So many assumptions

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

There was a comment at Yegge’s post about good Agile, bad Agile that caught my eye:

To the people who complained that because they have other priorities besides programming (families, hobbies, etc) they’ve been lumped in a “lesser programmers” category I can only say this: if you have other priorities besides programming, then you are, by definition, a lesser programmer.

Not that you aren’t skilled, brilliant, whatever, it just means that your footprint on the world of programming will be shallow. You won’t be of a magazine, you won’t be giving keynotes at OSCON.
To be truly outstanding in any field requires that you be obsessed. People who influence their fields don’t go home on time. The always need to stay an extra hour or eight. Not because they need money or because they have a deadline, but because they need to work out an idea.

They know going home would be pointless anyway. They might say hello to their wives and children, but their mind would be elsewhere.

Don’t take it as an insult, it’s just reality. The hour-a-day jogger isn’t going to make the Olympics. The eight-hour-a-day programmer isn’t going to write Linux. If that isn’t obvious to you then no amount of hours would be likely to make you exceptional so don’t worry about it.

There are so many assumptions associated with this comment that one wonders where to start. The fact that it’s taken as a given that all great programmers are men? That one can’t be great in one’s field unless one is obsessed? That one can’t have a life outside of technology and still obtain a respected position in the field?

I point out this comment, not because the views are unique, but because they are typical of many in the tech field–a view fostered by companies such as Google (and Yahoo! and other ‘Web 2.0’ companies), who use star treatment to make its workers feel ‘special’, as it slowly sucks them dry.

We women have seen the beast, though, and recognize it for what it is: a façade. No wonder we’re actively discouraged from being members of this profession.


Role Models

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

couple of items surfaced recently about the lack of women in science and technology, including a NYTimes op-ed piece rejecting the recent study about women in sciences and another weblogger writing about the importance of having women as role models (via Sour Duck.

The latter, in particular, caught my attention because when I was studying science in college, other than biology and environmental sciences, all of the teachers were men. This included my psychology classes, as well as the computer, math, physics, chemistry, and electronics. I did have women professors: in English, in Art, and speech and communication. Even my history teachers were male. I’d never really noticed before how male skewed my old schools were, but that was two or three decades ago, while women were still beginning to realize we could crawl out of our suburban holes.

My favorite teacher taught history, and though I didn’t follow history as a profession, I’ve had a love of history since. However, the teacher that had the most impact on my life was the professor who taught speech and communication, because she showed me how not to be afraid to speak up–both as a speaker, and as a woman.

Do I remember discrimination in school? Most definitely yes–in one case out and out discrimination. As an employee of the YVCC (Yakima Valley Community College) Women’s Center, my job was to interview professors in ‘non-traditional’ fields, to see what we could do to encourage more women in these professions. When talking to the head of the engineering department, he noted that one of the women in his classes lacked the ‘proper attitude’ to be an engineer. Why? Because she showed up for class every day, nicely groomed, with her hair styled and wearing makeup.

For the most part, though, YVCC, like many community colleges, was a fairly comfortable environment, and my teachers had a very positive effect on my life. When I was pre-law, I won a political science scholarship based on the recommendation of the political science teacher. I’ve always had a love/hate thing with math, but the calculus teacher managed to not only help me overcome this, I eventually ended up with an A for the class. I don’t think I did as well with the geology class as I could have, but that was more me taking on too many classes for the quarter.

I did like the sciences. Not the biology or so-called ‘soft’ sciences. I liked physics. I liked knowing how things worked and were put together. I grew up with Isaac Asimov and stories of the atom and on magazines such as Popular Science. Inspired in part by how well I did in calculus at YVCC, I switched to physics when I started college at CWU and that’s when things really went all to hell.

I remember that in my first (and only) physics class, always feeling as if whatever I was doing was wrong; never being comfortable about approaching either the professor or the assistants; discouraged from asking for help of the other students. I felt dumb in lab, and dumber whenever I took a test. It was confusing and demoralizing because I was a 3.89 average student at YVCC.

The same feelings of inadequancy happened with the chemistry class and a math class I took that same quarter: it never seemed to come together for me. I lost confidence, and the less confident I felt, the less well I did, and the less the teachers seemed to be interested in me. I continually felt out of place.

Luckily during this time, I also took my first computer class. The teacher held a PhD in English (not uncommon in the early years of comp-sci in many universities) and had a relaxed, though very disciplined style of teaching that was a breath of fresh air as compaired to the ‘chaos’ I felt in the other classes. It was like he was speaking a language I could understand, while the other professors were just jabbering.

I changed my field to computer science and did very well in the program: except for the math classes. I never did regain whatever confidence I had in math from YVCC, and barely limped along in the advanced math classes required to get a comp-sci degree. This actually puzzled the head of the math department, because he knew the teacher I had in YVCC and felt I should have been doing better in the math classes.

His confusion was made more so when I ended up taking a double-major in computer science and psychology. In order to meet a need in both programs, I would take my advanced statistics in the psych department rather than the math department. Both covered the same material, though the statistics program in the psych department allowed us to play around with some very advanced statistics programs.

I did extremely well with the math class as taught by the psych professor–a wonderfully mellow man who actually wore the heather twill coats and smiled gently at one and all of his students–as compared to the math teachers at the University who, outside of the head of the department, never smiled, and never had time for any students other than their ‘pets’.

Meanwhile, back in my computer science classes, the teachers were very encouraging of all students, regardless of sex. There were 32 students in my comp-sci graduation class, but only five of us were women. However, of the top three graduating, two were women, and I was one.

At the time I didn’t feel that discrimination was an issue at the university: only that I seemed to be the class dumb bunny in the physics and math classes. We assume that discrimination is overt, such as the engineering teacher’s statement that a nicely dressed woman can’t possibly be interested in engineering. As I came to realize, over time, discrimination is more a covert act than an overt one–of body language and communication style, encouragement and expectations, cultural focus and priorities.

In his editorial, Tierney wrote:

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it’s insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests. As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don’t go into engineering: they don’t want to.

“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors or quarks,” Hausman said. “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”

I wonder now what would have happened if things had been different when I was in school. If the comp-sci professors had been less encouraging, or I had walked into that first physics class and the professor had been a woman instead of a man.

We don’t need role models, as much as we need environments where women are welcome. I didn’t need to see that women could make it in the field as much as I needed to believe that I could make it in the field. It helped to have male professors who could engage all of their students regardless of their sex; but it would have helped more to have walked into that physics class that first day and not felt out of place in the first ten minutes of the class.

There’s little to choosing when the deck’s stacked against you. Tierney knows this; he’s right there, holding the cards.

Why women are not represented equally in the hard sciences and technology is based on a hundred, probably a thousand, different factors–ranging from discriminating teachers and peers to baby girls being cuddled more than baby boys. There is no one solution that’s going to change this. I do know, though, that we can’t even make a start if we don’t look at this situation and recognize that in a supposedly equal and diverse community, when a field is heavily skewed by sex (or race), than something is broken. Whether it’s the field that’s broken, or the society, it’s important to recognize that lack of diversity in any field is an obstacle in all of humanity’s future progress.


Comments to comments

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I don’t remember this being written about anywhere, and I don’t know how old the ability is, but you can now add comments to individual product reviews at Amazon.

As an author, what a wonderful way of responding to comments on one’s work. For others, what a great way to get more detail from the original commenter, or provide counter-point and/or appreciation.


Accessibility, Ajax style

My editor, Simon St. Laurent, and I both agreed that with the new book, Adding Ajax, the work would all be valid and accessible. Some of this effort is easy; much is not.

One particular area has to do with updates. When using a screenreader, or when using a screen magnifier, if the data in the page is updated, the web page reader may not be aware that such updates have taken place. You then need to provide some form of cue, and I don’t mean the color fade (which if you think on it, is about the most unaccessible Ajax effect there is).

As has been discussed elsewhere if screenreaders didn’t support JavaScript, life would be simpler because the readers would then get the no script version of the page contents. Screenreaders do support JavaScript, though, and that plays all sorts of havoc.

Anyway, while researching the current state of accessible Ajax (which threatens to be an oxymoron), I came across some resources I thought might be of interest.

Regardless of whether you’re a web developer or not, it’s a good idea to test your page as it appears in screenreaders. I use Apple’s VoiceOver, which is built into Mac OS 10.4 and up. Unfortunately, its behavior differs from other screenreaders, such as JAWS.


Johnson, one last time

I visited Johnson’s Shut-Ins one last time this year, as the park is going to be closed next Monday to attempt to repair the Taum Sauk Dam break. It was too sunny at midday to get much in the way of photos, but I managed a couple.

I passed others out for a last look and we’d usually stop and say hello; repeating to each other how beautiful the Shut-Ins still looked, despite the damage. None of us was very convincing, though. In all honesty, the park isn’t beautiful: not with the debris field like a miniature desert, construction trucks, wire fences, and a river still buried under silt from the flood. There was a lot of green, but none of the tranquility I’ve come to associate with the Shut-Ins. They just looked tired.

It was a good idea to close the park to finish the work. They don’t have to worry about us being underfoot and can take down the fences in order to start clearing the river. Then, in the Spring, they can have a ‘Ta da!’ moment when everyone is allowed into the newly restored park.

There’s a lot to be said for working quietly, out of the eye of the public.