Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Some thoughts on gender bias in the tech industry

This is a modified and expanded version of a Facebook post I made a couple days ago. I keep wanting to add more thoughts, so Medium seemed like a better medium (sorry). I’ve also added some links at the bottom to articles/posts I’ve found interesting and useful.

Here’s one fascinating piece of evidence of gender bias in the software industry. This quote is directly from an Economist article I posted earlier this week on Facebook:

The sole published comparison of competency in coding I am aware of found that women were more likely than men to have their GitHub contributions accepted — but if they were project outsiders, this was true only if their gender was concealed.

Read that and let it sink in for a minute. As a woman, until you have proven yourself and become an “insider” on a project, your code isn’t accepted into open source projects as often as contributions from men *unless* your gender isn’t known, in which case your code is accepted *more* often than contributions from men.

I just don’t know how you explain that other than gender bias. Women have to consistently “prove” themselves more than men even when they are performing better. I believe this is systemic to the industry, not just open source projects.

That need to constantly prove yourself really gets to the heart of the problem and the resulting gender gap. When you interview for a job, consciously or unconsciously your interviewers are looking for evidence that you aren’t neurotic, that you’re good at math, that you will be assertive enough but not too assertive, that you aren’t overly sensitive, and that your priorities aren’t exessively skewed toward your family.

On top of all that you’re thinking in the back of your mind that at least some of the time your interviewer is probably wondering if you can hang with the bros or if hiring you means they’ll have to stop making dick jokes at work.

Once you do get hired, you have to do it all again to get promoted. Confirmation bias means that your coworkers are inclined to notice bits of “evidence” that you have those weak “women” traits and might not have what it takes to lead. Much of the time it isn’t even intentional. But it’s relentless and it means that you have to work harder and you’ll probably wind up getting paid less.

That’s the gender problem in the tech industry. It is absolutely real and has nothing to do with gender differences. It’s going to be hard to solve, but we can probably start by not being taken in by ridiculous authoritative sounding manifestos filled with cherry picked facts in support of a premise that isn’t even accurate.

The above was an essentially intact reposting from Facebook. For context, this next bit expands on my reply to a friend who accused me of being a genius. For the record, genius definitely overstates the matter. 🙂

Hell, I’m not even qualified to really know what it’s like, but this was based on how I imagine it must feel to be on the receiving end based on my own observations working in the industry and reading the research and data on the gender gap. I was actually kind of nervous about posting this because I didn’t want to come across as some sort of expert on how women experience bias. Luckily based on the reactions to the post, I seem to have come at least reasonably close to hitting the mark. Writing it down was a good exercise in empathy and definitely helped me to further internalize the effects of persistent subtle gender bias. Which is a great segue to the topic of how we actually solve the problem.

There will need to be a whole lot of elements to a solution, but here are a couple really important ones.

First I think that those not directly affected need to empathize with and internalize the problem.

If you aren’t directly impacted by gender bias (or any other bias for that matter), particularly if you are skeptical that it is a serious problem, try to set aside any skepticism¹ for a moment and really think through how it must feel.

I can tell you that when I wrote the initial Facebook post it really drove it home when I had to first think through some of the stereotypes and biases that our society holds, then put them to words, and finally draw a line from those biases to how it must feel to be at the wrong end of them. When I did that it was hard not to internalize it.

Second, we all need to understand and acknowledge how easy it is to unintentionally be part of the problem.

Humans have a really high capacity for reasoning but in many ways we’re still slaves to the old “lizard” parts of our brain. Unless you are somehow missing an amygdala, you are hard wired for unconscious bias.² That doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless problem, but it means that you need to make a conscious effort to identify and counter your own bias when it is inappropriate.³

By making that conscious effort you’re basically moving the decision making back to the smarter part of the brain, but it’s important to understand that it will always require effort. You are overriding a natural tendency that everyone shares. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you catch yourself in biased thinking. It just means you were smart and self aware enough to catch yourself being human.

  1. Maybe I’ll write a future article for those who question the existence or severity of the problem. For this exercise just suffice to say that even if the problem didn’t exist, it won’t hurt you to practice your empathy. It is a very useful muscle that can be exercised.
  2. This is why you’ll get a bunch of eye rolling if you try to claim you are “color blind” and don’t even notice or take into account race. That statement doesn’t match up with other people’s experience, nor is it supported by research. It just means that you’re currently blind to your biases.
  3. There are certainly times when bias is appropriate. I am biased to believe that a tiger is likely to hurt me if I approach it. It’s probably best to let your amygdala do its job in the case of tigers. In fact, we all have a natural bias to be suspicious of the unfamiliar, which is why one tool to fight bias is immersing yourself in a variety of unfamiliar people and places.

Links galore!

Here’s a good discussion of just a few reasons the author of that manifesto is an idiot (This is also linked to from the Economist article): https://medium.com/@yonatanzunger/so-about-this-googlers-manifesto-1e3773ed1788

and here’s that study referenced in the quote at the top: https://phys.org/news/2017-05-gender-bias-open-source.html

For convenience here is a consolidated list of links embedded in my article:

https://www.economist.com/news/international/21726276-last-week-newspaper-said-alphabets-boss-should-write-detailed-ringing-rebuttal

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-media-psychology-effect/201604/mris-reveal-unconscious-bias-in-the-brain