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Why I’m a Feminist

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Some people may find this an odd topic for the first post for what is ostensibly a technology blog, but they’re probably wrong. How women are perceived and treated in the technology industry is vital to its long-term health.

I’ll be honest, for much of my life I was turned off by the label feminist. I found it too easy to buy into the opposition marketing that being pro-women was somehow anti-men. The technical term for this idea is bunk, but that doesn’t stop it from being a widely held belief. What eventually led to my acceptance of that term as positive in its own right and in particular a label that applied to me was remembering that life, in most cases, is not a zero sum game. Helping women become valued members of a community does not somehow diminish my ability to be a part of that community. if anything, it enhances it.

There was recently a fire-storm on Twitter over some comments made by Paul Graham that were at least partially taken out of context. The controversy surrounding the quotes and the swift reaction to them on Twitter is interesting in itself, but I’m more interested in some of theother comments that Mr. Graham made during his conversation with the reporter.

First of all, I’d like to look at these as exemplars of opinions that I think are too widely held, and not necessarily as strongly held convictions of Mr. Graham. I take him at his word when he says that he did not believe these comments would be used for an interview-style post and that if he had, he would have spent more time ensuring that they fully reflect his beliefs.

Here is one of Mr. Graham’s quotes (emphasis added by me):

For one thing the number of women is increasing. I think there were a dozen startups with female founders in this batch. It might have been as much as a quarter. I don’t know the exact number. Someone could go and count.

That’s something I’ll probably be asking Jessica [Livingston] more eventually, but yeah.

She’ll have to go count too. There’s a couple of reasons why there are not as many female founders. There’s two questions, “Do we have some problem specifically? This you could identify by looking at the pool of YC startups versus some other comparable pool. I noticed that Andreessen Horowitz, for example, has a page on their site with their seed portfolio which are presumably all companies of similar stages, or at least the time they invested.

I happened to notice because about a quarter of them were from YC, that means three quarters of them are not, it would be interesting to go and see. If you want a pool of startups at similar stages and qualities, it would be interesting to look at that other 75 percent. If you want to know some demographic questions about founders, see what the founders are like at those other startups.

While it’s commendable that the number of YC-funded startups with female founders is increasing, I’d like to call attention to the last statement. This demonstrates a common flaw when organizations want to see how well they’re doing at attracting women. The problem with the proposed analysis is that it assumes that the best benchmark is how well other VC firms are funding women founded startups. This is flawed because you’re still limiting your analysis to the existing pool of founders/startups. The more interesting question is are there ways we could be encouraging more women to start companies who might otherwise have self-selected out of being a founder.

This is important because it demonstrates a flaw in much of the logical thinking about sexism. It seems logical to assume that if you’re not actively trying to prevent women from starting companies then sexism isn’t a factor. The problem is that many of the effects of sexism are not caused by conscious action. I’d like to think that the relatively lower percentages of women in STEM fields are not caused by people actively discouraging women to enter those fields. However, sexism is still prevalent in the form of unconscious biases. In particular, stereotypes are self-reinforcing.

If you are put into a position where you are made to identify with a group that is stereotypically less able to perform a certain task, then your performance on that task actually decreases. The converse is also true, that you can improve someone’s performance on a task by getting them to identify with a group that is stereotypically better at that task. None of this is the result of someone consciously saying, “well, I guess I’ll perform worse on this math test because I’m a women”, but that is the effective result.

One of the reasons I’m a feminist is that I believe it is not enough to simply accept the status quo. In order to make the world a more equal place to live, we have to actively fight against not just conscious acts but unconscious biases. Once you start to recognize that these biases exist, it gives you the opportunity to look for creative solutions to the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields.

Here is another quote from Mr. Graham (emphasis added by me):

You can tell what the pool of potential startup founders looks like. There’s a bunch of ways you can do it. You can go on Google and search for audience photos of PyCon, for example, which is this big Python conference.

That’s a self selected group of people. Anybody who wants to apply can go to that thing. They’re not discriminating for or against anyone. If you want to see what a cross section of programmers looks like, just go look at that or any other conference, doesn’t have to be PyCon specifically.

Or you could look at commits in open source projects. Once again self selected, these people don’t even meet in person. It’s all by email, no one can be intimidated by or feel like an outcast for something like that.

This quote has two examples of insidious thoughts that seem logical, but are built on flawed premises. The first is the assumption that simply not actively discouraging participation by women is enough for all of the potentially interested women to join in on an event. This is massively flawed for two reasons:

  1. Just because the organizers are not actively trying to discourage women, it’s very easy for their event to be less than welcoming. For example, most conferences have a number of social events where alcohol flows freely. Is it really surprising to think that women would be intimidated by such events, especially when they are clearly in the minority of participants?
  2. Potentially more insidious is the notion that just putting something out there makes it equally accessible to all groups. Sarah Milstein has a great post on this, specifically about attracting speakers from underrepresented groups to a conference, but the same ideas apply for attendees as well.

The second thing brought up by the quote is the notion that you can’t feel intimidated or outcast by e-mail or other electronic means of communication. This is just patently ridiculous and demonstrates an inability to empathize with other people. It’s well-documented how nasty comments can get on some online forums. In particular, threats of rape and death are far too prevalent to think that they could just be shrugged off.

Rather than focus only on the aggregate of documented cases, I thought I’d share some of my own experiences. Prior to joining Cloudera I had worked a lot with Apache Hadoop and other open source software, but I had not contributed directly to any projects. This was mostly driven by the difficulty in getting permission to share my work from my previous employer. Unsurprisingly, I was very excited to contribute once I got to Cloudera. I quickly learned that not all open source communities are equally inviting to new participants. While I found my patches eagerly accepted by the Apache HBase community, similar efforts to contribute to Hadoop itself were met with what I would describe as curt responses. It was easy to interpret the reactions as if I was bothering community members by my attempts to join in. Now, not everyone in the community reacted that way and I was able to overcome my feelings to still contribute, however, it was not at all what I would call an inviting experience.

If I had not been working for Cloudera, a recognized leader in the Hadoop space, I may not have felt bold enough to go through the process. It’s never easy to put oneself in a vulnerable position, but that’s exactly what you need to do to work in the open source world. You have to put your code out there and not just accept, but also invite criticism. It takes a lot of effort to not view the criticism as being levied against you, but as an attempt by the community to ensure a consistently high quality product. Some communities get this so right by not just working with new participants, but by going out of their way to be thrilled that you’re trying to participate at all. Taking that extra step goes a long way towards attracting more participation. The point is: being welcoming is a lot more than just not actively trying to discourage participation.

Ultimately, my reasons for being a feminist are pretty selfish. I find technology benefits from a wide-variety of views and opinions. The more people we bring into the STEM fields, the wider the variety and the more work I’m able to learn from and build upon. The reason why being a feminist requires direct action on my part is that even in the absence of explicit discouragement, the under-representation of women in STEM fields is not something that can just fix itself due to the unconscious biases that permeate our society.

I’m proud to call myself a feminist and you should be too.

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Bob Gourley writes on enterprise IT. He is a founder and partner at Cognitio Corp and publsher of CTOvision.com

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