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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Local Optima: Girl versus Woman in IT

A colleague of mine recently sent out a request for comments on the topics of "women-only" technical conferences, and asking how we female colleagues felt on being called a "woman" rather than a "girl."  Most interestingly to me, she asked the question, "Should we stop moaning about men and just get on with striving to do our jobs well?"

I couldn't quite remember which second wave feminist gets credit for banning the word "girl" when one is referring to a female person of childbearing age or older.  (Lately the interweb is not the friendly, omnipotent companion it used to be.  I suppose we should just go ahead and blame Simone de Beauvoir and be done with it.)  What I did find, as I searched, was Tabby Biddle's wonderful third-wave feminist-friendly blog post entitled "Girl vs. Woman."  As Biddle says,
I think my occasional turn toward calling other women (myself included) “girl” is a way to reclaim some of my own girl power. To me, this means a person who is fun, adventurous, exploratory and bold. A woman to me is strong, confident, responsible, nurturing and global in her thinking. Probably the most important piece to all of this is the integration of girl power with woman power in each woman herself, allowing a dance between the two.
Biddle is exactly right, at least in the local context of "woman" versus "girl" as used in upper middle class, light-skinned, Western society, although possibly the rightness would be stronger for Generation X, and weaker when applied to women who paid a high personal price to move women's rights forward in the 1960s through the 1990s.

The problem with attempting to find a globally optimal solution to problems like "women in technology" is, as Gertrude Stein says, "there's no there there."  (she was speaking of her childhood home in Oakland, California, actually, but no matter).

Women's experiences in technology do not appear to have enough in common, even in the United States, so that the question of how to optimize "the experience" can be answered with simple dichotomies like male-female or woman-girl.  When you bring in the difference between "woman" and "girl" in a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-gender-identity world, it only gets worse.

"Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry.  http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text"
Does that mean we need to give up on trying to do anything at all?  If you're a wealthy, white, male fundamentalist on the right or post-structuralist French philosopher on the left, quite possibly.  It is, as Patricia Hill Collins says, a "matrix of domination," where politicians find strange bedfellows on opposite ends of the socio-religious spectrum, and not (always) in an entertaining way involving whips and leather chaps.

But what is the way forward when you are tired of being stuck between obvious boors on the right who call women "sluts," like Rush Limbaugh, and and people on the left who worry that
"While having at heart a genuine concern for women's conditions throughout the world, Western feminism may inadvertently gloss over other forms of resistance and rebellion that do not match the standard of out loud, self-assertive, and aggressive protest."   (Alina Sajed, McMasters University:  http://globalautonomy.ca/global1/glossary_pop.jsp?id=CO.0062)
We seem to have fretted ourselves into a corner.

As always, when faced with a tough problem like this, I turn to StackOverflow.com.  In a handy post entitled "When locally optimal solutions equal global optimal," I find the helpful comment:
"A given problem can often be solved in many ways, depending on how one chooses to represent it" (Ted Hopp, speaking of "Greedy Algorithms," but no matter)
When you can't find a global optimum, you need to look for a local one first.  The great thing about bringing in the math at a time like this is that you get a chance to show your thinking visually.  Here are local optimizations, also known as "local search attraction basins:"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Local_search_attraction_basins.png
Those are concave, people, not convex.

If you are a woman for whom the problem of bringing more female peers into technology is an active issue, then just as any person facing any problem must do, you need to figure out what you want, how to get it, and how you will measure success.  You need to treat your assault on this problem as a "lean startup" and do experiments to find out what works and what doesn't, enshrining your wins as a routine part of your daily operations, and pivoting when things do not work the way you want.
  • Should you attend an all-women's conference?  It depends.  Who will be there?  What will be discussed?  What will you gain from being there that is applicable to your personal life's work?  Does that fact that it's all-women make the conference better for you than a similar conference which would include men?  If the answers are yes, then attend!  If no, don't.
  • Should you run an all-women's conference?  It depends.  Who will be there?  What will be discussed?  Will it be something other than "wow, it's great to be at an all-women's conference?"  Will you provide tools for women to move them forward on their career paths?  Who is your target audience, and how do you want to help them?  A "5 Whys" analysis can help you a lot here, in determining the gender parameters of your next conference.
  • Should you call your 50-year-old Black lesbian colleague a "girl"?  Your white 23-year-old graduate school roommate?  Your child's teacher?  It depends.  Who are you to them? How well do you know the person?  Are they a bra-burning refugee from the 1970s who will react to the "g-word" by hitting you over the head with their Helen Reddy album (on vinyl)?  Even with the additional demographic data I have provided, there are no set answers here.
  • Should we, as my colleague asked, stop moaning about men and just get on with striving to do our jobs well?  Here my answer is an unequivocal "no."  No, we should not stop asking these questions.  What does it mean that "Equal Pay Day" in the United States is in April?  What is "Equal Pay Day" for those we actually know and understand who are women in IT?  What can be done about it?  What combination of local, state, and national action can we make?  How can we involve the private sector?  How can we own this problem and help ourselves, not just doing a good job, but getting the right attention for doing a good job?
People are complicated, facts are friendly, and passion has to be turned into action for something to change.  If you have enough passion and data to move something in particular forward which seems like it would do somebody some good, then please, do that.