This is not OK

After the first session at StrangeLoop, I ran downstairs, heading for the side of the lobby with the women’s restroom. I had to pee. Halfway there I looked up; it said “Men’s Restroom.” Turned around: “Men’s Restroom.” Wait a minute.

The venue converted the women’s room into a men’s to alleviate overcrowding. They did not ask the conference organizers. The ushers remarked later that it was the first time they’d ever changed the main women’s room into a men’s, while the other way around was common enough.

Trapped between two men’s rooms, I flipped out. I had to pee and this was NOT OK. An usher pointed me around the corner, where the Family Restroom was relabeled “Ladies.” It was a one-seater.

There was no line.

That day in the Family Restroom I threw a fit. Hurled my water bottle at the wall and screamed, “This is not OK!”

StrangeLoop is the most awesome of programming conferences, with less “you can use this in your day job tomorrow” and more “you can think about this for months and then it will embiggen everything you do.” Seven of the speakers at the conference were women, better than the local conferences I’ve attended this year. Thirty or forty women attended, of over a thousand. 3%.

I exited that bathroom and looked around at the sea of men, and it looked different than ten minutes before. Ten minutes ago it was expected. Now it was NOT OK.

There are women in programming. Usually there are a few other women wherever I’ve worked, something like 15%. (More at Amdocs, which was an Israeli company.) Look at the women who attend conferences, and there are fewer, around 10%. Take a highly technical, serious-about-this conference like StrangeLoop, and we’re down to 3%.  Speakers at technical conferences are somewhere between 3-10%, partly because organizers recognize that women speakers are a good influence on the industry and bring more women attendees.

The rest of the conference, I veered far from my usual mode of operation. Instead of talking among my friends and targeting mostly men to meet, I chased down women in hallways to say hello. Ines Sombra suggested over twitter a gathering for drinks that evening, and it became my mission to invite every woman I saw.

Saint Louis has a vibrant software industry, especially lately. We have a shocking variety of user groups; I’ve spoken at six this year. There’s a group for every ecosystem and favored text editor. Across the board, attendance is 30-50, yet if I see another woman I get excited. At first, people thought I was a recruiter. Extroverted female at a programming group? It was a reasonable assumption.

Monday evening at StrangeLoop, fourteen passionate women programmers sat around three pushed-together tables. We broke into conversations with the people nearest us. I had before never spoken with three other women about technical topics. It felt good! It felt really, really good. We considered starting a group for women in tech in St. Louis.

There aren’t enough women in programming. I applaud those who work to get more girls to choose STEM careers. (shout-out to Atomic Object, who sent a few of my favorite people to StrangeLoop.) There are initiatives to raise awareness of bias and sexism in the workplace. There is encouragement for women to speak at conferences. But what about the level above that?

There are speakers, and then there are respected thought leaders. The keynoters, the language designers, the authors of seminal texts. Where are the women there? Can you name one in this millenium?

Enrollment of women in computer science is decreasing. The women who do program move up to project management instead of architecture. Senior developers go home at five thirty while their husbands lead user groups. Why?

I want to find role models at the very top of our industry. I want to make talking tech with other women  commonplace. I want to encourage women to make programming a career. I want more women at StrangeLoop.

69 thoughts on “This is not OK

  1. Welcome to the team! (Came across your posts via Twitter.) Yeah, we as a community need to work on ALL the parts of the contribution funnel (a.k.a. the pipeline): countering the discouragement of girls, nurturing novices, treating gifted contributors equally, and recognizing female superstars. Most of us can only concentrate on improving one bit of that at a time — I, for example, concentrate on helping semitechnical or technical women participate in open source, and grow that skillset.It sounds like a big section of the funnel you'd like to improve is recognizing and promoting top-shelf talented women. At the tech conferences I go to, we get keynoters like Alex Bayley, Karen Sandler, Val Aurora, Leigh Honeywell, Sumana Harihareswara (me), Jessica McKellar, Robin Bergeron, and Mary Gardiner. Hope this list helps in case you're in a position to recommend keynoters to other conferences!Best wishes in growing the St. Louis women-in-tech community. When I was a kid I lived in Ballwin for a couple of years; it would be lovely to come back and get to meet that crowd.

  2. In Paris, there's the duchess/fr group ( helps women-in-tech know they won't be alone at conferences and presentations. There is already a network of duchess groups at least in Europe.Maybe you could get it touch with them to know more about their experience.

  3. I was at StrangeLoop and was simultaneously blown away by the awesome presentations and depressed about the extreme gender imbalance (I'm a guy). As Alex said, thanks for writing something about this.

  4. +1 … I have seen equality issues and spoken up myself when it happens. One reason we need more women in sw eng , though less important than equality, is that men and women think fundamentally differently. Neither thinks better than the other but they approach problems differently and complement each others thinking. -Bill

  5. I don't understand the anger. Does it matter that more men than women work in the technical industry? Is it really a sign there is some sort of discrimination going on? I don't think so. I know colleges put a lot of effort into recruiting females into the engineering fields of study. There is quite a few scholarships and grants out there just for females. In other words, I see quite a bit of effort to really include females. I am sure you have seen it at the conferences. Guy geeks get excited when a woman that has a great skill shows up! I do get bothered by the reverse discrimination. The starting of the female-only support organization. The specific excluding of inviting males to your dinner because you feel like there is some sort of imbalance. Are you really improving things or are you just drawing the line to be much more distinct? Why can't people just be recognized for their talents?I jokingly say this though – this has to be the next level of \”Put down the seat when you are done\” argument. Don't forget that you are just as capable of putting it down as I am of lifting it up.

  6. \”There are speakers, and then there are respected thought leaders. The keynoters, the language designers, the authors of seminal texts. Where are the women there? Can you name one in this millenium?\”Sandi Metz! She is definitely on my hero list.

  7. I don't think this is because women are discriminated against. I think it is a chicken and egg problem.There aren't many women in computer science because there aren't many women in computer science. That is why we need programs and encouragement to reverse the downward spiral of fewer and fewer women that is happening now.

  8. I am a developer now, but was a high school teacher for years. I can really empathize with what it is like to be a marginalized gender minority in a workplace setting. All the little assumptions (like the bathroom issue) add up to real frustration. But what I found most offensive is to be forced into processing and prioritizing differently than what comes natural to our individuality, American gender roles and/or biological roles just because it is what is most comfortable for the majority. I am sure that it felt really good to be surrounded by people that understand what it is like to be a women in the CS community. That being said, I think that it is probably easier to be a man in a women's culture, than a women in a man's culture just because of the general outspoken male horniness of our world.

  9. If it is a chicken and egg problem than how can we have a downward spiral? That would indicate that there is some sort of mass exodus of women from the field. As I mentioned above, there are already quite a few programs out there to get woman into engineering fields. In fact, many schools have specific branches of their administrative staff dedicated to recruiting women! There aren't that many women in the field because they just choose to do other things. That is fine! Who is to say that the field has to be made up of some predefined ratio of men to women? It doesn't make sense logically.

  10. I honestly don't understand the anger. This is like me freaking out that there aren't many men in childcare. So what? So what if most men just aren't interested in spending their days taking care of toddlers? Should we create a program to incentivise more men into taking up that profession or spend our time on, you know, something constructive?If I went to a conference for Nurses, saw that the main male toilets were temporarily converted to female toilets and had to walk around the corner to use a third set and ended up throwing a bottle across the room as a result, I would seriously question my sanity.

  11. Selena Deckelmann key noted at the most recent DjangoCon and Stormy Peters key noted at the most recent PyCon. Some examples of people to look up to.

  12. Anonymous, try spending a little time as a man trying to go into child care. It wont take you long to feel the sexism. I am a man studying pedagogy. I've experienced explicit direct sexism towards my choice of profession from my friends(telling me that people will think I'm a pedophile because I like playing with children). I've experienced sexism from my teachers, telling me that it's really not normal for a man to study this major, and that I'm not \”fun\” enough to work with kids. I've experienced sexism from my family members, telling me I'll never be able to afford a family if I go into such a poorly paid profession. I've experienced sexism from my classmates, some of whom express shock at my desire to teach. And through all of this, I've actually chosen to change my major and give up my dream of teaching children.Women in the computer sciences probably feel similarly. They face shock from their friends and family \”don't you want to have kids\” \”so you're some kind of nerd? Like working in the basement behind some glowing screen.\” As soon as they join IRC they get hit on. For a long time, I didn't really understand how that could be a bad thing. Then again, men hardly ever get hit on in an open and direct way like women do. Go spend a few nights in a gay bar and then tell me that being constantly hit on by people who don't interest you is never the least bit uncomfortable. Even from the professors, young women in computer programming are sometimes made to feel uncomfortable. There is always going to be a male professor who takes a special interest in them because they are a woman. And that could be uncomfortable in a similar way to being in a special ed pullout program is uncomfortable. And there are also some holdout sexist professors who will really believe that women don't have the iron to work in the industry. I'm not studying comp sci, so I cannot really give you an in depth analysis beyond that.

  13. Tim, thank you!The stereotype that men who play with children are predators is tragic and heartbreaking. It is a much bigger problem than the lake of women in comp sci.The discrimination you experience is much worse than anything I have endured in computer science. Heck, I have experienced more advantage than disadvantage from my gender.You have some great points about how many women feel excluded and harassed. Love the gay bar idea.

  14. I read your post all the way through and had no trouble getting that your anguish was about the extremely low percentage of women, not the hotel and conference staff. A lot of people missed that. I suspect they didn't read it left-to-right, top-to-bottom with pauses at the end of sentences. It's a bummer that you'll probably make your next post more skimmer-friendly, because I quite like hearing stories told as they happened.You make a very good point. It isn't enough to have female role models where business meets software development. There needs to be a good amount of female role models on the highly technical side too. I didn't go to Strange Loop this year, but I noticed that NodeConf had the same situation where the organizers were welcoming but there were very few women in attendance, probably because they're both about emerging technologies.Blogging about software engineering topics is a great way for women to make themselves known within software engineering circles. I'm glad to see you've been doing that long before you wrote this post. Please keep doing that, encouraging others to do that, and finding ways to go beyond blog posts.

  15. The field must approach 50%, else we run the risk of having to deal with the thought that men and women are not exactly the same. There are so many programs out there that try to get men into the classroom, women into engineering, etc. The truth is that men and women are (on average) wired differently. There are always percentages that deviate from the norm, but the norm is still evident. I think it's probably a noble effort to keep trying to recruit, but at what point should we just conclude that genders do indeed have non-anatomical differences?

  16. Right on! There are too few women in programming and computer science. I feel like those who do choose those careers get so used to having to be one of the boys that we don't always know how to interact with other women. Building a communities of women in tech help us all.I am one of those troublemakers who started as a programmer but moved on to project management. I truly believe it is because my talents are in implementation not technical conceptualization. When I was in graduate school for information security I was one of two women in the 12 person program. I felt guilty that my interests were in user awareness, privacy policy and other non-technical topics. I worked to be top of the class in the required technical courses because I wanted to prove that I wasn't choosing a non-technical career because I couldn't do the technical stuff. I'd love for their to be so many women choosing technical roles that I don't have to feel apologetic that I did not.

  17. My feeling about women in STEM careers is that the STEM careers mostly suck, and women aren't trained from an early age to give up quality of life to \”provide for their family\” the way men are. Men like unproductively long hours because they've been brainwashed to feel that this is a manly thing (and beaten up hard to get them out of the mindset that spending time with their kids is at all manly, as opposed to what it really is: the most manly thing ever.)I've been fortunate (as a man) to have had a very successful career in science and technology while at the same time being a good father and spending loads of time with my now-adult offspring, but I had to be a significant multiple better than my peers to pull that off, and I will never see the rewards and recognitions that go along with the 80-hour weeks (this does not particularly upset me–I've still got a lot of years ahead and could go for them if I really cared.)So while I'm all for more women in tech, I think the issue could be posed more as \”how do we make men's jobs suck less in terms of quality of life\” and less in terms of \”how do we convince more women that the frequently-miserable lifestyle of the high-end technology worker is a good choice.\”

  18. I feel like part of the question about women in STEM careers needs to be \”where did it start?\” For example, I had a conversation with a friend of mine a long time ago about how the gender of a child affects how it is raised. She was telling me that her brother (then 16) was basically unable to take care of himself, which would prove detrimental when he tried to move out and go to college. He couldn't cook for himself, he never cleaned anything, he didn't know how to wash clothes, etc. She said she couldn't understand how he didn't know how to do any of those things. So I asked her if her parents had ever made him do those chores, and of course, they hadn't. They had given her all those chores. So he never learned any of those things because he was never encouraged/forced to learn them growing up.I remember when I was in high school I was in several advances courses – physics 2, calculus, and comp sci 2. Now, all of those courses are not required courses – you didn't need them to graduate. This means only people who were interested in them actually took them. There were no girls in Comp Sci 2, and only 1 girl in Comp Sci 1 the year before. There were no girls in Physics 2, and only about 3 or 4 in Physics 1 the year before. Calculus was actually a bit closer, with about 7 or 8 girls and around 15 or so guys. The point here is that before they graduate high schools girls are already not interested in STEM topics. So the issue here is one that starts early – a combination of early educational counseling, how they're raised at home, and a lack of female STEM role models (someone the girls can aim for and want to be like).You're right that it's not ok. But I often hear people blame the tech industry and I feel this is unfair when so many girls steer away from anything STEM way before they've left high school, or even middle school.I like the idea of promoting female thought leaders, keynote speakers, etc. This will give girls who are interested in the topic someone they can aspire to be like. I also feel there should be a concentrated effort to get involved early in a child's development – something like after school programs for girls where they participate in STEM-related activities led by female tutors.

  19. What I find interesting is that this problem appears to have at least some root at the high school level or earlier since female enrollment in Bachelor's CompSci programs is way down. I know at least in my high school, there weren't any females on the math team. I would bet that if you look at the numbers of females on high school math teams it would correlate heavily with the number of females that enter CompSci or any math heavy engineering discipline. I would be very interested in learning whether this problem is prevalent in Asian countries that typically have a very different approach towards teaching Mathematics than we do in the west.

  20. I'm OK with the fact that there are fewer women in some trades than others.\”There aren't enough women in programming.\” For what? For your personal needs or do you have some empirical evidence that the field \”needs\” women?

  21. Well, as a worker at (large Software Company) the male/female split is FAR more even among Asian-heritage workers than for white-heritage workers.

  22. You're on to something, Tom. I think Jess answered her own question when she asked, \”Senior developers go home at five thirty while their husbands lead user groups. Why?\” Most women in the workplace do double-duty at home, too. It's not that having a challenging, creative job isn't on their agenda (despite what Sheryl Sandberg says, many women don't voluntarily take their foot off the gas) it's that they don't perceive that they have a choice if they also want to spend time with a family. The existing infrastructure of most workplaces is set up to accommodate men who have women to cover for them at home when they need to work late. If women don't have help at home and they have people to take care of (kids, elderly parents, etc. or heaven forbid hobbies, exercise, etc.) then they have to \”choose\” jobs that let them go home at 5:30. Not really a fair choice, is it?The founder of 37Signals somehow manages to run a successful software company and promote an office culture where people take vacations and work four days a week. When men demand from their workplaces the same opportunities to \”have a life\” and have a creative, challenging job that doesn't overwhelm that life, it will not only level the playing field, it will be better for all of us.

  23. Do you have any experimental evidence of biology causing, women choosing not to go into CS in particular? Or why it would cause them to go into it and then drop out at greater numbers than men? Because I have experimental evidence that it is cultural: among many others.\”Biology\” is a lazy explanation and your post is just a massive justification predicated on flimsy statistics that weren't measured anywhere near the field you are talking about. Flexibility and adaptability are evolutionarily advantageous; the burden of proof is on those who want to write it off enormous disconnects as biology. Especially since fields such as Business Analytics and Digital Archiving and Mathematics, all of which have significant overlap with Computer Science, don't share the gender dynamics, and in countries such as Malaysia a majority of CS majors are women. Why would your biological explanations apply only to some countries?Wait, don't tell me, I'm sure you'll come up with some implausible justification so you can keep clinging to the idea that nothing is wrong.

  24. Beth, thanks for the evidence.Absolutely this is a cultural problem. The culture that is a problem is much wider than the culture in our industry. It is the culture of our country.

  25. It mostly comes down to, \”why is the gender balance so skewed?\” If men and women were being encouraged the same, given the same opportunities, had the same issues to cope with (say, childcare), and the balance was still skewed, you might have a point.That isn't what's happening.What is happening is that girls and boys are pushed towards different interests from young ages, often getting cultural messages that gender makes you better or worse at something, have uneven hurdles to climb (women still do most of the housework, have a harder time getting mentors, etc.) and just generally have to deal with a lot of bias–something as simple as your name can affect whether you get an interview for a job. The gender imbalance is the most visible effect of all this.When you see a gender (or racial, or some other type of) imbalance, it's usually a sign of less obvious structural issues.

  26. Hello JessiTRON! I wish your new group or meetup luck! You might like looking at other meetups and groups like Women Who Code ( . This list is pretty good (and growing) — You don't have to explain everything about the fact that sexism exists to all the guys around you, there are things they could read to educate themselves a little bit! I hope they give it a try.- Liz

  27. As the daughter of a woman in comp sci, it makes me happy to read this and know that other people have issues with this too. I keep sticking on the bathroom thing. Mom came home from several conferences talking about how they did that and that the only restrooms for women were really far away. Also, on the whole project manager track thing, she hasn't gotten a promotion in a really long time bc the company wants to make her a project manager and she would rather write code. Anyway, I'm happy to read someone else getting upset about the same things that affect her.

  28. It starts in 4th grade. Just google \”STEM differences 4th grade\” for a ton of articles and such on the topic. The Society of Women Engineers does a lot of outreach aimed at that grade level. SWE also has some great training around how to talk about engineering. Mostly talk about how engineering has an impact on the world and not talk about how engineers make a lot of money and how math is hard.

  29. My wife, who has degrees in Chemistry and technology, and I talk about this since we have a daughter. One problem is that families start thrusting \”Princess\” ideals and other social constructs on girls from before birth. To me it is horrifying. There's nothing wrong with looking nice – that's our interface for the world to see, so if it works out, that's great. But people need to be nurtured in a way that teaches them to solve problems and seek new levels of understanding. That's where we get engineers, scientists, and other high-knowledge professionals. Reinforcing vanity with ideas like in-born beauty and princess ideology, to the exclusion of knowledge acquisition, intellectual risk-taking, professional communication skills, and other important skills, will only leave children surprised and unprepared for life in the real world where people are respected for knowledge and leadership. To some extent this is also done to boys with ideas like \”talent\” and \”genius.\” BS!! how about persistence and personal growth? But girls, from what I see, often grow up with the largest measure of these social poisons.

  30. Thanks for sharing this. I was talking about Strange Loop with Ines just the other day. She said I should go. :)One hilarious goal would be to get enough women there that there's always a line for the bathroom. Anyway, I've been right at that point so many times – just wanting to hit, scream, throw. That first time when I was chatting about database concurrency problems with four female PhDs in a bar was fun and a revelation. I'd love to support what you're planning for a group in St Louis.

  31. Switching bathrooms for practical reasons is not sexism if women still have some place to go. It's being rational; since it works the other way around too, according to the ushers.***I've always been on the fence about all-one-gender groups, because I think that \”reverse/positive discrimination\” is still discrimination. For example, look at how \”positive discrimination\” turned out, in the job market and society of South Africa towards whites and how that policy has turned the ANC to a fairly hostile anti-white party.

  32. I think the bathroom reassignment was a good thing. Usually at large tech conferences men start to overflow into the women's restroom to avoid the lines anyway. It's awkward being reminded of the gender gap when your pants are down.

  33. Anonymous @10/1/2012 7:39, it is a chicken and egg problem because when there is only one woman in a group, she is judged not on her own merits, but as an Emissary of Womankind. After a while, it gets really tiresome that whenever you succeed, you are held up as an exception to the rule that women don't program, but whenever you fail, you are just another example that shows women can't program. This is why many women leave the field, because it's hard to deal with that constant pressure.

  34. Yes, along with what Beth mentioned, it is a fallacy that men and women are \”wired differently\”; for one thing, the human brain is not \”wired\”, it is plastic, and connections develop as a person learns over time. The skill typically pulled out as evidence of sex differences, spatial rotation, has been shown in studies such as Feng, Spence and Pratt (2007) to be mutable when both men and women are given the same training before the test. I recommend neuroscientist Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender, which addresses this issue and many others, such as the Greater Male Variability hypothesis, stereotype threat, and other claims that men and women have biologically different mental capacities.

  35. Thanks for writing this. I tweeted several notes about the gender gap during Strange Loop 2012 (and also in previous years) and got some good responses. I know Alex would like to see improvement. I'd love to see the Ada Initiative or some other org get involved. Someone proposed Strange Loop sponsorships to both raise awareness and to close the gap some. Good luck – I hope you get your Women in StL group going and that similar ideas catch on elsewhere.

  36. It really bothers me that anyone would think a single woman in a group of technical people would be thought of as \”an emissary for womankind\”. I never saw other people think that way in college (where there was a single female in most of my CS classes). I've never seen people act that way through decades of corporate work and now consulting, in groups with either a high or low percentage of women. One of my best friends is a female programmer that I consider to be excellent, and do not consider her to be any kind of \”emissary\”, just a really intelligent programmer! In no other field have I ever seen women treated as equally as I do in software development every day. You may perceive women as being treated that way but I think it a disservice to make other women think that is so. They should consider entering software development or a CS degree with the expectation that most people will treat them based on merit and not gender, and treat deviations from that condition as an aberration and not any kind of norm that has to have entire systems built to address.I think the way to get the percentage of women in software development to increase is by pointing out to young women what a great lifestyle software development is compared to many other jobs, with discrimination at a rate far lower than most other professions. Claims like the one you are making will I think drive even more women away from a field where women are as welcome and valued as anyone.

  37. Thank you for your thoughts.Lots of people are working on getting more young women, but that doesn't solve the problem of experienced women leaving the field at twice the rate of men.Hopefully I won't be the only woman in the room at most user group meetings ten years from now. But this isn't going to change from everyone sitting back and patting each other on our heads. It probably won't change from anything I do, either. But that won't stop me from trying.

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