The dark at the end of the funnel

In a Q&A session last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talked about the problem of getting more women into Computer Science (CS). He referred to the vicious circle of trying to encourage more female participation in CS:

You need to start earlier in the funnel so that girls don’t self-select out of doing computer science education, but at the same time one of the big reasons why today we have this issue is that there aren’t a lot of women in the field today.

The funnel or pipeline is this idea that you only get trained developers by educating them; if you want more graduate developers you need to get them in an educational pipeline at an earlier age so that they will take computing degrees. This September, England began its Computing adventure, with boys and girls required to study Computing (which includes CS and programming) from ages 5–14. We’ll let you know how “filling the funnel” turns out. There are definitely problems of attracting and retaining more women in CS have originated in education — Mark Guzdial has a good blog post about this that I won’t repeat here.

However, this is not solely an issue with the education system (though that would be a familiar narrative — work force not as we would like it? Must be the fault of schools and universities). The pipeline or funnel doesn’t just need filling by shoving lots of 5 year old girls in one end and waiting for the hordes of female developers to swim out of the other end into an idyllic tech industry pool. Zuckerberg mentions that the lack of women in the industry forms a vicious cycle. This is not a problem at the education end of the funnel.

As this Fortune article describes, the industry is not welcoming to women. The Anita Borg Institute found that women’s quit rates were double those of men. Not to mention issues like maternity leave. The pool at the end of the pipeline is leaking, and for good reason. So the vicious cycle is not simply an accident of history; the women that are in the industry tend to leave. There are several reasons for this, some of which are identity and culture in the industry.

Gamer Identity and Culture

You may well have seen press coverage of the recent “#gamergate” mess. Despite their cover story about ethics in games journalism, #gamergate was started as a way to deliberately target women in the games industry and hound and harass them until they quit or worse:

The 4channers express their hatred and disgust towards [Quinn]; they express their glee at the thought of ruining her career; they fantasize about her being raped and killed. They wonder if all the harassment will drive her to suicide, and only the thought of 4chan getting bad publicity convinces some of them that this isn’t something they should hope for.

How do you explain that to the young women you are inviting to join the pipeline? Come learn to program and how to make games — and try to ignore the fact that a terrorist movement was begun in order to hound your gender out of the industry. It’ll be fun!

Some games writers have focused on the gamergate idiocy as being related to identity and gaming going mainstream. Back in the 80s and 90s, a group of people, mainly young white men, who felt excluded from a masculine sports-centred culture, found solace in making gaming their identity. (And during that period, programming was well linked to gaming, as home PCs like the Spectrum, Commodore, etc were amenable to games and to programming.) As more and more people got into games, the original gamers slowly redefined their identity. Sure, lots of people played games, but no true gamer played Candy Crush. Subcultures formed, each looking down on someone else. Call of Duty players sneered at casual gamers. Older gamers scoffed at Call of Duty players. And so on.

(This is not that unusual in media fandom — music lovers have been the same way for generations (a classic examples being mods vs rockers). This article by Arthur Chu directly compares the anti-disco movement to #gamergate, describing how a perception of losing majority status can lead to reactionary rage.)

Programmer Identity and Culture

Now, the games industry isn’t the same thing as the tech industry — but it does clearly overlap: programmers work in both industries. And the identity issues are paralleled in the tech industry. This article by Carlos Bueno nicely sums up how programmer identity is important in the silicon valley tech industry. One tale of non-conformism:

[The interview candidate] was dressed impeccably in a suit… I stole a glance to a few of the people from my team who had looked up when he walked in. I could sense the disappointment. It’s not that we’re so petty or strict about the dress code that we are going to disqualify him for not following an unwritten rule, but we know empirically that people who come in dressed in suits rarely work out well for our team. He was failing the go-out-for-a-beer test and he didn’t even know it…

And another:

Again Max Levchin: “PayPal once rejected a candidate who aced all the engineering tests because for fun, the guy said that he liked to play basketball. That single sentence lost him the job.”

These are not issues of job performance, and not a simple gender issue. These are issues of identity and culture (see also the rise of the “brogrammer”). I think that programmers mirror gamers in this aspect. We built a culture where we subtly redefined what characteristics are important until it fitted only the people who we thought it should. As Bueno puts it:

We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing.

I’m sure many people have worked in programming offices (or sat in programming classes) where they felt excluded if they did not have anything to say about the latest sci-fi series or talk about last night’s DOTA 2 game or whatever. (This problem occurs in several industries, but that’s no justification not to fix it in your own.) It’s not usually a malicious thing, but as with the “go for a beer test” in the earlier quote, companies often assume that new hires must bend to the culture, rather than bending the culture to fit new hires. It’s not exclusively a gender issue, but women and minorities tend to be hit harder by it.

These problems get buried under the idea that programmers have created this wonderful meritocracy, where if you can code well, you will succeed. Programming skill is what really matters. (Despite evidence to the contrary: is the highest-paid or highest-status person in a tech company the best programmer? Does it actually help that much in your career?) And thus programmers tend to believe the reverse, too: if you didn’t succeed, it’s because you couldn’t code well. When the #ghcmanwatch participants suggested that women should just “be better”, that surely arose from this meritocratic world view.


Computing education is currently making moves to put more women into “the pipeline” (aka “the funnel”) so that we might get more computing graduates. But it’s a tough sell when the end of the pipeline is not a desirable destination:

The only people who can alter that are those who are already in the tech industry, by making sure that the work environment is more welcoming and nurturing to all. That’s a day-to-day, office-by-office battle. A two-fold approach is needed: making the work place more inviting for women, and getting more women into CS during school and university. Of course culture is just one gender issue (Microsoft’s CEO made headlines and backtracker over his equal pay comments) but it’s one that everyone in the industry can help to address.


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