For a long time I've been vexed by the gender bias of computing towards men. It's clear that computing has multiple issues, ranging from its perception to the nature of its society. As organizer of computing conferences, I care about ensuring that participation is meritocratic and inclusive.
As various debates have taken place over blogs in the past on women in computing, I have stayed silent. Not because I don't care, but because I really didn't know what to say. I try to understand, but at the end of the day I'm a man, I tend to misunderstand important points, and I suspect my contributions would come across as at best naïve, and more likely, patronising. So many conversations between men and women on this topic end up in mutual uncomprehension. Better to stay silent than be a fool.
This is why I'm very grateful for Jeni Tennison's analysis of women in computing. It is the most helpful blog post I have read recently on the topic. Perhaps it's because Jeni's British, and we share some of the same cultural assumptions and constraints. But more importantly, it's because her article builds bridges to my experience and understanding.
Rather than simply appealing to tribes of men and women, Jeni places the discussion in terms of feminine and masculine traits. Like many men, I identify with certain attitudes and preferences more closely allied to my feminine side. By not excluding me, her wording helped me view the points she unfolded in terms that my own experience, however poor, could identify with.
I've often found contemporary computing communities to be suffocatingly macho. There's a strong pressure to succeed in terms of attention from the chattering bloggers, privileged inner circles and the capacity for vicious excoriation of those who fall from grace.
As I grew up through school and university, I held these sorts of social forms in contempt, as well as occasionally suffering at their hands. Yet now, bafflingly, I find myself under the impression I need to belong and compete in these spheres.
One of Jeni's central points is concern about one's own self-efficacy. This was the real revelation to me. I tend to assume most capable people I meet are aware of their own capability. Jeni turned this on its head for me when she wrote
... look at how Ruby on Rails is marketed. A big play is made of how easy it is. But if a language or framework is easy then people with low self-efficacy can’t win: if they manage to do something with it then they haven’t really achieved very much because anyone can do it; if they don’t manage to do something with it then they’re complete idiots. I’m not saying that we should advertise languages or frameworks as being hard, because obviously that can put people off as well, but a recognition of the barriers that people might face may, in a strange way, make them more approachable.
As Jeni brings her article to a close, it's with some shock and shame that I get the punchline loud and clear: "this isn't about you."
It's about empathy, inclusivity and selflessness. Human qualities that are unrestricted to either gender.