Stop treating women like they’re special!

I recently got back to Providence from DjangoCon 2011 in Portland, OR, and really enjoyed myself. I got to meet tons of interesting people and learn tons of interesting things. I had never been to a convention/conference before, and I can’t wait to go to my next one. However, going to DjangoCon also solidified some of the thoughts I’ve been having about the treatment of women in the tech industry. An unorganised collection of thoughts follows.

I read mostly Python/Django blogs, and I’ve been reading about the general push for more women in Python for a while now. I certainly have no problem with the idea of having a more gender-balanced distribution of developers, but I’ve always been somewhat dubious about the idea that partitioning a community will promote universal respect.

Saying that women need to be with other women to learn, you should teach your women friends to code, women need a welcoming and encouraging environment so that they’re not put off by code – sentiments like that are, frankly, insulting. To me, they imply that women are too weak to deal with the things that men can, and that they need to be coddled in order to be interested by the same things as men.

If women and men are to be equally represented, and the goal is to find women in technology wholly unremarkable, how does specifically promoting women programmers enforce that ideal? Having technology groups, classes, parties that are exclusively (or even primarily) for women reinforces the perception that women programmers are special.

I also take issue for the reasoning behind the call for all women to get involved or get their peers involved.[1] This presumes that people, and particularly women, define themselves by their gender. I happen to be female, but I am a programmer first. I do not really pay attention to the gender of my friends or fellow programmers, and nor do I want to.

During the first day’s lunch at DjangoCon, Steve Holden was handing out free O’Reilly e-books. Two of them went to people who had answered trivia questions correctly (thus “earning” them), two went to Django core developers (which isn’t something attained lightly), and one went to a PyLady… for being a woman.[2] Additionally, while watching real-time feedback on Twitter and IRC, I noticed that female speakers tended to get much more praise and much less criticism for their talks than their male counterparts.[3]

How does this promote equal standards for women and men? A woman can get a prize for simply having the right body parts, but men have to work for it. It seems to me that women are expected to achieve less, and praised more often for what they do achieve. This sets a different, easier standard for women. It seems almost like people think that holding women to the same standard as men will scare them off, which is contrary to the whole intention of equality.

I do believe that societal expectations of women influence their decisions and interests, but patronising them by sending the message that they need a special group/classes/standards to get into technology certainly doesn’t subvert those expectations. Perhaps they’d stop being so remarkable if they were treated as less remarkable?

N.B. I was reluctant to write this post because I get the sense that this subject is “holy” in the Python community and contrary opinions will not be tolerated [4], but I hope that an alternative perspective will be useful. Also, I don’t have any problem with PyLadies or any other group or individual – people are entitled to associate with whomever they like. My issue is with the community having an attitude that I believe to be ironically harmful to women.


[1] Not that much of an issue, since I can ignore people’s advocacy and they should be free to advocate whatever they want, but the sentiment seemed related to this post.

[2] I don’t blame Steve Holden, he just seemed to be reflecting the attitude of the community in general.

[3] This is an admittedly unscientific observation.

[4] When I made an offhand (humorous) comment in the DjangoCon IRC channel about being glad about the lack of women in the conference so I wouldn’t have to deal with a smelly restroom, people did not react well.

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9 comments

  1. “one went to a PyLady… for being a woman”

    You misunderstood Steve’s words. One went to “PyDanny” not “a PyLady”, and for answering the trivia quiz question “When was the Django web framework released as open source?”

    I agree that women should not be treated like we’re special. The open-source community is about merit of actual contribution, not about gender. But it’s important to realize the need to recruit more women, and to help integrate more women into the general community (and push more women to work hard for it, entirely on merit).

    Feel free to ping me in IRC #pyladies or by email if you want to chat about it – I wish you had brought it up while we were debating tabs/spaces 🙂

    • Hi Audrey,

      My recollection of the lunch is as follows: Steve had two questions, one about how old Python was and the other about how old Django was (which Danny answered.) Then he had two more prizes to give out, and he asked all the PyLadies in the room to raise their hands and gave the one nearest him a prize. The other one went to the newest Django core developer, and then someone pointed out that there was another new core dev in the room, and he got an additional prize.

      I do recognise that it would be nice to have more women in the community, but I don’t want that to be achieved by setting lower standards for women. I would rather there be fewer women than women be patronised.

      It took me some time to process my thoughts on the topic, which is why I didn’t bring it up when I met you. Also, I’ve been kind of scared to voice dissent, I don’t want people to think that I don’t support women in the community.

      Feel free to e-mail me to talk about this, as well.

    • Definitely, and if that’s the case, I have absolutely no problem with it.

      However, in the (hopefully slight) chance that people feel like they shouldn’t be critiquing women’s talks because that might scare them off, or that women need more praise, I’d like them to know that that’s more insulting to women than a critique would be.

  2. Totally agree with you in theory, but there is a big gap in the the percentage for women in the tech field. So how do you bring in more women without treating them special in some manner?

    In my experience Pink Django ponies help 🙂 My daughter actually asked me about what I was doing when she saw the Django pony on one site.

  3. I think your post indicates/embodies some misunderstanding about what outreach programs targeted at women are about. Let me explain by going through some point in your post…

    “Saying that women need to be with other women to learn, you should teach your women friends to code, women need a welcoming and encouraging environment so that they’re not put off by code – sentiments like that are, frankly, insulting.”
    As far as I was aware, in tech-land it is not code that put women off. If you are wondering, “well, what does?” please read “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” or something of the sort.

    “To me, they imply that women are too weak to deal with the things that men can, and that they need to be coddled in order to be interested by the same things as men.”
    Again, code is not the thing that’s making is difficult for women. And the things that are, men (for the most part) don’t actually have to deal with. So what you’re talking about here – and throughout the rest of your post – is the *perception* of outreach programs as coddling, not their actual reality.

    “Having technology groups, classes, parties that are exclusively (or even primarily) for women reinforces the perception that women programmers are special.”
    …or that the groups/classes/parties that exist are hostile spaces that actively alienate talented developers. The fact that what you’ve pointed out here is perception for many people is itself a problem, because it indicates a lack of understanding of what difficulties women in computing actually face. So maybe trying to educate people to get over that perception is the way to fix this particular issue, not abandoning the efforts to get more women into programming.

    “I do believe that societal expectations of women influence their decisions and interests, but patronising them by sending the message that they need a special group/classes/standards to get into technology certainly doesn’t subvert those expectations.”
    I said it before, and I’ll say it again: those special classes/groups (I disagree on standards belonging in this list) are there for a reason. The perception of them as patronizing, as indicative of lower standards for women, etc, indicates a lack of understanding of what that reason is. The way to deal with that is not to get rid of the classes, but to educate people about the reason they exist.

    “I happen to be female, but I am a programmer first. I do not really pay attention to the gender of my friends or fellow programmers, and nor do I want to.”
    Good for you for being in an environment where you are able to do that, but maybe you should acknowledge the experiences of people who are not. If events/groups/whatever are not your cup of tea, then don’t participate. It seems like you’re against them mostly because of the perception that their mere existence means that women aren’t as good as men in computing. See my above two comments about the whole perception thing.

    “If women and men are to be equally represented, and the goal is to find women in technology wholly unremarkable, how does specifically promoting women programmers enforce that ideal?”
    Well, you seem to be arguing that the way to address a structural inequality is to ignore it, which I would argue doesn’t enforce that ideal any better, and also…:

    “Perhaps they’d stop being so remarkable if they were treated as less remarkable?”
    The answer to that question lies in articles/reports on various outreach efforts in the recent past. Summary: women aren’t bad at code, but – as a group – they face hurdles that men do not in pursuing computing careers, and providing support and skills to deal with that is actually pretty effective in getting more talented programmers, who happen to be women, into various computing communities.

    I realize that it must have been difficult to verbalize this dissenting opinion, and I hope that we can have a discussion around it!

    • Hi Katie,

      I should prefix this by saying I haven’t done extensive reading on the subject, this is mostly based off of my experiences at DjangoCon and a few blog posts.

      I guess my fundamental assumption is that people (women or not) program because they enjoy programming and that they don’t need external reinforcement. If code isn’t what puts women off, I don’t see what else would be a valid reason to put them off. I’m also assuming that if they’re good enough programmers, that they will be appreciated (via grades, jobs, etc.)

      If I accept that people do need external reinforcement to keep doing something they’re curious about or interested in, then I would agree with everything you’ve said. However, I think that’s a slippery slope – how much external reinforcement is adequate, so on and so forth.

      I understand that I don’t feel like most other women in tech, and that I should take into account the experiences of other women, but I’m not sure what experiences would alienate a talented developer who’s self-motivated. I’m all for educating people to get over their perception of women and discussing the issues that women face, I just think it should be done without exclusion.

      Please ask me any clarifying questions, I wrote this in a bit of a hurry.

      .

      • Actually, I feel like I’ve heard your perspective from a lot from other women in tech (my largely academic side of it, anyway) that I’ve spoken to on the subject.

        I agree with your comments about people coding for the sake of coding, and that it ought to need no additional reinforcement (well, I agree to a certain extent, but that is a different conversation entirely). That is, however, beside the point. And even though you’re “not sure what experiences would alienate a talented developed who’s self-motivated,” I’m not going to give you cliffnotes on a huge pile of literature. If you are really interested in the topic, I suggest going beyond a few blog posts (see prior post for one reading suggestion that’s not too heavy to get through); then I would be happy to discuss these issues in greater depth.

        I do have a question. How is “educating people to get over their perception of women and discussing the issues that women face” exclusionary? I know you said that classes limited to / primarily for women are divisive of the community. Although I don’t agree with that either, it doesn’t seem obviously relevant to this new mention of exclusiveness. The point of the classes is not to educate; the point of education is to explain why the classes are necessary/good/etc.


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