Discussions We Don’t Need To Be Having Yet

Let’s leave imagined gender differences, evolutionary psychology, and the idea that “women just aren’t as interested” out of the discussion.

Earlier this week, Dave Winer wrote a blog post about why he thinks there are so few women programmers. He suggests that it dates back to our roots as hunter-gatherers:

Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient. I imagine it’s a lot like sitting in a blind waiting for a rabbit to show up so you can grab it and bring it home for dinner.

The Internet has been in an uproar about this and several people have written excellent responses to his post. I’ve included some links in the further reading section, which you should check out if you’re interested in the debate surrounding whether women are naturally inclined towards or against programming. I don’t have much to add to that conversation that hasn’t already been said.

What I will argue, instead, is that these discussions really aren’t necessary or constructive. Winer isn’t the only person to have ever suggested that gender gaps in male-dominated fields are natural. As an example, people have claimed over and over again that women simply aren’t as interested in video games and comics as a reason for not marketing towards them, despite evidence to the contrary. People love to claim that women and other minorities just aren’t as interested in these things because it puts the blame on us for the way things are rather than on the system that keeps us out. This isn’t news.

To be clear, I strongly disagree with the idea that biology is the reason women make up 10-20% of the computer science population. But let’s humor the idea anyway. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that women are biologically less inclined towards computer science, video games, comics, and other male-dominated areas. Let’s say that this is an actual reason as to why the gender gap exists.

Does that make harassmentsexism, and discrimination against the women who are interested in those fields acceptable? Does that mean we can ignore the way the tech industry treats women?

Even if you think that women are inherently less interested in male-dominated activities, you would have to jump some extreme mental hoops to believe that the tech industry doesn’t drive women away with its behavior. The attrition rates for women in the tech industry are atrocious. It’s an understatement to say that women are simply discouraged from entering the tech industry — the industry practically drives them away with this behavior.

We don’t know how the human brain works. But even if Winer and his sympathizers are right, the tech industry is still doing something terribly wrong. And this doesn’t even account for the way society enforces gender roles upon women and teaches them from a very young age that they aren’t supposed to do the things that men do. We can’t ignore these blatant inequalities just because of some fallacious evolutionary psychology theories.

Maybe the natural distribution is something more like 30/70 or 40/60, rather than the 50/50 that many of us are aiming for. But it’s unfair to assume that biological differences could actually account for the entire gender disparity, with no other explanation at all. There is no way that the 20/80 ratio (I’m being generous here) could be natural when you consider all these external factors.

Until we can say that women feel safe, welcome, and respected in this field, we know that there are unnatural reasons for the gender gap. Let’s not distract ourselves with the ridiculous discussion of whether women are inherently less interested or less skilled at programming. To paraphrase a popular quote, trying to answer the question of whether women are less interested in programming right now is like asking someone why they don’t like swimming when you’re not letting them touch the water. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. But we can’t find out until we do away with all these barriers.

Further Reading

Originally published on Medium.

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