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Why women leave tech... because they have good taste

Fortune Magazine published an article called Why women leave tech: It's the culture, not because 'math is hard'

TL;DR version: We treat them like shit and are surprised when they leave. So, basically women leave tech because they have self-respect.

Good for them. Shame on our industry.

A few weeks ago I suggested that there aren't many women in tech because "women have good taste". Every woman that I've said this to has agreed... or at least laughed. However it is an uncomfortable laugh. A laugh that indicates that it is something we all know, but don't know how to talk about.

Let's talk about what we can we do to change the industry's culture to not suck. The first step is identifying the (to be polite) off-putting behaviors.

Here are my top 3:

Interrupting people when speaking: I think most men don't realize how often they interrupt women and not men, or that they interrupt everyone but since men interrupt back it is ok. Let's give men the benefit of the doubt and assume that they interrupt everyone equally... why would anyone want to work in such an environment? Men put up with it, women have better taste.

Assumption of competency or lack there of: A friend recently pointed out that as a professional services engineer, she has to prove herself to each new customer. She gets questioned until she demonstrates competency. Her male coworkers are assumed competent until proven otherwise. Her male coworkers confirm they see this behavior; it is not imagined. I've always felt that it is a character flaw of mine that I'm slow to trust people's technical skills until I see evidence. Do I do this with women more than men? I'm not sure. Lately I've worked at companies with brutal interview processes so I can just assume that by being there I should assume competence. That said, having to prove oneself every day is insulting and demoralizing. Why would anyone willingly put up with that? Industries with better gender balance don't have this problem. Women have better taste.

"Help" in the form of criticism: You can't make a technical proposal without the immediate reaction being everyone listing all the reasons why it won't work. What a shitty culture we have. Taking a moment to first say what you like about a proposal is a basic courtesy IMHO. In defense of the critics, I think engineers often feel they're being helpful by by pointing out the trouble spots in a proposal so that the person can engineer around them... as if the person hasn't thought of these caveats already. (ProTip: Its always easy to say why a proposal might not work. Showing a demo avoids this and starts the conversation beyond a debate over if something is possible.) Imagine how much more enjoyable a workplace would be if people acted collaboratively and cooperatively? Women have better taste.

I could list more reasons, and more anecdotes but these are the three cultural defects that I see as the most pressing.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Women in Computing

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If I'm a woman in tech, I have bad taste and no self respect? That would get a nervous laugh, with the statement coming from a man to a woman who is regularly working in a hostile environment.

People seen as women are perceived differently than men for the same behaviours. Women who engage in the behaviours you note are called abrasive, bitchy, bossy, controlling: all gendered insults in the broader Western culture. What terms do we use to describe men who interrupt, who require people to prove competence, who dogpile criticism on ideas?

Funny you should mention those points. When I was writing this I started going into the whole "behavior done by men is 'assertive' and by women is 'bitchy' thing" but decided to keep the article short and more focused. I think women in tech that do put up with this horrible culture are heroes for doing so. Having a thick skin isn't easy. That said, I think we (men) should do our part to raise awareness of the bad behavior, socialize replacement behavior that is more positive, and take part in improving our industry.

I just attended my 50th high school reunion, and a 54th grade school reunion. I was surprised (but shouldn't have been) when three of the women in my grade school class wanted to get into careers in science, and were told by their guidance councellors that those were not suitable career choices for women. And the women believed this "expert advice". Fortunately, a couple other women ignored this cr*p, and did very well.

When I was a freshman at MIT, the ratio of men to women was about 10 to 1. Given the guidance councellor advice, that was pretty bold on the part of the women. The ratio now, I believe, is slightly in favor of women. But that took several decades. One can only hope that ability will be more important than gender in the future, both in industry and in councelling. But it might take some time.

I actually disagree with you fundamentally on the "help in the form of criticism" complaint.

When I go to my colleagues for advice, I want them to poke holes in my solution. I think fundamentally in terms of failures - what can go wrong with the systems I maintain, where are the weak points in this workflow/process, etc. When I present to my colleagues, I lead with what I think the positives are - while it may be nice for them to point out the benefits of the plan, I wouldn't be presenting the plan unless it had benefits. So I WANT them to poke holes in my work. I want to make sure that it's as rock solid as it can be, or that the possible failures are outweighed by the benefits.

Requiring them to stroke my ego isn't helpful to a stable environment.

Now, that all being said, I can see how that might grate on people, but we're in an industry whose entire purpose is ensuring uptime. I think it's an occupational hazard of being a sysadmin. I can't speak to development or other areas, but I think that it's an inherent requirement of systems administration.

Hmm. I interrupt people and I don't know if it's a learned thing because of the culture. I don't like that I do it and I know it really bothers some people. It seems like the only way to be heard sometimes. I'm also pushy/bossy/whatever and that is also probably learned.

We've been saying that the culture has to change for a long time now. Is it changing? Maybe because we're in it we can't see the change? I feel like I had to take on the "adapt or die" mantra in order to make it in tech but that was a while ago.

Are we talking in an echo chamber where the only people who hear us are the people who already get it?

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