Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine

The Meritocracy, and a Call to Action, thanks to Monty Widenius

This Friday, I had the honor of speaking on Friday at Oxford, UK for the All Your Base Conf. This conference, according to their site, is described as:

”All Your Base is the only curated database conference of its kind in the UK. Join us for talks from database creators, industry leaders and developers working at the coal face on where to store and how to handle your data.”

I chose to accept speaking there because of this curation, which had a very large focus on gender diversity. In fact, 6 of the 11 speakers were women. That number is incredible in this day and age when you consider that around 20% of the US engineering workforce are women. (Which is better than silicon valley)

So, at the end of the conference, the final speaker was Monty Widenius, the creator of MySQL, and the MariaDB foundation. MySQL has been my bread and butter and one of my top passions in open-source for over a decade. I am always happy to see Monty and hear from him. When he showed a final slide about the effort that had gone into MariaDB, 30 man years, I thought nothing of chiding him in Q&A about how many women years had been worked in addition to those man years. After all, these small things must be called out. The small things build up and discourage others to jump in. It is not one thing, it is a mountain of things.

Imagine my surprise when his response started with; “The problem with women is…” The audience full on groaned. No one wanted to hear what was next, and I do not blame them. We all knew something of what was coming next. Monty proceeded to discuss how women have lives, and families and children and cannot work the 16 hours a day needed to participate in these coding projects and organizations. He got booed a bit, and continued to proceed, as is not surprising based on his outspokenness. He said, it was a good thing. It was the men who worked too hard, had no lives, no connection to families.

Since then, Monty has given more input via this interview:

Now, Monty did not say women could not code. I am rather glad he didn’t, because it is not true, and he might have been lynched. He did, however, make vast generalizations about gender, with an underpinning of some real truths about expectations in the workforce. My goal is not to villainize him, but to pull the wheat from the chaff and create dialogue.

I will go so far as to say, that this is not a gender problem, and shame on you Monty for saying it was. This problem impacts women and men. It impacts those with children and those with sick parents and significant others. It impacts those with a passion or a necessity that must be entertained out of work, or those who are disabled and cannot work more than 8 hours a day.

As mentioned in How Google Works:

“In the book, we mention the women we work with who have a terrible burden, if you will, of working in a startup: it’s intense, but then they also have the majority of the family duties, typically. Somehow, they’re able to get through it with help and so forth. We observe in the book that, for example, they’ll go quiet for a few hours while they’re busy taking care of the family or whatever it is they’re doing, and then they emerge at 11 o’clock at night, working hard to make sure that their responsibilities are taken care of. These are impressive leaders by any measure.”

Yes, there are women, and men, who will go home, care for their dependents other requirements, and dive back in to work. This is not only women however. I get so frustrated by this continued reinforcement of a paradigm that does not have to be. It makes the men who do the same, and who care for their own families invisible, and it pressures women to take it on.

Yes, many of those are women, because women are designated in our cultures as the nurturers and caregivers. But, calling it out as a gender problem is incredibly wrong. In fact, this only increases the problem. Women are already more predisposed to feeling deficient around computers and mathematics through early raising, cultural experiences and a lack of role models. Stating that their external demands are the reason they can not participate will only make many of us more reluctant to participate in a project, or accept a job, where we know we wil be underrepresented. How dare we try to participate when we can only work 8 to 10 hours a day, for whatever reasons.

Sadly, the demographics are not fictional.

So, step one, is not stating it is a problem for women. Step two is stating it IS a problem for all. Men should feel they can have families, care for parents, do sports, be artists, work at non-profits or churches and so much more after their 8–10 hours of work. I am not calling for work-life balance as a specific number of hours either. It is all about passion. I am calling for people to recognize the value of those who do follow an 8 hour work day. There will always be people who are so passionate/obsessed/driven, they figure out ways to work more, regardless of their other demands. If they are happy, I support them. But guess what, I see women who do that every day, not primarily men.

In the end, the conference stood loudly on the side of women after Monty’s comments, tweeting their own disappointment. The audience responded wonderfully, and I was rather pleasantly surprised by everything. I don’t want this to be a witch hunt. I’d love to see Monty acknowledge his generalizations, and the harm that they cause. But more than anything, I’d like to say this:

To the people out there, many of whom in the audience said that this was not their viewpoint, remember that you don’t have to work 16 hour days to participate in tech and coding, or any other passion. Nor do your significant others, children, colleagues, managers or employees. Remember that, and encourage everyone to join you in coding, building technology and software and simultaneously livubg fulfilled lives full of passion, family, friends and personal growth. If your organization pushes you, or others, around you, speak out.

Embrace those who will work until they pass out because of their own passion, but support them in staying healthy. I am one of them at times. Do not let the idea of a meritocracy, with no governance or thought around diversity create the environment where men, who tacitly work until they fall over comprise 80–90% of your teams. If you haven’t experienced the power of diverse, passionate teams, then you’ll be blown away by how productive and innovate they can be. You deserve to experience that first hand. And that means encouraging those with different life experiences that come from gender (including trans folks who do not identify as men or women), sexuality, race, class, ability/disability, education and more to jump in, and start coding, writing and sharing.