Friday, July 29, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Blame the Kids Issue

The Economist has an excellent obituary of Betty Ford this week. It was so good, that I want to go find a biography of Betty Ford so that I can learn more about her.

And it was a good thing that they had this obituary, because otherwise, I might have tossed our copy in the garbage. It also has a leader and an article discussing the European laws requiring a set percentage of company directors to be women. I am not hugely enamored with the quota method of achieving the goal of getting women in the boardroom, but I am even less enamored with these articles. They give a passing nod to other possible explanations for the lack of women at the top of companies, and then settle on the explanation that it must be that women choose to pursue different sorts of careers because of work-life balance issues.

Now, y'all know that I think companies have more to do on the work-life balance front. And I think that companies that refuse to accommodate the lives of their employees at all levels and companies in which sexism is a large, unresolved problem are probably mostly overlapping groups.

But as an excuse for the lack of women in a field, I think "work-life balance issues" sucks, because it lets all sorts of sexist behavior off the hook, and puts the persistent disparities between the numbers of men and women down to different "life choices". Nevermind that a lot of women never have children, so presumably are less encumbered by "work-life issues"- which is almost always code in these articles for "kids". Nevermind that a lot of men are taking on more of the household and childrearing work, so presumably are more encumbered by "work-life issues" than their fathers were. Nevermind that even a single man without so much as a houseplant depending on him for care might have interests and pursuits outside of work. Nevermind the demonstrable sexism that still exists in many companies, and the appalling active discrimination against mothers that has been found to occur. Nevermind all that, the reason women are underrepresented in some professions and all but absent at the top of many more is that they are choosing to do something else instead.

Even if that is the case- which I do not believe to be true- might we consider for a minute that some of the reasons for that choice might be the hostile environment women face in these professions, and not just the fact that women have babies?

For an example of the hostile environment, you can read the comments on the slashdot post that (along with TheMamaBee's twitter feed) led me to a post from the FogCreek folks about the up and down- and perhaps up again- history of women in software engineering. It is an interesting post from a good company, and worth a read. The comments on the slashdot post aren't worth a read, unless you have never seen evidence of the sort of nonsense that women in IT and software engineering have to face. However, I have to say- in real life, I haven't come across many men who will say the sorts of things that legions of slashdot readers are willing to type. Whether this is because of politeness, a fear of the wrath of human resources, or the fact that slashdot commenters are not a fair representation of the geek population, I can't say. But I have found my little corner of the IT world to be an excellent place in which to build a career, and I know a fair number of women in different IT fields who say the same thing. IT and software engineering are even great for people worried about "work-life issues", since so much of my work is thinking (which can be done while, say, rocking a baby to sleep) and most of the hands on work can be done remotely (i.e., at night after the kids are in bed, if you have to make up some hours lost to a doctor's appointment or whatnot)- facts, I'd like to point out, that my husband takes as much advantage of as I do. 

So, given that, and the increasing numbers referenced in the FogCreek article, the authors of the Economist's articles would have me believe that I just need sit back and wait 10 or 20 years, and the top rungs of software companies will be full of women. I'm skeptical. But, boy, would it be great to be wrong on that one.


  1. Anonymous6:36 AM

    Yeah, there are definitely feedback loops. It's a lot easier to leave a job that's hostile to women than one that's a joy to work at.

  2. Thanks for the girls go geek article link. I found it very enlightening, what changed and what didn't. The female intern was so articulate and thoughtful; I'm going to link to it from my blog, too.

    May I suggest my own

  3. I'm not particularly enamored of the quota system either, because they go against my principles. However, Argentina instituted quotas for political parties in their candidates to legislative posts, and now Argentina not only has a female president (although she is not exactly something to brag about), but there is very good representation of women in politics. On the other hand, it hasn't translated to other areas (top management in the bigger companies). Maybe it is related that much of this management comes from a traditional engineering background (not IT or software engineering), and in Argentina, engineers are famous for its "machismo". There was a scandal when some engineers complained in public when the first woman was admitted to the Engineer Science Academy (or something like that) around 15 years ago.

  4. @nicoleandmaggie, I was thinking more of the hostile environment keeping women from even starting out in a field- I think there are probably some really smart women who would be good programmers who just decide that they don't want to fight through the crap and go do something else. But you're right- if you're in a job that is hostile, I suspect it would be easier to decide to just not come back after a kid is born.

    @badmomgoodmom, those are awesome posts (as always). Thanks for posting the links here.

    @Spanish prof, that is an interesting contrast, between politics and other fields in Argentina. Also, I think we will have achieved something very important when average (and below average) women can achieve as much as the average and below average men... so hurray for the female president, even if she is no great shakes!

  5. Have you read this article from The New Yorker? It addresses some of the issues you talk about.

  6. I'd say you have to be pretty strong to stick in any science job other than the biological sciences as a woman, I've felt a little unwelcome at times.

  7. "I think "work-life balance issues" sucks, because it lets all sorts of sexist behavior off the hook"


  8. the milliner7:37 PM

    Ditto to what PQA said.

  9. Ditto what @the milliner said!


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.