all that jazz

james' blog about scala and all that jazz

Women in tech - It's a mans problem

A few days ago a panel of four men showed the world that they had no clue about the issues that women in tech faced, and how they should be solved. The overwhelming theme that I picked up from the criticism that I read about it was “you’re not listening to us”. Is that true? Are these male industry leaders really not listening to women? I mean surely they have read the accounts of the issues that many women in tech have faced, isn’t that enough?

Now I am about to break one of the cardinal sins of talking about women in tech - relating it to my wife - but please bear with me, it’s not what you think. My wife Beth and I are currently getting marriage counselling1. In it we have rediscovered two things that we always knew but need to keep being reminded of. The first is that during conflict, Beth speaks using emotional language. The second is that during conflict, I speak using logical language. In order for us to resolve conflict, we need to speak each others language, I need to talk more about how things make me feel, and Beth needs to step back from her feelings and reason logically about hers and my actions.

It is from this difference in languages that the problems of women in tech flow. No! That’s not it at all. But, if you’re a man, you may have been nodding your head as you read that statement. If you’re a woman, if it weren’t for the no in bold text immediately after that statement, you probably would have closed your browser in anger. And this highlights a deep problem.

We men have a tendency to approach the things that women are saying - the accounts of harassment and abuse, the accounts of every day prejudice, and the calls to action - as if those women speak a different language, the way our wives/mothers/girlfriends do. But read some of the accounts again. Are these spoken with a language of emotion? They certainly talk about emotion, but those accounts are very well reasoned and logical texts that speak plainly about actual events. Even if, and that is a very big if, the women who told these accounts do have a tendency to use emotional language over logic and sound reasoning, they have clearly mastered the skill of communicating to men - after all, in this industry, they have to.

So what is the impact of this approach that we men take, and what do I mean by it? When I first read Julie Ann Horvath’s account of her experience at GitHub, my subconscious immediately told me that I had to be careful. Women have a tendency to overreact, to speak with a language of emotion that does not follow sound reasoning or logic, and I should take the things that I am reading with a grain of salt. Any reaction that I have to this I should carefully measure, I should refrain from saying anything too strongly about it, in case it turns out not to be true. While I believed that it probably was true, I let my subconscious prejudice stop me from taking it too seriously.

This reaction doesn’t make sense. But the deep impact that it has is that it causes me to distance myself somewhat from the problem. And while in certain circumstances distancing yourself from problems does little harm, in this instance, it is the worst thing I could possibly do. Why? Because what if the problem is me? If I distance myself from the problem, I will never see that it’s me.

No wonder women are complaining that men are not listening. As long as we approach women as a group that speaks a different language, we will never listen to them. We will never understand what they have to say. We will distance ourselves from their arguments, and from the implications, and this means, if there is any problem in us, any implication that should change us, we will not hear it.

It has taken me a long time to learn this. I used to think that the issue of women in tech was just some gripe over numbers, that the problem was that the number of women in tech didn’t equal the number of men in tech, and that some vocal women believed that that needed to be fixed. As I’ve read more and more and more accounts of women facing sexual harassment and discrimination I’ve slowly come to understand that it is something very different. I should have listened earlier, and come to this conclusion a long time ago. But better late than never. I’ve come to the conclusion that the issue of women in tech is a man’s problem.

§It’s a man’s problem

The only person that can change your attitudes is you. Other people can’t change them - they can point you in the right direction, they can present you with well reasoned arguments on why you should change and how to change, but at the end of the day, the only person that can change them is you. The women in tech issue comes down to the attitudes of us men, and therefore it is a problem that only we men can fix. This is what I mean by it’s a man’s problem - the changing will be done by men.

However, the initiative to fix it must be led by women. Why? Because only women can explain how they are prejudiced against, how the actions of men, particularly the small seemingly inconsequential ones that happen every day, impact women. They are the ones that see and experience the problem, and so they are the only ones that can describe and instruct on how to remedy the problem.

But the main force of change must come from men that are listening to these women. Men who are not just reading the accounts and remedies, but are actually listening to them without prejudice. These men have two tasks:

  1. Change themselves. When women identify something that men are doing that is harmful to women’s acceptance in the IT industry, men need to examine themselves to see if they are exhibiting that action, and if so, change it.
  2. Convince other men to listen to women without prejudice. This is a job that must be done by men, because if the men that need convincing aren’t listening to women, then nothing a woman says will resound with them.

If you’re a man reading this, and you think “after reading this I now understand the issues that women in tech face”, then you’ve missed the point. I don’t understand the issues that women in tech face, so there’s no way after reading something that I’ve written that you could understand them. I’ve merely pointed out the first step - to start listening to women without prejudice. The next step is to actually listen to them! Read the blog posts and news articles of the accounts of women in tech with unprejudiced eyes. Talk to your female coworkers and friends about the issues they face, and listen to them. Attend conferences and meetups aimed at promoting women in tech, and listen! This is a man’s problem that requires action by men, and the first step is listening to women.

§Footnotes

  1. No, our marriage is not on the rocks. Beth and I believe that a marriage is like a car, and marriage counselling is like a mechanic. If you wait until a car breaks down before you take it to the mechanic, it will have a much bigger impact and cost a lot more to fix - it may even get written off. Rather, you take the car to the mechanic for regular checkups while it's healthy. Likewise, waiting till a marriage breaks down to see a marriage counsellor is likely to cause a lot of pain and take a very long time to fix. Rather, seeing a marriage counsellor while your marriage is healthy ensures the long term health of the marriage, and also ensures that you both get the most out of the marriage too. We see the marriage counselling we're getting now as our 5 year checkup.
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About

Hi! My name is James Roper, and I am a software developer with a particular interest in open source development and trying new things. I program in Scala, Java, PHP, Python and Javascript, and I work for Lightbend as a developer on Lagom. I also have a full life outside the world of IT, am a passionate Christian, enjoy playing a variety of musical instruments and sports, and currently I live in Canberra.

I also have a another blog called Roped In about when my wife and I lived in Berlin for a year to help a church reconnect with its city.