All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialized to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones. It’s a skillset that I did not start out with, and have had to learn through years upon years of gr…
Back in the 1970’s, when I first got in the software business, I remember there being a much higher presence of women in senior or influential positions than there are today. (My first three managers in this business were women. It was kind of weird when I finally ended up working for a man…) Over the years, as I’ve seen the women filter away, I’ve often thought that we were losing something very important. It isn’t the absence of women that is the problem, but rather a change in the focus of the business. The reduced role of women may simple be a symptom of the change.
We’ve evolved from a business that was once focused on finding ways to “solve problems” or “change the world” and have become, instead, focused on implementation. We went from being a “calling” to being a “craft.” In Yonatan’s words, we’ve changed from being focused on “which code to write” or why it should be written and have become more focused on simply getting code written and on how that code is written. We value insight less today and value implementation skills more.
Lunch discussions at the now almost forgotten Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) used to be filled with questions like: “How can we use computers to improve people’s lives?” and “How will people use computers in 20 years?” But, many of my lunches during 8.5+ years at Google were spent talking about the relative merits of C++, Java or Python, how to write tough interview questions, or the merits of “agile” programming methods. I used to be in a business where everyone talked about “why” we were here. More recently, the talk has been largely about “how” we do what we do.
Certainly, there are differences between women and men — on average. Some of those differences may be biological in origin, but my guess is that the majority of those which are relevant to “software” are culturally imposed. For instance, our culture seems to teach men to revel in accomplishing macho feats and in doing things that show strength. On the other hand, we tend to teach women to value insight, empathy, and such. But, whether or not women and men have any natural affinity to one style or another is largely irrelevant since the cultural pressures are great enough, I think, to overcome any inherent tendencies.
Some time during the 80’s and 90’s, we began to develop the myth that being a good software engineer meant working ridiculously hard for stupidly long hours and doing so while exhibiting no cultural awareness or social skills. We began to praise the nerds rather that simply recognizing their utility. We began to value less what it was that engineers were doing and value more how they were doing it. We went from valuing substance to valuing style — and we chose a distinctly “male,” and dysfunctional style to value most.
The challenge for the software business isn’t to convince women to get back in the business. The challenge is to move the business beyond its current adolescent, macho fixations and build a healthier, more mature business that better balances insight and craft. If we can fix the business, the women will come back and so will many men who have skills needed by the business but no willingness to put up with current culture of software.