Suddenly this topic seems to be all around me. Although, I’m not sure if it was always here, or if I just wasn’t paying attention. But it’s here in a big way. The meritocracy discussion seems to be mainly about women in tech, but to a lesser extent, minorities.
At first it was an old colleague of mine on twitter. And frankly, I was annoyed to see his many-times-a-day posts about feminism and how the whole world is conspiring to keep his daughter from enjoying science and math. It went on like this for years and I eventually stopped following him because he never talked about anything else and I was tired of his rant.
What I didn’t understand at the time was this was all part of a much larger discussion. Although I did notice the growing trend about a year ago and started to take notice. Looking back at stories from the past few years shows just how much attention this is getting from major internet media outlets: Tech Crunch, The Guardian, Quartz, The Atlantic, Wired, NPR, The Boston Globe. You can even watch the rise of the term ‘meritocracy’ on Google trends as it begins in early 2009, likely in association with its so-called myth.
Recently, I also ran across an indiegogo project called CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap which promises to explore the lack of diversity in the tech world. At this point, it’s fully funded and I’m excited to see it when it’s ready.
Today, the discussion seems to be finding new ground after Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s remarks caused a minor internet storm, where he made some regretful remarks about how women should behave regarding salaries and ended up having to take it all back. And that’s great, the man ate his silly words and hopefully we all learned something.
So to those of you advancing this discussion, I hear you. I agree that we have problems in our community. I believe that women and minorities are missing out unfairly due to bias that I should attempt to watch for both in myself and in those around me.
But I remember the tiny handful of women from engineering school and I remember being confused about why engineering school was 98% male. Where were all the women? More than half the university students were female, so they had to be somewhere. Did someone pressure them out of engineering school? Were they just not interested? I remember seeing an American Sign Language class with zero men in it… Is this where all the women went? A 10 or even 20% future wage gap cannot explain why I only had one female engineering student in a class with me, ever. There has to be a much larger force at work.
At the place I work now, we have maybe two female out of 80 total engineers. I do plenty of interviews, and I’ve never even interviewed a female engineer other than one for our QA team. She is awesome by the way. I asked about this today and our recruiter told me we don’t get a lot of female applicants which doesn’t surprise me because I remember engineering school.
And this situation affects more than just the professional and educational communities. I’m also involved in a number of open-source projects where I donate my time to community-owned software. Here I am at the bottom of this boring list of young white guys. But there’s no myth about the meritocracy in open-source software is there? Anyone in the world can submit a pull request. If you’re a woman and you want to buck the trend, send me a pull request. If you make a few sensible contributions, I’m sure there’s room for you on this team of unpaid volunteers if you have that interest. There is no wage gap because there are no wages. I don’t even know the gender of many contributors. But if you start looking through the profiles of those in the commit log, its mainly a bunch of white guys. But is this not a real meritocracy?
Much of what I’ve read on this topic also seems to rest on the assumption that the correct ratio of male to female engineers is one to one. I don’t have a reason to disagree, but I also haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that any particular ratio is correct. I don’t think we can call this a stable foundation for argument. At the very least, this needs some exploration.
I read Julie Pagano’s post today also on her exit from the tech world. Apparently she’s had enough. After reading the story, I can’t blame her. Her experience sounds far worse than I could have ever imagined and it makes me sad.
But this is a complex problem. And so it is more helpful to break it down than to expand it. Most pieces I’ve read have taken the expansionist approach and offer few solutions. I understand gender gap in wages is a real problem, although not specifically a tech problem. Sexual assault is a problem, although also a general problem (not to diminish it). Lack of representative ethnic diversity in the field is bothersome, although the problem likely runs deeper than just ethnicity. There are many other problems that we could talk about as well, but it is helpful to focus. So lets not talk about all the possible problems at once. It’s impossible to get anywhere with that approach.
The engineer in me understands the signs of a problem. I hear a multitude of people complaining and so it sounds to me like a real problem. So I want to understand it and my role in it, and ultimately I want to fix it. I understand there may be a lot of problems. So show me the biggest problem and we can deal with the rest later. I want our world to be a world of real meritocracy. If meritocracy in tech is really a myth, tell me how our world actually works? And how can it be fixed?