Electronicdesign 16028 Women Devs 503788266

Women and Minorities Continue to Encounter Bias in Tech

June 14, 2017
Company management can make a big difference on bias, be it gender-, race, or age-related.

These days political correctness tends to be bashed regularly, as are related laws and reasoning. What we tend to hear, as George Orwell’s Animal Farm notes, is “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Likewise, it is common to hear that “that is just a minor inconvenience” or “I had to contend with that kind of challenge” when many talk about their career. Dealing with bias, office politics, etc., will never go away but we should not overlook how long-term subtle bias affects us all.

I recently heard about the results of the Github Open Source Survey in a number of articles including one by Windows IT Pro’s Christine Hall entitled “Why Women Devs Are Hard to Recruit and Even Harder to Keep.” Central to her article is the Github survey result about the negative behavior in open-source projects.

The Github Open Source Survey asked participants about their encounters with negative behavior related to open-source projects.

Hall focuses on the gender gap in this particular survey, which also shows that 95% of the respondents were male. She notes that “good developers are in short supply—and since women make up somewhere around 50% of the population, they represent a huge demographic that’s not being properly leveraged” and “the problems that women in tech face are pretty much what you might expect. Twenty-five percent of the women surveyed report ‘encountering language or content that makes them feel unwelcome,’ compared with 15% of men. Women are six times more likely to encounter stereotyping than men (25% vs. 15%), and twice as likely to be subjected to unsolicited sexual advances (6% vs. 3%).”

It was interesting reading some of the Slashdot.org responses. Slashdot is a technically oriented, social curated website that lets people respond to, or rant about, articles found on the internet. It is just one of many sites that provide discussion forums. The responses in this case were as expected, ranging from agreement to caustic tirades. Unfortunately, this is often similar to responses on open-source forums associated with open-source projects.

Bias like this tends to be subtler in the commercial space where laws affect how corporations deal with the problem. Unfortunately, open-source projects tend to lack the formalities of companies as well as their legal limitations. Open-source project managers or groups usually have some effect on those involved in a project but they generally lack the ability to hire and fire someone with respect to the project.

Likewise, company management can make a big difference on bias, be it gender-, race-, or age-related. This can be good or bad. For example, Uber has been in the news for a variety of reasons, from self-driving car technology to gender bias issues. Time magazine’s piece by Katy Steinmetz on “Uber’s Problems Are Silicon Valley’s Problems” examines Uber’s issues with sexual misconduct. Uber’s conduct is an extreme but, unfortunately, not one that is uncommon.

One analogy I like to bring up is related to the use of mulch (see “Are You Writing Safe And Secure Software?”). It is used by landscapers that put rings of it around trees, often creating a circular pyramid that makes mowing easier. It also kills the tree but this is a very long-term affect that can take years or decades. It is the long-term effect, death, and the short-term gain, easier mowing, that are similar to reasons given for gender, race, or age bias. The justification for the bias tends to be done by those that are ill informed or pushing another agenda, like wanting to get rid of excess mulch.

Attacking bias issues is also long term and ongoing. It may eventually be your daughter, granddaughter, or spouse that one day may be part of this discussion. Be very careful and hopefully a little more thoughtful when it comes to even little things like how you compliment or criticize someone. A joke or off-hand remark may seem trivial to one that does not encounter it daily, but could be one more straw for a camel.

Our current business and political climate has been much more confrontational. This winds up being good for some but usually bad for the majority in the long run. Don’t forget about the little things even as these larger concerns tend to dominate our thinking.

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