Here’s an assertion: “Women aren’t interested in coding jobs.” It’s both obviously true (look at the numbers) and horribly misleading, because lots of women are interested and get great jobs in my profession. This piece isn’t about women and software, it’s about how to patch English so we can talk clearly about this sort of stuff.
The essential truth here is statistical: By any measure, the number of women who choose to engage with computing is dramatically lower than the number of men. The essential danger is the temptation to reason from statistics to individuals; “Men are better coders, so I’m going to pick Joe rather than Karen to interview for the job.”
The Pattern-Matching Problem · Our minds contain a pattern-matching engine that is immensely strong at inferring the particular from the general; which was probably an evolutionary advantage when we were hunter-gatherers worrying about weather patterns and predator behavior and routes across rough country. It is very nearly impossible for humans to avoid doing this.
And in fact, the Bad Thing that people do is probably not the individual choice of Joe’s resume over Karen’s; it’s a flow of unconscious small choices and speech patterns that accrete, effectively, into prejudice, working perniciously among women as well as men.
Using Language · Fortunately, the human mind’s language subsystem is also very powerful, comparable in strength to the statistics engine. In fact, Linguistic Relativity (AKA the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”) argues persuasively that what we think is powerfully affected by what our language lets us say.
Bearing that in mind, here’s what I want to say:
“We observe that, given the conditions that currently apply, the proportion of women who end up in the software profession is lower than that of men, to a degree that is statistically significant; nearly certain not to be a measurement error or short-term variation.
“This observation is strongly dependent on the context of the profession as it is currently taught and practiced, and does not imply that we understand the cause of the observed effect.
“Of course, there are many women who are both interested in and talented at the practice of software. Conversely, there are many men who would rather scrub toilets than code, and many others who’d probably like to code but can’t.
“It is obviously counterproductive to let this statistical finding affect decisions or actions concerning any individual of either sex.”
Except for, that sucks. It captures a really important truth, but it’s four pedantic paragraphs that nobody would want to inject into day-to-day conversation.
What’s Missing? · Thus we observe something important that needs to be said, frequently I’d argue, that our language doesn’t make easy. What we have, I think, is a missing adverb. Let’s call it “x” or rather, to make it feel like an adverb, “xly”. What it means is, all that boring but important stuff in the four indented paragraphs above. Now that we have “xly” we can say:
Women xly aren’t interested in computing jobs.
In Malaysia, women xly are interested in computing jobs.
White men can’t xly jump.
Europeans xly buy smaller cars.
Chinese are xly family-focused.
NFL quarterbacks xly have to be tall.
Asian cooks don’t xly understand dessert.
American southerners are xly conservative.
In a civilized conversation I’d probably object to every one of those sentences without the clarifying adverb. But as they stand, they say things that are interesting and worth talking about.
Maybe some are actually wrong; but (this is important) you have to falsify an xly-qualified assertion with data, not anecdotes about people you know.
Call Me a Dreamer · In my dream, we agree on a new adverb, pound a certain amount of statistical literacy into children’s heads before they get out of high school, and get really militant about the use of non-xly-qualified assertions.
My real problem is that I loathe, totally loathe, sentences that begin “Women don’t...” or “Men enjoy...” or “Indians always...” even though sometimes they’re communicating facts that are important and, xly-speaking, true.
Xly? · I dunno, I thought about “statistically” but 5 syllables blecch; I suppose you could truncate it to “statly” and that’s not terrible, but I was using “x” as a placeholder and started liking “xly”. Whatever.