Connecting Diversity

When we are needed

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Recently, the Information Technology Association of America released a report examining the state of diversity in IT in the United States and the results are less than comforting: IT is rapidly becoming less diversified, rather than more.

According to the study the *number of women in IT-related positions dropped by 20% in the last decade. This in light of the fact that women in other traditionally male professions are either holding their numbers, or actually increasing their levels of participation.

Most of the decrease came from administrative ranks, which means that women are not moving into management positions in the tech industry, or if they are, they’re not staying. Outside of the administrative ranks, women hold 24% of jobs in IT, less that the 25% as measured in 2002, which was previously considered the worst year for women in tech.

Catarina Fake at Misbehaving pointed to an article by Roy Mark on this report, who wrote:

In other words, there is a female brain drain occurring in technology. This isn’t about educating and training more young women in engineering and science, worthy goal that it is. It is about women who already have those degrees taking their skills to a climate that is more likely than tech to be respectful.

This is happening at a time when Bill Gates, Craig Barrett and John Chambers, et al., are trooping to Capitol Hill to decry the declining American IT talent pool. They want relaxed immigration rules. They want more tax dollars invested in science and technology. They want outsourcing.

Among those who have responded to these articles, Antonella Pavese writes about leaving IT years ago, not so much because of the ‘boys club behavior’ but because of the emphasis on speed over quality, and a disregard for the human aspects of computing:

What I found frustrating is not so much the exclusion from the boy’s club–although there is definitely some of that–but rather the excessive emphasis on speed rather than quality […] on execution rather than strategy, and the disregard for the human and caring aspects of building applications (e.g., the quality of the user experience rather than the quality of the code).

Heather Solomon argues the issue isn’t with the industry so much as it is with society:

What I didn’t like about the article was the direct jab at the IT industry. I don’t think the problem is the industry – geeks aren’t bred to look down on women – but instead I think the issue is there are more men than women in the IT industry in the first place, thus increasing the ratio of male personality types. More men equal more chances to get personality types that look down on women. This isn’t limited to corporate culture, you know this exact thing happens with law enforcement, the fire department, the military, etc….

Dori Smith pointed to another article by SiliconValley. She also disagreed with Mark’s article, believing that rather than women leaving IT, IT is leaving women:

Lucrative? Fulfilling? Snicker. Sorry to tell you, folks, but the economy since 2001 has been losing jobs, not gaining them (or at least not gaining in sufficient quantity to match the number of people joining the workforce, which means net loss of employment). There just simply aren’t jobs that are equally lucrative. And for those of us who, like me, honestly enjoy programming, there aren’t any that are more fulfilling. So no, that’s not why we’re leaving.

Bonus link: Liz Lawley is going to the UK, to a conference on Integrating Research on Girls’ Choices of IT Careers. I’ll be cash money right now on the number of times — zero — someone will bring up the 800 lb. gorilla in the room: they’re encouraging girls to choose a career path that, by every metric I’ve seen, is decreasing in both number of jobs and wages for those jobs.

Dori’s opinion has real merit when you consider that the ITAA study also discussed the loss of IT jobs in this country. According to a Programmer’s Guild look at the study:

The study reveals a grim job market for U.S. IT workers. The total number of IT jobs in the U.S. has diminished 8% – from 4,882,000 in 2000 down to 4,469,000 in 2004. Over 100,000 new graduates entered the IT workforce each year during that period, and a few hundred thousand more entered on nonimmigrant visas, such as H-1B and L-1.

Women comprise 32.4% of the IT workforce, or 1,448,000 workers. Of these skilled female IT workers, 92,000, or 6.4%, are unemployed. Combined with the 124,000 unemployed skilled male IT workers, U.S. employers are failing to utilize nearly 250,000 skilled U.S. IT workers. Rather than propose solutions to the high unemployment current workers, ITAA calls for substantial increases in the number of women and minorities entering the profession.

The Programmer’s Guild has a rather unique take on the issue and a suggestion: the problem of unemployed tech is a direct result of the lack of imaginative and skilled employers in the US. Therefore, create a set of H1B visas that bring in skilled foreign employers, who then can only hire US employees.

So where are the women in technology? Why aren’t there more of us? I actually agree with all the opinions expressed on this issue: Dori, who says there are no jobs for women; Roy Mark, who says women are rejecting the male culture; and Antonella, who says the industry isn’t of sufficient interest to women. All of these are driven from one simple fact: when there is a need in the industry, women are weclome. When there isn’t a need, it’s Rosie the Riveter pack up your rivet gun and get out, all over again.

Oh geez, she’s doing the history thing again

If you’re not familiar with Rosie the Riveter, she was a character created in World War II to encourage a generation of women to work outside of the home in support of the war effort. The inspiration for the name originated from a song, Rosie the Riveter, sung by the Four Vagabonds (listen).

Norman Rockwell painted the first Rosie for the Post — a big, strong, woman having lunch, an American Flag behind her, her rivet gun at her feet. Later, another Rosie was created, this one just as strong, just as capable, but a little more in line with the 40’s idea of feminine beauty (to assure women they could work in factories, and still be feminine). In this poster, the words “We can do it!” are defiantly typed in bold letters across the top.

I thought of Rosie when I heard about the results of the ITAA report. It isn’t that women in technology today receive the same, overt resistence that the Rosies of sixty years ago did. After all, there is no one physically blocking doors so we can’t enter a room; no sugar poured down gas tanks so we crash when we fly. But something is off in the field, to keep it so imbalanced. Something wrong to cause such a significant decrease in the number of women, not to mention men of other races. Especially other races. If the issue with women is we’re turned off by tech because we want to spend time with our kids, than how do we explain the drop in black or hispanic men?

Since I can’t speak for either black or hispanic men, I’ll focus specifically on women. The last time we women shared a dramatic drop in employment with black men was at the end of WW II, so that’s as good a place as any to start digging for answers.

Yesterday’s Rosie

Last week I picked up a new book on the subject of women in WWII: Our Mother’s War, by Emily Yellin. The author decided to write the story when she came across letters written by her mother, who was a student at the start of the war, and eventually ended up with the Red Cross in the Pacific at war’s end.

Before the war, Yellin’s mother would have looked forward to meeting her future husband to-be in college, getting married, and most likely raising 1-3 kids. During the Depression, women weren’t encouraged to pursue a profession, particularly if you were middle or upper class. After all, there was hardly enough jobs to employee men who had families to care for, much less women who were fortunate enough to have men care for them. Unluckily, or perhaps luckily, war changed all that.

Yellin’s mother, Carol Lynn Heggen as she was known before her marriage, had several choices as to how she could contribute to the war effort, depending on her aptitude and experience. For instance, if she could fly a plane, she could have joined the WASP, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Of course, she would have had to cover her own expenses to get to Delaware to sign up. And if she was killed on duty–an event that happened through deliberate sabatage as well as by accident–her friends and family would have to pay to have her body flown home. Her casket would not draped with the American flag during this trip because the WASPs were auxilliary and not real military.

Heggen could have joined the WAC (Women’s Army Corp, or sometimes WAAC–Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp), which served as a branch of the Army; or the WAVS, the Navy offshoot. Women in both served as nurses, repaired radios and cars, analyzed aerial photographs, forecasted the weather, and did a host of other critically needed work, freeing up men for the fight.

One such was Genevieve Chasm whose interview I especially enjoyed (as you’ll probably see why rather quickly):

I had a big mouth — in fact, that was my downfall. I didn’t care what the rank was. If I had been a man, they would have said, “Take that bum out, put him in combat, and make sure somebody shoots him the first day.”

When a service was opened for women, I just felt I should join, because the men were drafted, the men were enlisting, and I was single, and I just felt it was my duty. Now, I was 25 years old, very idealistic and patriotic, so I became part of the original group of enlisted women in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. When we arrived at Fort Ogelthorpe, Georgia, in true army fashion, the barracks weren’t complete. I mean, it was just chaotic.

Somehow or another we got through basic training. We had to get up very early in the morning, race around, and then we would be marched to the mess hall, and we’d just walk in the mess hall, get food on our tray, and we’d have to get out, they’d just throw us out.

Once the Mess Officer stopped and said (changes voice), ” I can get ten companies through my mess hall in a half an hour.” My big mouth — that was my downfall. So afterwards when they asked for questions I said to her, “I’ve been hungry ever since I’ve been in the army because all you think about is getting the people through, in and out, but you don’t think about feeding them!”

The last week before I was commissioned, we had to fill out a form, and one of the questions was: If you could have any job in the United States Army, what would it be? So I wrote, ” I would like to be a mess officer because I’ve been hungry as long as I’ve been in the army.”

Though not given guns and assigned to combat, the women were assigned around the world, and put in harm’s way as a consequence. In fact, many of the women had to undergo the same risks and hardships as the men, except that not only did women have to worry about the enemy, they also had to contend with the rumors back home. As Yellin noted:

While just about every woman who joined the Army did so with a sense of patriotism and commitment, a concerted slander campaign against Army women arose in 1943. Rumor had been circulating about the moral character of women who joined the WAAC during the first year of existence…Recruiting of WAACs was hindered. Most of the resistence to joining stemmed not from women themselves, it was found, but from negative reactions by the men in their lives to the idea of women joining the military…Most soldiers had little if any contact with WAACs, but they had strong opinions nonetheless. While many expressed some support of the idea of women in uniform, most were less than enthusiastic about their own family members joining.

One soldier wrote, “Join the WAVES or WAC and you are automatically a prostitute in my opinion.” Another wrote: “Any service woman–Wac, Wave, Spar, Nurse, Red Cross–she isn’t respected.” A soldier wrote his sister saying: “It’s no damn good, Sis, and I for one would be very unhappy if you joined them… Why can’t these Gals just stay home and be their own sweet little self, instead of being patriotic?”

Ultimately WAC leaders took the badmouthing in stride. One WAC officer commented, “Men have for centuries used slander to keep women out of public life.”

Yellin’s mother did take a position as part of the Red Cross. However, most women stayed at home and chose to contribute to the war effort by working in the factories, becoming a female defense industry worker, along with millions of her sisters. Women who came to be known over time as Rosie the Riveter.

Some facts about Rosie that might or might not surprise you

Contrary to popular assumption, women didn’t ‘enter’ the workforce with the beginning of World War II. The first women to go to work to support the war effort were those already employed, usually in low paying cleaning, waitressing, or secretarial jobs. These women started getting positions in the war industry as early as 1939, when the US began to gear up to support Britain, and in anticipation of our own inevitable entry.

As more men were drafted, the government and industry, still reluctant to go after middle class mothers, began a recruitment campaign geared at single women. By 1943, several million women were employed in positions traditionally held by men, but this was still not enough. Industries supplying the war machine and the Government devised a propaganda campaign to attract the only pool of labor left: middle class married women, with or without children–not an easy task, according to Yellin:

Recruiting housewives to war work was indeed a delicate prospect. Even women who might have wanted to work often had to contend with doubting husbands […] And only 8 percent of all women had husbands in the service. The average wartime American family on the home front was still firmly composed of a housewife with a working husband.

These were the men who were called to task for their attitudes by the left-wing periodical The Nation, which published a revolutionary article entitled “America’s Pampered Husbands” in July, 1943:

Husbandly pressure on housewives not to enlist for the war-production front takes much subtler terms than an overt “I object.” Largely, it shapes up as men’s time hallowed, unspoken refusal to share in home responsibilities, an attitude that puts an intolerable double burden on the working wife….When household equipment needs replacement, when the children’s shoe size changes, when the toothpaste runs out, it is Mother not Father who scibbles memoranda on scraps of paper and squeezes in necessary shopping sometime, somewhere….If a woman can learn to run a drill press, why can’t a man learn how to run a washing machine?

If a woman can learn to run a drill press, why can’t a man learn how to run a washing machine? This sounds like Doofus Husband has been around a long, long time.

A key fact to remember from the war effort is that the majority of women who worked (11.5 million) were those who had worked in low paying jobs before the war, and who had access to better paying and more interesting jobs because of the war. They outnumbered the number of women (6.5 million) who had never worked before the war. WW II’s biggest impact was showing women that they could do better than cleaning toilets for 2.00 a week.

At the end of the war, then, many of these women were not so sanguine about giving up these jobs. In fact, over 80% of the women who held jobs wanted to keep them. The government knew this could happen and again waged a propaganda campaign to subtly remind the women of their “implicit” promise to leave the jobs once the men returned. This worked with many of the women who voluntarily left their jobs Those who did not leave willingly, though, were usually fired, as industries now re-tooled for peace time efforts and jobs were returned to the men who were guaranteed those jobs when they left.

(Women and non-whites that is. The saying of “last hired, first fired” was originally created in WWII to describe black women, who were the last hired and the first let go in any position.)

Some protest was made about the firings, including a march in Michigan of female industry workers. However, for the most part women didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’, and left the jobs quietly. The move made by some of the women to keep their jobs died out without the support of the majority of women at the time.

Keep that phrase, “rock the boat” handy in your mind: it figures in the discussion later on.

Economic Need

Most of the women who worked at the time needed to continue working–this in a society that overly emphasized women’s role as homemaker. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the more astute political wives, was to write an essay on women worker’s after the war, Woman’s Place after the War. In it, she walked a careful course between supporting women’s desires to remain in the workplace, and women’s traditional role. Throughout her essay was a message: whether women stayed in the workplace or not is based, more or less, on economic need:

“Will women want to keep their jobs after the war is over?” When I asked Miss Mary Anderson of the Bureau of Women in Industry, she told me it all boils down to economic necessity. Married women usually keep their jobs only when they have real need for money at home. This, of course, does not mean that women who take up some kind of work as a career will not stay in that work if they like it, whether they are married or single.

The first question that will be faced in the postwar period is simply to what extent jobs are available. The first obligation of government and business is to see that every man who is employable has a job, and that every woman who needs work has it. A woman does not need a job if she has a home and a family requiring her care and a member of the household is earning an adequate amount of money to maintain a decent standard of living […] From my point of view, there is no justification whatsoever for labor leaders to oppose the employment of women at the present time wherever they are needed[…] An ever-growing number of young women in every walk of life are taking jobs as they finish school or college, but the main job of the average woman in our country still is to marry and have a home and children […] As I said in the beginning, whether women remain in the labor market or not will be, as it always has been, mainly a question of economic necessity.

Economic need played an influential role on the acceptance of women in industry long before the War. As the production of goods became automated at the turn of the last century, women and children both were brought into factories in cities around the country to toil at backbreaking, mind numbing, and dangerous work–usually for 12 or more hours a day. The work was deemed acceptable for women because there was not enough men to feed the suddenly industralized cities.

However, with the increased automation, as well as unionization of the workforce, women were slowly but surely crowded out of some of the better paying industrial jobs, which were now, unaccountably, deemed to be men’s work. Again.

Returning to WWII, much is made of the fact that women joined the work force during World War II primarily for patriotic reasons. This is true, but many also did so for economic reasons– they had to support their families. Industries also had a financial motive for recruiting women: profits.

Millions, even billions, of dollars were up for grabs in an economy that was gearing up for war three years before Pearl Harbor. As the war machine grew, and the available pool of men decreased because of the draft, the leaders of industry turned their calculating eyes at the women left behind and joined with the government to recruit women to work.

It was a breathtakingly brilliant campaign, and a huge success. Over six million women were convinced not only to break out of cultural biases about “women’s work”, they felt they had to do so, as good patriots.

At the end of war, industry again looked to the men returning from war and knew that if a way back to gainful employment wasn’t made for them, unemployment could again reach the numbers that existed at the time of the Depression. A Depression, though good for some businesses, is not good for most and to be avoided at all costs.

Again, industry turned its calculating eyes on the women who had been recruited, and joined with the government in a new propaganda campaign geared at getting women back into the home, into turning back into good little wives again. When that didn’t work, they fired women workers, or decreased their pay or opportunities until they again returned to pre-war economic levels: just barely above poverty. Many times this was in full support of unions that had originally enrolled the women, because too many workers drove down wages, as noted in Roosevelt’s essay.

Fast Forward

Fast forward now to a time about 50 or so years ago–a decade after the War. At that time, America was at the height of the cold war scare, and a new war was being fought: a war for industrial and scientific supremacy against the communists. Though the people in this country fought the war on idealogical grounds, those in industry, and consequently, Government, did so on a purely economic basis: Communism was bad for business.

Students were encouraged to study science, engineering, and math. Even women were encouraged, as more and more positions opened up for those with a scientific background. In fact, by 1966, the daughters of Rosie the Riveter earned 42% of scientific degrees given in the US.

Now, fast forward again about 20 years, to a time when society is becoming increasingly dependent on computers, and the computers are becoming smaller, cheaper, and much more common. The demand for skilled computer help is such that computer engineers are considered almost demi-godlike in their ability and treated reverently by corporations who overlook the computer worker’s eccentricities in face of their overwhelming need.

Even the eccentricitiy of being a woman, as women obtained 36% of the computer science degrees given in 1985 (according to National Science Foundation, NSF, records).

I received my CS degree in 1987, but the country’s frantic pace to dominate science had abated in the late 70’s and 80’s, brought about, partly, by disillusionment and a growing distrust of government, though industry still continued its move to automation. The growth in computer science jobs still continued, but was beginning to slow, as more companies had reached their initial ‘ramp up’ into automation. Companies no longer had an urgent need for computer science workers and could afford to be pickier.

Still women and minorities continued to increase their percentages in engineering and computer science — a small yearly increase that was to peak, for some reason, in 1984.

This slowly declining need for computer science workers is reflected in a overall drop in CS degrees sought in 1990 and 1995: from 39,121 in 1985, to 27,695 in 1990 and 24, 769 in 1995. What was more significant, though, was the percentage of those degrees given out to women in that time: falling to 30% in 1990, and 28% in 1995. This was counter to women’s increased participation in other areas of science, including math. Still, even within an industry undergoing a slowdown, women could find work, though, women were typically not paid the same or given the same opportunities as men.

Fast forward, but just a little, to a sudden and unexpected explosion that occurred when a new thing called the “Web” appeared. Industry, both old and a newer, net-enabled, was caught with its pants down, badly in need of a class of worker it had been discouraging for about a decade, and desperately in need of people who could fuel this new economy.

Beginning in 1995 there was an dramatic upsurge in students seeking degrees in computer science, though a need for a degree was no longer necessary; all that was important is that you could speak ‘geek’. Workers overseas who had been trained in computer science were a premium, and no one thought anything of bringing over as many as possible. It was only later was it noted that most of the people brought over to the country were men.

Many of the women who entered the internet-related workforce did so directly, encouraged by Industry, and not through getting a CS degree — causing all sorts of havoc in NSF charts and statistics. After all, we were needed now, not in four years or six or eight. We moved into positions of responsibility and management, and shared our duties with men who seemed to smile on us with approval. Perhaps not equally, but equitably.

(At the time, though, women getting computer science degrees continued to drop–an indicator that could account for the sudden drop of women in IT administrative positions in the last several years.)

Like our work mates, we began to attend technical conferences, and could pick and choose which jobs we wanted. We had money, and we presumed we had respect, and felt secure enough to form organizations and began to encourage younger women to ‘consider getting a degree in computer science’.

We were Cinderella, moving uptown from the ashes.

Then 2000 happened, and an industry based more on wishful thinking than sound economics smashed to the ground with a resounding thud that was reminiscent of the Depression, but with fewer soup kitchens.

Building a Competition Pressure-Cooker

In less than a year, jobs lost in the high tech industry numbered in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, globally. Combined with an increasing use of offshore labor and the new culture this has spawned, each year finds this country facing the fact that there are fewer jobs, but more workers. In fact, any new computer science major moving into the field now, does so at the cost of displacing an existing worker.

It is a highly competitive environment, with every job having several applicants. This competition is made more so by companies such as Microsoft pushing for increased levels of H1B visas, not just because it wants to hire more workers from outside of the US, keeping the competitive level for jobs at a high pitch; but also because India has held out a carrot to American industry: increase the number of H1B visas given out by your country, and we’ll open up the market for manufacturing and other opportunties in this country. After China, there is no more lucrative new market now for a company like Microsoft than India.

During this time, the number of women getting CS degrees continued to drop, as unemployment for women in CS rose above the national average, and women in the industry began to move over to other careers. Some believe women are leaving the field because of a lack of natural ability. If this is so, this aptitude-related effect would have shown from the very beginning. Others say, including the NSF, that women’s lack of participation in the tech industry is because women are still the primary care givers. If this is true, this drop in participation would manifest in other careers, and we’re not seeing this in the statistics.

I think that much of it has to do with artificially inflated competition in IT. People like Bill Gates see competition as a way of honing a razor sharp aggressiveness in employees–keeping us always a little bit worried about our jobs, and more than a little bit hungry, will lead us to perform at our peak. Considering Gates early exposure and interest in poker, and his obsession with winning, it’s not surprising that Gates would equate competition with quality.

Well, that’s just bullshit.

This essay was inspired in no part by a discussion that occurred at Dori Smith’s weblog, when she made the statement about women not being able to find work (linked earlier). In her comments, Robert Scoble said:

Hmmm, at the same time you say the jobs are disappearing I was just talking with a key manager over on MSN Search and he says he is having trouble finding qualified developers in the United States.

I also have had the same feedback from the developer division, the IE group, and quite a few others.

And if you think this is a Microsoft thing, you should check with HR people at Google, Yahoo, Cisco, and other Silicon Valley companies. They are all having trouble finding great developers.

I was angry and blasted Scoble’s comment, anger inspired in no small part by the implication that corporations such as Microsoft are just begging for people, when most of us know (and as I discussed earlier), this isn’t true. Here is a fact, technology unemployment in this country exceeds overall unemployment. And women in technology have an unemployment rate higher than the men.

If Mr. Gates is good at poker, surely he has enough math to understand this.

Though competition may lead to a perceived increase in profits (something I think we could debate, but best left for another writing), it doesn’t lead to diversification. In fact, competition is diametrically opposed to diversification, and it has nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with preserving the status quo.

What we do

When jobs are plentiful, diversification within the job pool is not seen as a threat. In fact, diversification can be seen as a way of extending one’s power over a larger base of people. Book companies see more people buying books, conference organizers hope for more butts in seats, industries have less stressed and healthier, happier workers. However, when jobs are threatened, any change in the status quo will be seen as a risk–even those in an industry populated by people who consider themselves free of bias.

It is a natural inclination to want to pull in, like the turtle into its shell, when threatened. Except in the tech industry, this ‘pulling in’ materializes as a resistence to difference. Though we in tech pride ourselves on our embrace of new technology, exposure to different cultures in our travel, and even liberal politics, we can be very conservative, socially. We tend, when stressed as a group, to bond with those who we see as providing a protective shell around us. By this I mean those who are most familiar, and who can help us, and we can help in turn. In other words: white male geeks bond with other white male geeks.

This is really no different than what happened during World War II: a time of great insecurity, when men felt threatened not only on the battlefront, but also back home. Again, as deplorable as it was at the time, it was no surprise that rumors persisted about women who joined the WAC and their dubious virtues. After all, if women proved themselves competent in a completely male occupation such as soldiering men knew–they weren’t stupid after all–that they could be facing massive changes when they returned home, even if we won the war.

Even as men came home and embraced modernization in technology and science, they also equally embraced conservative values in work, home, and religion. It was during this time, following the dangers of WWII and coping with the new fears of communisim and atomic war, that this country established some of its more obvious ties to Christianity. Corporate loyalty was encouraged, as was the display of material wealth.

And the ultimate in femininity was an smash-up between Marilyn Monroe and June Cleaver.

Human behavior is human behavior, and WWII really wasn’t that long ago. It’s not surprising, then, that today’s IT field seems to be littered with photos of white guys meeting other (or the same) white guys at event after event. Not surprising, even understandable, though not necessarily something to be encouraged.

As for women and our behaviors to each other, then and now, well, that’s more complicated.

Say, isn’t a cleaver a kitchen knife?

At the time when World War II ended, women did fight to continue their positions, and some even succeeded, albeit at reduced wages. However, if women had banded together as a group and insisted on full rights, as well as access to equal opportunity, much of today’s entrenched infrastructure may not have had a chance to form and today’s women would not be faced with as difficult a battle.

Women didn’t, though, and the reasons why have plagued me for years, because unlike the wartime experiences, the thoughts of the women in World War II after the war are rarely transcribed. It wasn’t until I finished Yellin’s book, specifically the Epilog, that I began to better understand why women quietly went home.

Yellin wrote about her expectations when she started the book; about how she wasn’t going to make it seem that women performed equally with men; that women’s sacrifices could not hope to meet those of men.

I was aware, as were most of the women with whom I talked or about whom I read, that I should be careful never to claim that the women’s part during the war was significant as the men’s. Of course, no one objected to the women being given their due. But it usually seemed like an afterthought. Once all the men’s sacrifices were acknowledged, then we as a country could afford to give women’s role in World War II a tip of the hat as well.

Later, the author heard her mother giving a speech about women’s rights and telling a story about a grandmother who one day saved her home from a prairie fire when her husband was away. She and a neighbor, whose husband was also away from home, created a cross-fire that burned the available fuel before the fire reached it.

The act wasn’t of historical significance. Yellin’s ancestor wasn’t defending the home from indians, or holding off the British or any number of other enemies — bit it did save the home. This gave the author an epiphany of sorts.

Through my mother, and all the women in this book, I came to see that the small things, the less dramatic changes in the world, were sometimes the most revolutionary. And often those were the kinds of changes women effected.

But it is in the big, noisy events that we are seen.

A few years back, Clay Shirky held a invite-only meeting in New York, and a person who attended posted photos. As we looked at them, it became obvious, glaring really, that not only were all the attendees white, all but a few were men.

We pointed this out and it started a conversation that ended up pulling in Clay’s good friend, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Publishing. We began to look at other conferences and events in technology and saw the same thing repeated: participation consiting primarily of men, who were primarily white. When questioned, the men would bring up the lack of women interested in (fill in the blank); or how there are no women who work with (fill in the blank); or how the event’s organizers are mostly interested in quality rather than diversity.

Yet whenever we (women and men both) would question the assumption that diversity degrades equality, there would usually be one or more women who would come along an re-assure the men being challenged that they, for one, are quite content with how things are. They are not those type of women, I remember reading in one weblog.

Not long ago, Michael Bernstein sent me the link to the story in Haaretz (no longer working, but the story is here). The government of Israel had pulled together a conference of scientists in the country “…as a national forum for examining Israel’s science policy”. Only thing is, out of thirty invited speakers, there weren’t any women. In fact the only woman who participated, did so as part of a panel.

As a response, several scientists actually decided to boycott the event. Several graduate students also showed up at the event to demonstrate, but the key impact was the boycott.

Compare this with our own reactions to events here in the States. For every one person who questions the criteria used to select speakers or invite guests, there are several who hasten to point out that ‘quality’ is what matters — with an implication that women don’t have the ‘quality’ to hack it. More, rather than protest such obvious inequities, men and women, both, will defend the conference organizers as being “…fair and unbiased”.

As for an organized boycott, these are unheard of in technology in the US.

We’re still not rocking the boat. We’re still the prairie pioneer who stops a fire and births a baby in the next moment, content with out role and our differences, and our quiet way of bringing about change. We’re demure in describing our accomplishments, and deprecating to a fault. We have never, as Yellin discovered, tried to write our place in history. We have never competed with men for recognition.

We have rarely competed with men, period.

Return to 2005 and an IT industry that not only celebrates competition, many of the industry leaders artificially induce competition as a means of obtaining ‘quality’. What are women to do in an environment such as this?

Some would say that we need to make women more competitive, but I don’t think that’s the answer because I don’t think we’re asking the right question. The real question is: do we women want to compete more, or do we want to get men to compete less?

I hate poker

I talked with an editor not long ago about doing a new book. I had a couple of ideas and the company was interested, but first they wanted to know: what kind of audience could I bring with me. I remember being taken back by the question. With a book proposal, it’s not uncommon that you need to define what’s your target audience, but this question was more what kind of pre-existing audience did I have.

I think I babbled out some numbers on previous books, and people who visit my weblog. It was one of those very few times when I wished I was an A-Lister, so I could point to the Technorati 100 and guarantee myself a book. But my numbers, though good, weren’t good enough. It was my first real taste of today’s new computer book industry, where it doesn’t matter what you write or even how you write it: all that matters is how big is your audience.

Three or four years ago or so, weblogging didn’t seem to be as competitive. Oh, some folks would brandish their web site hit count, and demand we bend down and kiss the dusty hems of their royal robes. But for the most part, we seemed to be a mish-mash of people, some who had more readers than others.

I’m not sure when we started counting links. I think it might have been when we started obsessing about Google page rank. Well, Google in general. About that time, if I remember correctly, sites like Blogdex and Daypop began to count links to stories and post the top linked stories of the day. Getting Slashdotted (or /. to use popular parlance) was a biggie, though I don’t think anyone has ever explained to me the value of being /.

Then other sites came along, like the Ecosystem and more recently Technorati and Bloglines, which maintain a running total of aggregated links, though the technology of these sites has problems with scale much of the time. These sites started posting ‘top lists’, and that was all she wrote, and now this environment is fiercly competitive. About like the technology industry itself, which spawned these lists, so I guess the result isn’t surprising.

For good or ill, links in this environment mean power.

Where are the Women

You can’t talk about Technorati without mentioning its influence on the perception that women in weblogging are invisible. Five minutes after the first Technorati 100 list was published the question was asked: where are the women? Asked, and asked, and asked. And with each asking, women have gotten angrier because by all indications, women make up about 50% of weblogging.

Angry enough that last winter discussion began about having a conference by and for women about women in weblogging and BlogHer was born. And the very first session of BlogHer is titled, BlogHer Debate: Does the current link-based power structure matter to you?

Good question. Returning to Yellin’s epiphany, she would most likely advocate women pulling out of the competitive environment. It is, after all, a product of male behavior, and women have too long played by rules men have set.

At the same time, though, Yellin also mentioned about women not having a chance to write ourselves into history. As we all know, history is written by the winners, and if women want to write ourselves into history, this means we must both compete and win.

It’s a good debate topic. It’s just unfortunate that the emphasis on the debate is focused at journalist/political webloggers. But like calling to like isn’t just a perogative of males: women also group based on affinity, and sometimes that can work for us, and sometimes, it can work against us.

For all of BlogHer’s open sessions and do it yourself topics, this conference is focused primarily around a journalist core. Does this conference, then, answer the questions for all women bloggers? Or just those who see themselves as journalists and political pundits?

We Few, We Proud, We Techie Women

About the same time that links became king was when I wrote the note on Clay Shirky’s New York meeting. I remember that it generated a lot of links and a lot of discussion and it got people to sit up and take notice. Enough so that those who organized conferences (especially tech ones since the tech industry is so tightly tied into weblogging now) and invite-only events began to be aware that if the speaker list was too white or too male, chances are the event would be challenged.

That was then, this is now. Now I imagine that conference organizers wouldn’t have any hesitation in putting together a male-only invite list to a technical event because few people, including women, will challenge these events. Few people, especially women, as Kevin Drum’s or Kos’ latest link-inducing gaffe will generate more interest among activist women webloggers than a males-only invite list to a tech summit.

It’s not unusual, though, for people to focus on their own area of interest, and respond accordingly. After all, why should a woman who isn’t a tech respond to a story about women technologists? I don’t really keep up with what’s happening with women lawyers, or teachers, or librarians–other than those whose weblogs I read.

I guess that other than this is my area of interest and my essay and so therefore I see the issue as more global, a key difference, to me, is that technology and weblogging have become so tightly intertwined; even more so than journalism and weblogging. After all, isn’t the focus of BlogHer’s first session on the technology, and its impacts? If the number of women in technology has declined in the last eight years, about the same length of time that weblogging has been around, what does this say for the ability for this environment to empower women and make change in society as a whole?

Kind of says that it sucks, to be blunt. In fact, rather than empower women, is weblogging as it is now practiced specifically tuned into empowering the same power infrastructure as exists outside of weblogging? For all that we pride ourselves on challenging the status quo, is the very nature of our challenge preserving it?

Consider the sponsors of the BlogHer event. Most are technical companies. Yet of these companies only a few have employed women engineers, and among those that have, women make up 20% or less of the total.

Marc Canter talks about buying a ticket for him and his wife yet Marc’s own Broadband Mechanics employs no women technologists. Six Apart? As far as I know, it also doesn’t employ any women engineers, though many of the support staff are women. SocialText has one woman, a VP of Marketing.

Let’s look more closely at Technorati, since it’s so heavily involved with the issue of linking. Technorati employs 27 people from the photos at its staff page. Of these, two are women, and neither is a technologist. Not only is the company predominately male, it’s also predominately white. In fact, before they removed the photo, the only black face that showed among the pictures was the company dog.

Yet does sponsorship of BlogHer give each of these organizations a ‘get out of trouble with women free’ card? Hard to say.

And of the men who we’ve reached out to, who have written glowing things about how great this conference is gong to be: how many have expressed their oh so sincere regrets about not attending? Doc SearlsDan GillmorGlenn ReynoldsDavid WeinbergerRobert Scoble, to name a few.

Turtles all the way down

The turtles will never willingly relinquish power.

If we could leverage the will of all women, in weblogging and out, we would have power and we could effect such change. Yet even within this digitally connected band of sisters, we are grouped by interest, which means we can’t leverage the power of all women, or even most of the women on any specific event. Aside from a few global issues, each of us has a different trigger when it comes to mobilization. In this, we’re no different than men, except men have one thing that women don’t necessarily have: unity within interest.

In World War II, among the Rosies, there were many who wanted to continue to work, but most didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’, and the few that were willing, made little impact. And so our struggle continued for decades longer than need be because in fateful moment when we could have made such as resounding statement, we took off our work gloves and put on a house dress and quietly returned to the roles society had dictated for us.

As for women in technology, there are those who believe we should shout out when we see disparity, but there are equally as many who believe that doing so will ‘rock the boat’, and this will ‘push’ away the menfolk. After all, no one likes a loud, abbrasive feminist, or a bitch that has no sense of humor. No one likes an angry woman.

But anger is anger, regardless of the sex of the person who is angry. Anger is not nobled by man nor enfeebled by woman. Anger just is.

I’m not even sure who is in the right: those who say compete, and those who say don’t; those who get angry, and those who don’t. All I know is that I’m getting tired of looking at white guys in pictures.

*The study’s findings for non-whites is even worse than for women, particularly for Hispanics.

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