Here’s the problem: in some places, there aren’t enough women around. For example, high-traction blogs, newspaper op-ed pages, and the computer business. It’s obvious and it’s been obvious for a long time, but has provoked a flurry of pretty interesting conversation this last couple of weeks. This is provoked not only by the recent traffic but by a trip to the bathroom on a recent evening at the opera.

The Reading List · There’s been an awful lot of virtual ink spilled around this, from which I draw the following link harvest (Note: I do not agree with some of these pieces): Maureen Dowd on op-ed writing, Shelley Powers on why top-100 lists and blogrolls are damaging, Kevin Drum on women bloggers, Michael Kinsley generalizes, Dahlia Lithwick on voice imbalance, Chris Nolan on the Top Ten Reasons Why, and lightweight remarks from Steven Levy that are here because they were in Newsweek and thus likely read by millions. Most of these pieces are well-populated with links to further exploration of the issue (except of course, those from the mainstream media, who don’t seem to feel the need to link).

Two Problems · This isn’t just one problem; David Weinberger shows why: “After talking with some women, I considered skipping etech this year because it’s too much of a boy’s club: Only 9% of the speakers are women, by my count. That sucks. So, I checked with O’Reilly. They say that 5% of the submitted paper topics came from women. That sucks even more because it’s harder to fix.”

So if we want more women on the op-ed pages or the famous-bloggers list or in the tech industry, we have to solve two problems: First, make it a club they want to join and second, try not to discourage the ones who’ve done so.

Like David said, the first problem is harder. We’re making progress on the second: immense progress in my lifetime on removing the de jure and institutional barriers; but any women will tell you that there are still all sorts of intangibles and cultural problems getting in the way. For example, see Chris Nolan’s piece referenced above. But I know an awful lot of men who really go out of their way not to get in the way, and I think the proportion of people like that is growing.

Women in High Tech · I don’t know anything about newspaper op-ed management and I’ve never been near Technorati’s Top-100 list, but I do know a lot about one discipline that has this problem: high technology. Let me start with an imaginary scenario, closely based on many real-life conversations:

Senior Engineer: Hey, you need to work on the performance of the detail checkin module, it’s running like dogshit.

Junior Engineer: Oh, OK, I know what to do, we’ll have to make the authtable lookup multi-threaded.

Sr.: How do you know that’s the problem? Just guessing?

Jr.: It’s obvious, there are like 20 hits a second on that table and they’re all mutexing.

Sr.: You’re just guessing. Go do some profiling and measuring and find out where the time’s really going, then we’ll figure out how to fix it.

(I’ve been in this conversation many times both as Jr. and Sr.) Okay, now I’m going to make some generalizations that I consider appallingly wrong-headed:

  • Women don’t want to get into a career where you have to invest days of your lives in making detail checkin modules run faster.

  • Women don’t want to get into a career where this kind of confrontational dialogue style is considered OK.

There’s a lot of this kind of generalization going on. And it’s all misleading and wrong and dangerous.

Statistically Wrongheaded · Notice that I didn’t actually say these generalizations are wrong. But if they’re right, they’re only statistically right. I actually think that there may be something that comes with having two X chromosomes that makes people less likely to find the computer business interesting. But that finding is only statistically true; which is to say, that even if it is true, there are going to be some number of women who like geeking out, and if you make it hard for them to get into the business because of their gender you’re being stupid and immoral. So don’t do that.

And one real good way to avoid doing that is to never use sentences that start “Women want...” or “Men want...” or “Arabs want...” or “Italians want...”. If you scan the pages I linked to above, you’ll notice that mostly, they avoid this pitfall (although Maureen Dowd does level some broadsides at men-in-general).

Changing the Rules · So if you’re in a discipline that is excluding women (or any other group you’re not happy excluding), you not only have to welcome them individually, you might have to change some basic cultural patterns.

What’s worse, it might not work. I personally suspect that engineering will remain male-dominated and early childhood education female-dominated no matter how hard we try to be inclusive. And that’s probably OK. What’s not OK is if the engineers are trying to keep out the women who do want in, or the elementary teachers are trying to keep out the men.

Of course, there are some bigger rules that it would be good to change. Like whatever rule it is that says that women have do most of the housework and childcare, and whatever rule it is that says the cigar bar at the golf course is a good place to do business deals.

The Blogosphere · As I said, I won’t be surprised if certain practices and professions remain gender-imbalanced way into the future. But blogging shouldn’t be one of them. I don’t know of any prejudice (statistically backed or not) that alleges women are less skilled at communicating or connecting; which is what this is all about. And if anyone thinks they might want to turn this into a business, well they’re going to want to have female readers, which means that they’d better offer offer female writers.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I think the griping about the big-name-blogger imbalance is justified and there is a problem here. Shelley Powers hasn’t quite convinced me that dropping blogrolls and top-100 lists would help that much, but it’s an interesting direction and worth thinking some more about. I’m pretty sure, though, that a little bit of affirmative action in choosing who to link to is likely to be helpful, moral, and smart.

The Bathrooms at the Opera · The other night we went to see Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. On stage and in the audience, I didn’t see any gender imbalance. But during the intermission, the lineups for the women’s bathroom were ridiculous. Given that this is a three-hour opera that started right after dinnertime, the upshot is that quite a few women didn’t get a chance for witty repartee about the failings of the horn section or libretto’s misogynist drivel.

So, in some places, gender isn’t a big deal, pro or con. In other places, it’s a big problem. Which it’s worth fighting to fix, even if maybe you’re not going to win.

Postscript: Where I Stand · I ain’t in this for Justice or Fair Play or any of that stuff, but rather because I find it viscerally irritating to spend so much time in physical and virtual rooms full of middle-aged white guys. I don’t know why it’s so irritating and I don’t care that much; it’s broken and it needs fixing. Here at ongoing, I’ve chided the OpenOffice group, the the Atom Working Group, and Sun as a whole for contributing to this irritation.

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March 20, 2005
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