1.20.2012

Ponies in Technology

When I was young, and on the outside of my profession, I thought of IT as a sort of embedded, marvelous utopia, a land of high ideals and ferocious belief. It was - it still is - a sort of firelight to the widest-eyed moths of humanity, drawing in a lot of very intelligent, high-minded people. When I thought of it, it was easy to imagine the way a student would feel in a hundred years, reading about these hungry souls ripping a new era from a mass of copper and silicon. Heroic, in a very real way.


I wanted to believe that a group that was trying to construct a dream as broad and new as the internet would be like devoted revolutionaries - subsumed in the revolution. I work in IT, now, it changes things, to be inside of a thing.

Where I work now, there is this old tradition, nominally intended to increase security, but really as essentially meaningless as all traditions are. If you leave your desk and forgot to lock the screen, others will come and play a trick on you. I had it done to me, once, and returned to find that an enormous, scantily clad photo of David Hasselhoff had been set as my wallpaper. Its more popular, now, to open the person's email, and send a message to the company wide mailing list in the victim's name, saying how much they love ponies. 

The pony email is immediately followed by the sort of kindly ribbing that really is meant as a sort of kindness. And perhaps that is all it is. But humor is a strange thing. And it left me wondering, why it was so funny to us as a culture, why another technical worker saying 'I love ponies! Oh how I wish I had a big pretty pink one!' is such an easy, default laugh. 

Well, the answer is fairly straightforward - because its non-role-appropriate behavior. As a technologist, in my company, there is an OVERWHELMING likelihood that you are male, and the role of maleness in the technologist's life is, in my experience, very important. Technology is a strange field in this way.

Historically, programming began as a largely female endeavor - the operators that wrote punchcards for the early computers were overwhelmingly female. It was viewed as, essentially, skilled clerical work. Only when software development became something we as a culture admired, found magical and creative, did it become a male profession. With this transition, and with the sudden meteoric growth of respect for technical careers, a culture grew up.

While the boundaries are loosening now, even today certain cultural elements are very much binding forces within the programming community - building cachet and understanding with other programmers is half technical acumen, but, in my experience, also has to do with trading the cachet of shared knowledge and experience. And this knowledge is largely not technical. The ability to tell and comprehend jokes on Star Wars, Douglas Adams, or Doctor Who, for example, are a quick way to find rapport in a technical community. These elements are, of themselves, seemingly harmless.

Culture, however, when it is at its strongest, must have not only methods to include new members, but also methods to draw its borders of exclusion - subconsciously or consciously. One shining example of this is a list of the 222 most famous names in software development (you can find information on it here). The list is, of course, like all subjective lists, eminently debatable, but its also, to be frank, fairly well done. It has most of the 'greats' I would have included. And this list contains 6.5 women (Roberta Williams, because the work she is famous for is a collaboration with her husband, gets a half entry, an interesting and somewhat discomfiting statistic that I won't pursue here). These proportions, today, aren't much different from the larger tech industry's gender proportions. And the more 'technical' the job role, the more you see this contrast become starker. 

This is a well-known issue in the community, and of course is partly a problem with our education system, which discourages women from most math, science, and engineering fields at some level. But the problem, I think, is also inthe culture which has... well, I can only describe it as a sort of machismo.

An acquaintance of mine - a far better programmer than I, and a genuinely nice, open-minded person - made a joke the other day that illuminated this. He was talking about a time management technique called Pomodoro which is very popular in the tech community, and how they were doing it in groups, calling it 'Bromodoro', because 'its like Pomodoro with your bro's.' The joke was meant to be tongue in cheek. The word bro, has a sort of 'oh-god' hipster ring to it that marks any use of it as not entirely serious (at least this is my experience - though as with any slang term, these borders of legitimacy can be murky). I wrote back, half-jokingly, to ask what they would call it if they had a woman working with them. He wrote back and said that 'sisses could be bros, too'.  

This isn't blatant sexism, of course, its not said because women aren't desired. I would say, from what I know of the coder in question, that I imagine he would be thrilled to encourage more diversity in technology. The comment, after all, was pretty innocuous - I've known people who work hard in charities specifically devoted to encouraging young girls in math, science and engineering make comments of a similar sort. Heck, I've made far worse comments in my life.

But at some level there is a piece of our culture that says 'we are open minded, liberal people, and would love to have more women (or minorities, or GLBT people, or whatever) join our culture. Just as long as they don't change it.' In other words, diversity is great, as long as we all act the same.

Again, this isn't to suggest that the fellow who made the 'bro' comment was trying to send some 'boys only' vibe out, at all. But, I do think that technologists, as a culture, are comfortable with the vibrancy of our community, with its strong identificatory marks, and we sometimes assume that others will be happy to simply enter the culture as 'bros', as it were. Its the old issue of letting women (or minorities, or whatever) come in and be 'one of the guys' - even if they AREN'T 'one of the guys'. Again, this isn't meant to put a freeze on speech, its simply to point out that when we live in a culture that is very monolithic, it is easy to present a from that is less than welcoming to a polylithic world.

The interesting thing is, however, that our culture HAS diversity that we are, I think sometimes, afraid of. One of the interesting things about the list of 222 developers about is that the list ALSO contains 4 additional women - male-to-female transsexuals. The implications of this are interesting, but they are not hard for me to imagine. Technology work allows one to abstract one's identity in a way that is both seductive and liberating. People who are uncomfortable with their 'real' identity in a LOT of ways can find it a rewarding way of working, in my experience. But this strengthens the psychological need to ensure that the codes of conduct within the community have clear borders, particularly when you combine this with the extremely social aspect of technology work - everything one does is at some level collaborative. And there is the difficulty of the fluid identities of the web - that people are frightened of that power, they need the security of a simple, easily parseable, and contiguous identity int he people they interact with. Its as if, in that shadow world, we see each others loose ends and the possibility of secret selves, and so when we meet face to face, we feel the need to reassure ourselves that - no, we're just normal people, that the irregularities, and frightening depths of individuality need not be grappled with. ITs taking a world that is plump with intimacy and trying to keep things businesslike.

Which returns us to the ponies. Humor often performs the function of allowing us to have a dialogue about the things that we cannot have serious conversations on. My industry's relationship (dare I say, our entire Western culture's relationship) with gender identity is, in my mind, one such area. We need to, in some sense, confirm that 'yes, there are still the comforting barriers we've erected to define us as a group,' and playfully pretending to expel each other from those boundaries is a way of doing it - a way that feels positive, and harmless - you're let back in, as it were, after the game is done, and noone says anything too hurtful in the process. The trouble is not to the person that is playfully expelled, it is to the person who is in the culture, but now knows that their feelings and beliefs warrant expulsion, or to the person outside who sees that the culture is not welcoming to their identity, that they will be allowed, but will always feel separate. Outside the culture. This is the sad secret of any anti-discrimination initiative - you can legislate that someone who applies for a job not be discriminated against (although even this has proven difficult), but you can't legislate that they be made to feel normal in the group. A woman programmer (or a man who likes pink ponies. Or an african-american. Or whatever) must always, in my experience, be continuously aware that they are an abnormality. An exception. Sometimes they are celebrated as an exception. But nonetheless, as they navigate an immensely social enterprise, they must always negotiate a very clumsy identity within the group. Its not that they would necessarily be looked down on or attacked (though I have seen this too). Simply that they will never be allowed to forget that they are not normal. When they offer opinions, they'll be the girl programmer's opinions. When they write code, it will be girl programmer code. Etc.They are tokens, instead of humans. And that is a lot of pressure, pressure that requires skills that are not the core skills one needs to be a great programmer.

Again, this isn't just women, its anyone who doesn't fit this narrow band of identity that the culture defines - I've felt it myself, being someone who loves purple, has odd taste in clothes, and likes fairies. Not that anyone looks down on me for it. Just that they always know it. Most of my work has been in niches, where I work, largely, independent of other technologists - filing the hole, as it were. I imagine these two facts are, at some subconscious level, connected. And in my day to day work, it means I DO put up a certain facade of 'but don't worry, you see, I'm really just like you', that is intensely artificial, but frankly invaluable in getting my work done without feeling powerfully emotionally vulnerable. If I was entirely genuine, I would confuse people, frighten them, perhaps, or at least, simply become 'other'. Its not because technologists are bad. Its simply the result of a confluence of factors. But its real nonetheless.

But then, again, if this is a revolution, this is how revolutions always are - they break the limits of the last regime, and then scramble in terror to build new ones, to make walls that let them understand the new world they've created, that protect them from the anarchy of a new social order. It doesn't mean that the revolution wasn't real, or the revolutionaries insincere. Its simply how humans work. Until the next revolution comes along and topples them.