability? All that you’ve really said is based on hunches.

    Didn’t I read somewhere that the proportion of women in IT has gone down recently? I can’t find a link at the moment though.

  3. I doubt we will certainly “know” that in our lifetime. Biology would have to advance in such a way that we could be able to say “Yes, here’s the wiring Gerv was talking about: follow synapsis marked in red, see how they different they are in hes and shes, and there we go.”

    But in any case, what is certain is that men and women are different, because of hormones and parenting, muscles and ears and types of intelligence, differences (marvelous ones) are there to be seen and touched. And careers depend on a high degree on these physical abilities and types of intelligence.

    It is unfair to discriminate based in this “statistic” only. To deny a woman a construction/programming job, or a man a nurse/child care job, because he and she are statistically less suited for the job is unfair. But it’s also unfair to say there’s a problem *only* because of an unbalanced distribution of jobs between genders.

  4. Great post Gerv!
    I agree with your thesis, and i see similar examples. While my mind is not multitasking and i can focus on ONE thing only, with quite godd result. I can see that all my friends which are girls can do many tasks in the same time without loose on quality of each one.

    I’m sure that women are better in managing and being a boss where you have to control many tasks at the same time, while we’re better drivers when you have to focus on driving only.

    So, while this is clear to me, i’m still not sure why there is so small amount of women coders. Internet manuals, documentations and tutorials doesn’t check at the begining if you’re a man, right? But for some reason i know meaby 2 women who do code with joy. And i don’t see any chance to change the proportions since nothing can be made more equal for man and women here…

  5. “Da Vinci Code” will give some good answers about what women can do and about what they are allowed to…

  6. I have noticed this a lot, men and women are certainly better at different things, although often the exceptions are outstanding, i.e. women who are better than men at coding can sometimes be a LOT better.

    The one argument I would offer against equal pay is maternity pay. If a man and a woman of 25 both start in the same job, for the rest of their lives, then if they are equally as good, and the woman takes maternity leave for 1 or 2 kids, the man will end up being worth more to the company. Should the pay not reflect your value to the company?

  7. Neil: No, because maternity leave seldom comes with 100% of the pay rate for the absent period, so the company is spending less money during that period, offsetting the loss of productivity.

    And while I agree with Gerv completely, there’s another side to the equality coin as well. Not all jobs appeal to each gender equally. Women are by far more sensitive, intuitive to emotion and body language, and sympathetic, and these traits lend themselves to professions such as medicine (especially nursing, which has a lower schooling overhead and thus initial investment), child care, etc. Men, on the other hand are stronger, more tolerant of rough living conditions, and are more well suiting to construction, mining, oil drilling, etc.

    Now, Gerv’s generalization disclaimer goes here as well, so don’t flip out. There are male nurses and female roughnecks. Just not that many.

    Equality should be that anyone CAN attain any job they’re qualified for, regardless of gender, not necessarily a 50/50 gender distribution in all professions. As Gerv said, the sexes have differences, and that’s ok.

    Interestingly, women may make better astronauts due to smaller general body size, thus less weight, fewer resources needed per person, and they seem to tolerate micro/zero gravity better without getting space sick. :)

  8. I doubt we will certainly “know” that in our lifetime. Biology would have to advance in such a way that we could be able to say “Yes, here’s the wiring Gerv was talking about: follow synapsis marked in red, see how they different they are in hes and shes, and there we go.”

    Well, only if you throw away the entirety of the sciences of psychology and anthropology. Biological evidence is not the only (or even the best) evidence.

    Anyway, it’s already been proved that men and woman have physical differences – in the brain as well as the more, er, obvious ones :-)

    Equality should be that anyone CAN attain any job they’re qualified for, regardless of gender, not necessarily a 50/50 gender distribution in all professions.

    Absolutely. <applause>

  9. Do people argue there’s something wrong with the Human Kind until 50% of humans giving birth to another human are men ?-)

  10. There are huge differences in the brain between women and men, despite the social differences (multi-tasking). In the early 80s the number of females in Computer Science was somewhere around 25%, but has dropped to the 10% mark, and in industry is even less.

    One of the largest contributing factors to the lack of female engineers is that men tend to think spacially, so tasks that involve Physics are going to come naturally, whereas women are analytical so language and algebra tend to come naturally (which would lean in favor of computer science…).

    The other reason I think why women are less abt to become programmers is because of the social stigma. When I was younger and wanted to play around with computers my dad encouraged me, but my school heavily discouraged me (to the point where they wouldn’t let me help out the school because I was a girl).

    There are so many guys that I have met that have treated me as inferior because I’m a girl. Women don’t see programming as a viable option because society says that you have to be a male and enjoy Star Trek, Anime, and RPGs. The women I’ve met in computer science tend to be either in it for the money, or enjoy those things. It’s a sad polemic, and it’s only going to change if girls are encouraged at a young age, and are shown how to handle being in an environment that is all male.

  11. While there may be some “wired differently” differences, I still believe the majority of differences between men and women are environmental, not developmental.

    Of course, I base this opinion on nothing but passive, unscientific observation.

  12. Women are better at algebra? That’s an interesting comment. At my school (University of Waterloo) Pure Math is second only to Computer Science in the male vs. Female ratio. Moreover, from my knowlege of the field of linguistics (my parents are linguists), most of the more lingusts with graduate degrees are male as well. This doesn’t imply that men are better at these by any means, but I think it does show that men are more likely to study them.
    Computer Science is an interesting area because it is relatively new so it doesn’t have a long tradition. I think what happened is that it started out as a mostly male field (like 3 to 1 in the 80’s) and then people got the idea that because it was mostly male, males were better. Why it started out mostly male though, I’d better not try to answer.

  13. Hmm…maybe it’s geographical differences, but at my school the Math department has somewhere around 75% females, and the languages are just as high. I’m pursuing doing Bible translation, and they told us that there are VERY few men who pursue such an area. Just my experience.

  14. Not long ago, there were no women physicians. And at that time many (mostly men but also women) argued that this was a natural ratio, that women simply weren’t attuned to that profession.

    Today it is common to find many female doctors — indeed women the majority in some medical school programmes.

    There are many reasons for the change, ranging from removal of physical and non-physical obstacles to women, to the evolution of attitudes by and toward people in these jobs. But the change took a long time (1-2 generations), and is ongoing.

    What has changed is that this profession is better tuned to equality of opportunity — that is, any person regardless of sex has an equal opportunity to succeed. I would hope that the same goal would hold for programming / software development.

    My sense (from experience at uni) is that this is not always the case. I know women who felt uncomfortable in that program, not because their technical skills were lacking, but because of the nature of the department (95% male, no female faculty, no role models, difficulty relating to ‘geeky;’ guys in the school, few friends in the program, etc).

    This is changing, but slowly (remember the 2 generations for physicians), but it is changing already, with the women who have suceeded helping to pave the way.

  15. > While there may be some “wired differently” differences, I still believe the majority of differences between men and women are environmental, not developmental.

    > Of course, I base this opinion on nothing but passive, unscientific observation

    You clearly don’t have children.

  16. I disagree with your conclusions; I actually think that women make (on average) better programmers than men (confirmed by experience), and that what keeps them away from programming jobs is social issues, not technical ones.

    Programming is like writing; to write good programs, you have to master writing in your native language first, and the fact that women often have an intelligence more verbal than abstract helps a lot to write clean and maintainable code, and to remember language constructs and idioms.

    What keeps them away is probably that computer programming is not a very social job, and this situation is aggravated by the general cult-like attitude of male programmers (editors / OS / language wars, elitism, etc). In short we male programmers have a lot to learn from our female colleagues.

  17. OK, so the discussion has moved on from “requiring 50% is ridiculous” (my original assertion) to whether women and men are in fact different in the way I outline, and if so whether it matters. That’s fine – but we should note the transition.

    So there’s an idea developing here that the barriers to women entering Computer Science are social. I think there’s probably a bit of that – and I would certainly say that the way Kristin was treated at school was wrong. And I’d admit that the male part of the online community probably needs to grow up quite a lot in terms of its attitude towards the women it encounters.

    As Ian says, it should be about equality of opportunity.

    I still believe the majority of differences between men and women are environmental, not developmental. Of course, I base this opinion on nothing but passive, unscientific observation.

    How is it possible to observe a behaviour and classify it as environmental or developmental?

    rafael: learning language constructs and idioms is Obligatory Joel quote:

    It seems like .NET gives us a “choice” of languages precisely where we couldn’t care less about it — in the syntax.

  18. If thats true, it would explain why there aren’t many female carreer programmers, but it doesn’t explain why BASIC programming classes at my old high school had a 15:1 ratio of guys to girls.

    How do you explain a 15:1 ratio in a class where most students dont have a clue what a variable is before taking the class.

    The fact is less women attempt programming in the first place

  19. Moving back to the original topic, I think the problem is that people are advocating equality when they should be advocating equity. They’re easy to confuse, but are far different in their consequences.

  20. > I disagree with your conclusions; I actually think
    > that women make (on average) better programmers
    > than men (confirmed by experience)…

    I propose that this is due to women being unable to muddle their way through. I know a number of male friends who are in CS but are comparitively poor programmers. They know this, but they keep pushing through. On the other hand, every female I’ve met is both good and very dedicated. I think the ones that aren’t succumb to the negative social pressures and give up.

  21. My parents work in bible translation (Wycliffe to be exact) and where I grew up the ratio of translators was about 9 men to 10 women; however, of the people who had graduate degrees in linguistics, the vast majority were male. I doubt this has anything to men being more able at linguistics, I think it is more of a social cause (i.e. men are more encouraged to get a furthur education) or becasue in the era my parents grew up in, few women went to college at all.
    It is quite possible that the amount of women going into Bible translation has increased significantly though.
    I’ve also heard that there are other places (e.g. India) that have many single women translators, so it’s possible that my experience is merely anecdotal.

  22. Gerv, I agree with u that there are inherent difference between the the genders, but it is very simplistic to conclude what field of work would be suitable or not suitable for women. Other than the limited knowledge on biological differences, as some one has pointed out, we should not discount the cultural and historical influences, which plays a very big part. I guess it is far more easier to conclude the kind of work men are less suitable for and not the other way round.

    Just as an aside, it looks ironical that socities, like South Asia [ where I stay and where women are said to be more suppresed ] have more women reaching posts of top political leadership than socities of west where feminism is more influential. There was a time when all the major South Asian countries were ruled by women at the same time [ Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka].

  23. Grey Hodge: The cost of maternity pay is not what you pay the woman while they are having babies. The main cost comes from trying to find someone to take on their role, for a short period of time. This requires going to a temp agency, which will charge very high rates. The person used to replace them will spend most of their time learning the job, rather than actually being productive.

  24. I’m wondering if this might backfire on attempts toward gender equality. What I mean is that a company might be subconsiously less willing to hire young women if they think they might loose them soone to a long period of paid leave.