“Add Women and Stir” Won’t Keep Women In Tech

by cv harquail on May 16, 2012

How do we get and keep more women in technology-related careers?
How do we increase the number of women creators, makers, designers, and coders?

Why not just add more women to the mix, and go from there? 

Faucet by darylgarzaWhen all we do is “add women and stir”, without simultaneously and deliberately changing that system, we aren’t going to succeed. This tactic leaves untouched the cultural and structural parts of the system that continue to sustain gender bias.

“Add Women and Stir”

The “add women and stir” tactic works on the logic that simply adding more women to a particular event, school, company, or profession, will ultimately lead to a higher number of women staying on that career path.

We see this tactic at almost every point of the career “pipeline“. Well-meaning people aim to increase the output of the pipeline by increasing the input to the pipeline.

But the data show, over and over, that “add women and stir” doesn’t change the output of the system.

“Add Women and Stir” at Etsy-Hacker School 

The “add women and stir” tactic is the main element of a joint initiative by Hacker School and Etsy to increase the presence of women in the New York tech community.

Hacker School runs a series of three-month “coders retreats” to accelerate participants’ coding skills.  Hacker School’s summer 2012 session, sponsored and housed at Etsy, aims to create a gender-balanced class of 50% men, 50% women.

The initiative has gotten a lot of positive press, since people inside and outside the tech community are excited to see a concrete commitment to addressing gender bias in the world of software making. This initiative should be praised, since the Hacker School- Etsy goal of a coder class evenly split between male and female coders is a win.

But while the Etsy – Hacker School initiative adds more women to a key professional development process, it doesn’t address the systemic issues that ultimately squeeze women out of tech.

However, with a few significant design tweets and a fuller, more articulated commitment to changing gender bias in the system, the Etsy-Hacker School initiative could dramatically expand its impact.

Here’s how:

Why “Add Women and Stir” is Limited

At face value, there is nothing wrong with  efforts to increase the number of women. We’re simply not going to get an equal number of women and men into any particular career, or even keep the same proportion of women at the end as at the beginning, unless we get more women into professional development opportunities like Hacker School.

But increasing the representation of women in software engineering, or anywhere else, doesn’t really depend on changing the number of women hired, trained, and developed. Getting women to be normal, commonplace, and influential in these careers depends on changing the implicit and explicit gender bias in the events, communities, institutions and professions themselves.

It’s not the number of inputs we need to change. It’s the system.

“But if we get more women into the system, won’t the women change it?”

With the add women and stir tactic, some presume that once women get in the door, these women will be able to fight gender bias and change the system themselves.

To some degree, that’s true. There are always women (like the ones I studied my dissertation) who will take on the extra work — and the extra career risk — of advocating to end gender bias and connected discrimination. These women, and men with a similar commitment, will work to change the system from within.*

“But if we get more women into the system, won’t the system change?”

The “add women and stir” tactic has a corollary expectation, that once people see a larger number of women performing effectively in that professional space, these people (i.e., sexist men and women) will simply lose their biases. When individuals’ sexist biases fall away, the system will work the way it’s supposed to, through merit.

Unfortunately, individual enlightenment doesn’t automatically transform the system.

And, ‘change from within’ and ‘change from below’ are not enough. We need changes in the system, designed and led by people in charge of the system.

Leaders and Program Designers Can Change the Bias in the System

Leaders, and the people who design the classes, the programs, the businesses, and the professional structures that should be without gender bias are the folks with the greatest leverage to make system change.

It’s a leader’s role and a program designer’s role to eliminate gender bias in the behaviors, processes, and systems under their control that reinforce gender bias. Any initiative to increase the number of women in technology needs leaders and designers who will re-code the system.

How can Etsy & Hacker School Design Their Program to Reduce Gender Bias?

Hacker School and Etsy have already made some program design decisions to address bias. For example,

  • Having 50% women and 50% men means that there will be enough women in the class that no one woman will be tokenized as the representative woman. The posse approach for adding minority group members goes beyond the Rule of 3 to ensure that there is a variety of types of “women coders” who can each be more of her individual self.
  • Offering a $5,000 housing scholarships to women in the program (the program itself is free to participants) addresses the financial challenge that might keep women from participating. While there’s no reason stated that women (and not men) might need scholarships, scholarships might address the effects of a gender-based wage gap.

1. A “Pro-Women Coder” Attitude is a Great Start

Given the “pro-women coders” attitudes expressed by the men sponsoring this summer’s program, I’d bet they have it in them to make a few more steps to fight gender bias.

The program leaders have already anticipated the first few rounds of criticicm that people might make of their gender-balancing initiative. For example, Nick Bergson-Shilcock of Hacker School writes:

We’re not going to lower the bar for female applicants. It frustrates us a little that we feel the need to say that, and we think it underlines the sexism (intentional and not) that so pervades the programming world. But we want to say that now, so people don’t have to waste time asking or debating the point. Women will be judged on the exact same scale as men. We think to do otherwise would be insulting and counterproductive.

Hacker School already has explicit norms to “help remove the ego and fear of embarrassment that so frequently get in the way of education.” This is a great foundation for considering a few additional positive norms, ones that will grow from recognizing other gender-specific negative dynamics in this particular group and in this specific context and then working to recode them.

It’s likely that both organizations are addressing gender bias in other ways that might not be public.  Leaders with the kind of sensitivity reflected in Nick’s statement (above) and by Marc Hedlund at Etsy (below) usually look for an array of opportunities to make a difference and don’t necessarily toot their horns about it.

Given that Hacker School and Etsy have taken this important step of increasing the number of women in their program, what else might they do?

2. With participants, Etsy and Hacker School could:

  • Ask male and female participants whether they are on board with the anti-gender bias agenda
  • Ask participants whether they are willing to contribute to changing gender bias, perhaps by opening themselves up to personal change

3. With their own organizations, Etsy and Hacker School could:

  • Ask whether they are open to questioning their own practices, norms and outcomes
  • Ask whether they are open to adapting their own culture, to design norms, processes (like meetings) and work structures (like project assignments) that confront, reduce or circumvent gender bias
4. With the overall business context, Etsy could:
  • Boost awareness of and commitment to Etsy’s own diversity & inclusion initiatives
  • Involve the Etsy employee community in a conversation about reducing gender bias in their own workplace and processes

Organizational structures, professional networks, and work practices were designed when women coders had only a marginal presence and an even more marginal influence. Current practices that appear to be gender-neutral  (like valuing coding over customer service, or celebrating ‘heroic work’ of fire-fighting while making relationship work invisible) can put women at a disadvantage–even when there is no intent to discriminate against them.

Since Etsy is providing not only the physical space for Hacker School but also the social context for this summer’s Hacker School,   anything that Etsy does to emphasize gender-equity at Etsy and in the Etsy HQ could also have a positive influence on the culture of the Hacker School.

With the program content, Etsy and Hacker School could:

  • Add some explicit learning –analysis, reflection, and skill building – to address negative gender dynamics in the coding community
  • Address how gender-bias hurts not only female coders, but also male coders and the coding profession

Perhaps the most important program-design questions are:

  • What activities will they design into the three month program to create different and better gender dynamics, to create supportive, nonsexist professional relationships among the men and women, and to build a more inclusive culture?
  • Will any of these participants leave having become not only better coders but also better advocates for equality?

If Hacker School delivers the very same program for a group that’s 50% women as they have done in the past for groups that were 95% men, we can expect that the very design of the program will have some (unintentional) gendered issues.

You can’t deliver to women a program designed for men and hope that both men and women will benefit equally. That’s like designing a menu for pescatarians and just assuming that everyone will find it satisfying.

5. Geek Feminists and Women In Technology Allies are Ready To Help

Well....WELL by MadeOnMercury I hope that Hacker School and Etsy will reach out to the women in tech/ geek feminist community  – if they haven’t already – so that they can draw in more resources and more program ideas designed specific to address gender bias in the software-making community.

For example,

—  Organizations like the Ada Initiative make themselves available to do workshops about addressing sexism in the codersphere. And,

— The Geek Feminism wiki has entries on how to help allies (e.g., men) learn to fight gender-bias.

Of course, we understand that neither Hacker School nor Etsy sees itself as an organization primarily dedicated to gender equality in software engineering. The mission of Hacker School is to build a stronger community of open source coders by helping coders grow their skills. And, Etsy’s focus with this initiative is to boost the skills of the New York coding community, and maybe get its hands on some of up-and-coming coding talent.

Still, they both see a way that their own organizations can make a difference. As Marc Hedlund of Etsy explains:

Last September, three out of 96 employees in Engineering and Operations at Etsy were women, and none of them were managers. Talking this over with others here, we thought that Etsy — which supports the businesses of hundreds of thousands of female entrepreneurs through our marketplace, which sells a majority of all items to women, and which already has many talented and amazing women working for the company — should be one of the single easiest Internet companies at which to correct this problem.

Beyond Adding Women, Leaders Must Change the Biased System

Adding more women to the pipeline, especially by including women in professional development processes, will move women in the coding world forward by a few steps. But, this tactic alone will not change the organizational or professional realities these women (and anti-bias men) face. Focusing on inputs to increase outputs just isn’t enough.

  • We can only improve women’s career opportunities by improving women’s and men’s career development systems.
  • We can only reduce gender bias by changing gender-biased systems in our professions and organizations.
  • We can only get more women into tech, and keep talented women and men in tech, by changing the systems that create the tech community.

The Etsy Hacker School initiative to add more women is a positive contribution to change and a sign of commitment from both organizations. It would be even better to see them take the suggestions above, as well as the recommendations of the Women in Tech & Geek Feminist community, to make a bigger and longer lasting contribution by changing systems too.

Faucet by Joe Shlabotnik


See also:

An Interview With Etsy and Hacker School About the Etsy Hacker School Grants, at GeekMom

Why Do Meritocracies Hurt Women?
Why Women DON’T Rule the Internet
Want More Women on Tech & TED Panels? Reject Meritocracy and Embrace Curation

*Note: With both of these assumptions, the burden of making change happen falls on the women participants themselves. I shouldn’t need to mention that it’s wrong to make the subordinated group shoulder the bulk of the change advocacy.

Image: Faucet from StuartD42 , Faucet from Joe Shlabotnik, Faucet from Benurs – Learning and learning… Well….WELL
from MadeOnMercury

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