Is the IT field more nasty than others?

May 8, 2013 at 1:39 am 17 comments

The main point of the piece quoted below is important and is something I struggle with.  By doing something different for women in IT than men in IT, are we ghettoizing women?  Are we making them feel awkward by trying to make them feel welcome?  I tend to think of what we do at Georgia Tech is being like curb cuts that try to make things better for everyone, but I see the concern.

The particular point that I’m quoting raises an empirical question for me.  Is the IT field more nasty than others?  The author states that getting hyper-critical comments is common “in any career in the adult workforce.”  I’m not sure that’s true.  Jeannette  Wing has written about how CS reviews at NSF are much more negative than other disciplines.  In my own experience, I’ve seen a marked difference.  I’ve mostly worked in the commercial IT industry, and in academic computing.  But I also earned part of my doctorate in a School of Education, and I’ve spent a good bit of time in schools.  Education is not nearly as nasty and mean as IT.  I would be interested in seeing some empirical studies.  I suspect that there is far more nasty (e.g., swearing and name-calling) criticism in IT than in other fields.  That nastiness does create a barrier for lots of people, but especially for people who notice that they’re in the under-represented group.

But tech is a highly competitive field with a high concentration of very smart, frequently socially awkward people. Some of them are going to shit on you because they think you’re not as smart as them. I promise you that they will shit on you for that regardless of your gender. Sometimes they may use your gender as ammunition because it’s the easy target, but make no mistake – they would still have made you feel badly if you were a guy, they just would have picked something else to fling at you that would cut as deeply.

Sometimes they’re not even socially awkward – they’re just assholes.

If you want to get into tech — or any career in the adult workforce, really — you have to be prepared for people like that sometimes. Tech isn’t some magical haven with a big bouncer at the door that doesn’t let any assholes in. We have them, and so does every other industry on the planet. You probably have friends or family who are assholes. They’re everywhere. Sometimes when a male higher-up than you steals your idea and presents it as their own, it’s because they’re self-serving douchebags, not because you’re female. They’d have done the same to a male co-worker, too.

via Thoughts on GitHub Giving Free Private Repos to Women | Snipe.Net.

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17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rdm  |  May 8, 2013 at 8:04 am

    I do not think that the question “By doing something different for women in IT than men in IT, are we ghettoizing women?” is a well formed question.

    As you point out, even if we do not do this we are ghettoizing women. So, logically speaking, we are ghettoizing women regardless of “doing something different for women in IT” or not.

    Then again, we already are “doing something different”. We are rejecting women.

    It is reasonable to ask if a specific course of action is sufficient to correct other flaws. It is reasonable to ask if a specific course of action adds to the existing problem. But asking a question which implicitly states that the problem does not exist seems to fall in the latter category and not the former.

    Reply
  • 2. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 8, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Efforts to improve access to IT pathways are not only to benefit women, but other underrepresented groups. Also quite significantly, improving pathways to STEM learning tracts will help improve the knowledge-base for everyone an responsiveness to industry (customer) needs(Margolis, 2013; Margolis & Fisher, 2003; Tornatzky et al., 2002).
    Also, the abrasive environment in CS has been getting increasingly worse since the 80’s. When more competent students are left alienated by less competent students (Margolis & Fisher, 2003b; Teague, 2009) and negative classroom environments impede more than facilitates learning (Barker & Garvin-Doxas, 2004), learning, the discipline, and society all suffer. Working to counteract such negativity bolsters learning and supports training in a base of behaviors and processes that will improve career pathways and work environments for all involved.

    Reply
  • 3. alanone1  |  May 8, 2013 at 9:25 am

    It doesn’t matter whether CS is “nastier” than other disciplines — the real principle is that “nastiness” shouldn’t be tolerated in any field.

    I don’t know how to correlate the tenor of comments in SlashDot and Reddit with the field as a whole, but I must say I literally feel a bit ill when reading many of the comments.

    The ill feeling comes much more from the unsupported nature of the comments than the name calling. To me that indicates a deeper mental problem than simple bullying.

    Reply
    • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  May 8, 2013 at 10:20 pm

      First, I wouldn’t equate CS and IT. Most of CS has applicability to IT, but most of IT doesn’t have much to do with CS.

      How do you define nastiness? I’d suggest the following categories:
      1. Off topic attacks, for example ad hominem attacks or appeals to organizational authority or political power
      2. Unsupported but on topic criticism backed by bluster and/or mixed with #1
      3. Supported criticism accompanied by sarcasm, an apparent joy in tearing down another’s ideas, or elements of #1 and/or #2
      4. Questioning for further detail beyond the clear maturity of the idea being presented and in such volume, and potentially mixed with sarcasm or other negative tone, that the effect is to discredit the idea in the eyes of others and/or overwhelm the person who delivered it; this is often a passive aggressive version of #3

      The difficulty is as you move down the list there is often more useful content mixed in with the nastiness. Appeals to authority may be an attempt to break analysis paralysis and choose a path even though there is no clear winner among the options. An unsupported criticism may well be supportable by the person delivering, but they simple choose to not provide the support. Joy in delivery of criticism may be more related to the pleasure of understanding than desire to demean the idea. Excessive questions may be a legitimate enthusiasm to explore deeper into a promising idea. Emotions, both positive and negative, are easily mixed with solid reasoning but are often very difficult to separate out again.

      Should an organization pursue a culture where legitimate lines of criticism and questioning are suppressed in the name of keeping discussions civil? Should it pursue a culture where people are expected to be thick skinned to the nasty add ons that often accompany valuable criticism? What’s the proper balance? It’s a highly nuanced question that I don’t think has a clear cut answer.

      To put it more succinctly and colorfully: How does one distinguish between another being an asshole and one just being an ass?

      Reply
      • 5. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 10, 2013 at 10:37 am

        Unfortunately, many people operate from the assumption that a hyper-critical environment somehow facilitates a higher caliber of thought and genius. It doesn’t – Margolis and Fisher, Teague, and Garvin-Doxas and Barker have extensively documented that it does not, but rather it is more indicative of exaggerated egos than exaggerated intellect – serving only to generate a negative environment.

        Reply
  • 6. jebookworm  |  May 8, 2013 at 10:48 am

    As a woman in CS all I can say is “THANKS” to the three commenters above (alanone1, Don Davis, rds). Yes, CS is difficult for women, for a variety of reasons; many (most?) have had at least one seriously negative experience, not to mention it’s a bit lonely. But seeing comments like this give me hope that it won’t be lonely for much longer, and also remind me that there are lots of people already in CS and IT who are worth getting to know and work with.

    Reply
  • 7. Mike Lutz  |  May 8, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Two things:
    (1) Like Mark I’ve heard several times at NSF panels that CISE reviews average a full point lower than other disciplines (on the Poor / Fair / Good / Very Good / Excellent scale the NSF uses). I always took this too mean reviewers are conscientious and critical, not that they were mean – I’ve never been in a review panel where I’d characterize any of the written reviews as nasty. Pointedly critical, yes; nasty, no.
    (2) My sister is a speech therapist who deals with many kinds with Aspergers – highly functioning but low on the social cues / empathy scale. She went to an Aspergers related conference a few years back, and one of the leading researchers asked: Where is the highest concentration of Aspergers found in the professional workforce. His answer: Silicon Valley. Perhaps our field is one that provides relatively safe-haven for such folks?

    Reply
    • 8. Monica McGill  |  May 8, 2013 at 10:40 pm

      Mike, do you have empirical evidence about the Aspergers comment? The reason I ask is that in a study my collaborators and I just finished of undergrad students studying games, we did not find this to be true. Asperger’s cases were the same as in the general population. If you do, please send along. I’d love to compare with our results.

      Thanks!

      Reply
      • 9. sweng1948  |  May 9, 2013 at 3:37 pm

        Monica – as I said, I heard this from my sister who heard it at what I believe was a keynote address at a conference a few years back. I could ask her to give me the name of the researcher and pass it on to you if you wish. Just drop a reply to this reply and I’ll see what I can do.

        Reply
      • 10. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 10, 2013 at 10:25 am

        Monica,
        I’ve read an article noting a relationship between the two. Unfortunately, I am completely unable to find it. Basically, it examined some sort of tech career abilities and interest in relation to scores used to evaluate ASD behaviors. The article was released within the last two years.

        Reply
  • 13. Cecily  |  May 8, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Mark,

    I think you raise three very different, very interesting questions each of which I will respond to individually:

    >By doing something different for women in IT than men in IT, are we ghettoizing women?
    Maybe–I am not sure. On the one hand, I think it is important to recognize that men and women are biologically different and have biologically different needs(medical appointments, bathroom needs, a few other things of that nature come to mind. The problem is that often in society we amplify these differences and that over time technology can make them less relevant but we may still maintain cultural norms. For example, men are typically stronger than women, so before we had machinery, men did most of the building and designing of houses(think log cabin days when logs had to be stacked and sawed), but now we have machines to do a lot of the heavy lifting, yet construction and engineering are fields that are still very much male dominated– that seems unfortunate to me.

    Are we making them feel awkward by trying to make them feel welcome?
    I think this depends both on how awkward the wecomer and the welcomee are. Some people are definitely more awkward than others. Some approaches are are also more effective than others. Subtle seems to work better than stronger at least in the establishing critical mass phase.

    Is the IT field more nasty than others?
    I think probably yes, but I don’t think it needs to be. I actually think that a good program committee and good program chairs can do a lot to mitigate this problem. I was on the organizing committee for a workshop once, and we got one exceptionally nasty review for a paper where the first author was a Masters student. We “sanitized” the review to remove the most offensive and nasty (and irrelevant) of the language while maintaining the constructive criticism. I think that ideally program chairs and committees would do this more often. I also think that they should carefully consider the effects of the review process on the community and assign papers carefully. From what I have seen, there is a broad spectrum of meticulousness when it comes to program chairs and committees, even within a particular high quality conference.

    Reply
  • 14. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  May 10, 2013 at 10:20 am

    What to do about culture in IT?
    Mike noted a relationship between Asperger’s and techiness. I’ve read some research identifying a slight correlation between the two (unfortunately, I can’t find the article). The important aspect being that Asperger’s and Autism are verbal behavior disorders – which are quite likely contingency-based and (even if not completely contingency-based) amenable to behavioral training (Drash & Tudor, 2004). The point being – IT professionals and students can be taught appropriate verbal behaviors – but how?

    In 1991, Rasmussen and Håpnes (1991) predicted that the rise of hacker culture within CS ranks would marginalize women. Given the decline and low numbers of women in CS since the mid 80’s, they may not have been too far off. Margolis and Fisher (2003) and Barker and Garvin-Doxas (2004) illustrate how the CS classroom can function as a breeding ground for hostility and negativity – often facilitated by a complicit, if not likewise culpable, instructor. If CS students have to go through a gauntlet of negativity and are reinforced in ineffective social skills (they are ineffective – the hierarchical pecking has a deleterious effect on learning and program quality) – how surprising is it that the same behaviors are tolerated and reinforced elsewhere?

    Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele (2009) found that by altering the environment, students’ perceptions of and interest in CS could be impacted for the better. What if targeted changes in CS classroom environments were made to reinforce more positive verbal behaviors? Perhaps concurrent with dynamic programming and pair programming approaches? [ e.g. specific description of the behaviors (‘social algorithms’) used when interacting with others? Teaching that not every conversation is a competition or opportunity for self-aggrandizement?] What if students were asked to model ‘social algorithms’ (and systems’ effects) in environments such as NetLogo? It’s quite an awkward proposition. How many people are drawn to tech careers (even at an early age – and wishes lead to careers cf. Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006) because they know their social oddities are not only tolerated but perhaps celebrated?

    Barker, L. J., & Garvin-Doxas, K. (2004). Making visible the behaviors that influence learning environment: A qualitative exploration of computer science classrooms. Computer Science Education, 14, 119–145.
    Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045–1060. doi:10.1037/a0016239
    Drash, P. W., & Tudor, R. M. (2004). An analysis of autism as a contingency-shaped disorder of verbal behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 20, 5.
    Margolis, J., & Fisher, A. (2003). Geek Mythology. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 23(1), 17–20. doi:10.1177/0270467602239766
    Rasmussen, B., & Håpnes, T. (1991). Excluding women from the technologies of the future?: A case study of the culture of computer science. Futures, 23(10), 1107–1119. doi:10.1016/0016-3287(91)90075-D
    Tai, R. T., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., & Fan, X. T. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312, 1143–1145.

    Reply
  • 15. Jon  |  July 18, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Provocative title. I think different area of IT have to be examined seperately. Server and network engineers can be very different in personality to developers, as they perform distinctively different jobs. The latter are more cerebral than the former, the former more practical and pragmatic than the latter, as a generalised rule.

    It’s pointless categorising “males in IT” as one and to my mind (27 years in the IT sector) no more useful than just looking at “all males”. It’s like comparing doctors to building site labourers. Each has their distinct social value, but equally has a different outlook on life.

    Is IT more “nasty” for women? I don’t know, I’m not a woman, but I’ve never heard any woman in my field (which BTW includes a lot of my female friends) voice that opinion. On the contrary, I know some highly successfull, well paid and well respected women in IT who are not battle axes.

    Policewoman, lawyer, stock trader, doctor? Yes, definitely, and we read about cases of discrimination and bullying all the time in the papers. But in IT, if a woman’s good, all the guys KNOW she’s put the work in and there’s usually tremendous respect from the majority of males for a woman in IT who knows her stuff.

    And yes, I put my money where my mouth is – I’ve hired several women myself over male counterparts, simply because they were by clear margin the best candidates, and nothing to to with quotas or the size of their chest. Which is exactly how people should be hired. Patronising, misogynistic males can be found in all walks of life, and they occur in IT too, and to be honest they are just as much a waste of life and pain in the butt to men and their employer as they are to women.

    BTW, when I was at school (14-16), we had two streams for Computer Science, about 60 students (this was 1981). My school gave priority to girls over boys who wanted to study the subject. Result: Two girls, 58 boys. Slightly less than physics and chemistry. And exactly the same ratio (but in reverse) for cookery – 30 girls and 1 boy.

    Perhaps we should investigate why more men aren’t nursery teachers. Or cooks. Or sewing machinists. Or yoga teachers. Or positively discriminate for men who want to pursue these careers. Or perhaps we should just recognise that men have different priorities and interets and motivators in a subject to women, and each is equal but interested in different things.

    Reply
    • 16. Mark Guzdial  |  July 18, 2013 at 7:19 am

      Except — women used to be in computing. Originally (1950’s), the job of “coder” was a female job. Even in the 1970’s, computer science classes were 40% female. Today, they’re around 10%.

      Reply
  • 17. Mark Guzdial  |  July 30, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    I find this thread in Stack Overflow relevant to this post and amazing — the moderators defending the right of IT professionals to be insulting in answering questions: http://meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/191089/why-do-we-let-hostile-users-dictate-the-perception-of-stack-overflow

    Reply

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