When I attended my first WWDC in 2011 there was one gender-related observation I made which deeply troubled me: For the first time ever I had to queue in front of the male toilets. Up until this point I had been holding the belief that queues can only form in front of the female toilets.
As with any belief your brain is filtering the world to find reasons and explanations. So my own working theory had been that this toilet queue conundrum must be due to a male anatomical advantage, being able to “shoot from the hip”. Of course – given the same number of people – ladies would take longer, having to sit down, be more carefully washing their hands, powdering their noses and doing a bit of idle conversation. Men on the other hand would go pee like a SWAT team. In, Shoot the Fly, Out, done in 60 seconds. Washing our hands? Not necessary, we are engineers, we hit our targets.
Not me, of course. I had never been aggressively domesticated by women to sit down for number 1. So I typically wash my hands because I don’t have the urge to prove to myself that my aim is flawless. Even though I like to believe it is.
On this background I’m sure you understand my puzzlement. The second reason for it was that I never really worked in a male-dominated environment. Before I became an independent software engineer, I worked for some tech companies, but for the most part on my own, being the only Windows desktop support guy or being the only Telco Billing specialist on staff.
I have to admit that I was more of a lone wolf than a party animal. Not going out drinking also contributed to me staying out of male groups. The groups that you spend most of your time in while you are young must be contributing to your view of the world.
My work places rarely shared Internet pictures of female car parking disasters. Male peers couldn’t infect me with misogyny, since I didn’t have anyone I could remotely consider to be my peer. If there was any – however brief – phase of female antipathy then only around the age of 20 when I was still a virgin, because I couldn’t “get any”. My hypotheses at that point in my life revolved around finding reasons why no woman seemed to be able to like or love me.
That was also the time when those kind of “systems” started to pop up for “players” and how to “lay” any women. The core message being: you need to be arrogant and funny. If you treat women on a condescending manner then they would let you “bed” them. Doesn’t work yet? Well then you where not condescending enough!
Admittedly I tried out a few tricks there and “scored some”. But I am not proud of that. Desperate, peer-less male engineers are the core audience for anybody promising a system for them to solve their loneliness problem. There is a whole industry catering to these suckers.
Rise of the Internet
While I was going to school to get my engineer’s degree we had a fair share of female would-be-developers attending, and I met a good number of women in most of the employments I had. So I never got a feeling that something must be wrong. I think my first actual contact with gender-related violence was somebody showing me an image he had gotten by email. Yes, at that time there were not websites for that kind of thing, let alone Twitter.
It was a picture of a jumble of cars being parked totally chaotically. The subtitle read “Feminist Convention Parking”. It was not funny for me back then, but I found it curious that other men would find that laughter-inducing. Why are clichés funny?
That was about the only kind of women disparagement I got in contact with. I was probably lucky enough in that matter, lonesome but untarnished. I grew up with the belief that women are equal to men in every aspect, accept that some might have dubious parallel parking skills.
If anything then I was admiring women because I had heard that the male Y-chromosome was a mutation of the female X. While this mutation brought with it some advantages (like being able to pee standing up), apparently it also causes some problems. Bearers of the Y lack the full spectrum of emotion and communication. They live shorter. They cannot create life. I felt a little bit handicapped being a man, but learned to live with it.
No point in being jealous of women, or being angry at them for having advantages over men.
As the Internet grew larger and more prevalent communication and “social networking” exploded. When this happens information hierarchies – with a single entity disseminating information to all below it – tumble. Instead you have the information flow more akin to a network where some nodes are better connected then others, but in the end all nodes of the network get the information.
This also means that nowadays the light is shone on every tiny infraction. Anything good or bad is blogged about, dissected and opined ad nauseam. Misogynist are outed in a heart beat. This social network – which many call Web 2.0 – has become enough of a power to influence elections and to destroy companies that misstep.
When I visited San Francisco in 2011 I learned that it seems to be hard for companies to hire iOS developers. Especially on iOS you were able to build an app, have Apple sell it for you and then call yourself “indie”. And the ones that didn’t want to be self-employed where gobbled up by companies like Apple. No available developers were to be found.
There are companies like Etsy who had the same problem with too few developers. The theory goes that if you want more developers on the market you need to “activate” the female population. If you had the same number of female developers as you had male then you would have double the number of candidates to hire.
Etsy managed to grow the number of female engineers by 500% (video) by establishing a summer scholarship program. They invited young women to San Francisco, paid for living expenses and contracted a company to do programming courses on location in the Etsy offices. The lion share of attendees of this program opted to stay at Etsy, with a much larger than usual portion of women.
I have yet to see any other strategy that even comes close to their rate of success.
One often cited reason for the lack of female developers is that they probably didn’t get enough encouragement as teenagers. I often hear people argument that if women wanted to they would be totally equal with men. There are no barriers to them being that any more. Those people fail to see that they themselves are part of the problem.
A lack of barriers does not equate to forward momentum. Men who think that there is no problem anyway won’t act. Why bother if your world is ok?
For the third time in a row I am scouring Tweets for information on who got a WWDC ticket and who activated it. The people I find I put on my WWDC 2013 Attendees Twitter list. At the time of this writing I have collected 324 list members, of which 5 are women. That is 1.5%. In my experience less then 10% of Apple developers use Twitter, but nevertheless I see no reason why there would be a gender difference in tweeting. I think my number should be in the general vicinity of the actual number.
Somebody asked an Apple employee at WWDC 2012 and got the, albeit inofficial, information of 3.5% female attendance. The WWDC Girls Twitter account follows 216 women who stated that they attend WWDC. That would be about 4% of 5500 tickets.
Only Apple knows the real number but these data points suggest that the number of female WWDC attendees must be in the low single digit range. 3.5% sounds quite plausible to me.
Apple’s credo is “to treat everybody the same”, regardless of his/her parameters. But personally I fear that WWDC has turned into an unwilling act of gender inequality. There has been much discussion about if and how Apple should change WWDC to be “more fair”. I believe that this overlooks a larger issue related to gender discrimination.
I would venture a bet that most of the people able to afford travel, accommodation and entry to WWDC can do so because a company is footing the bill. There is some commercial interest in these people learning about the latest and greatest Apple technologies. Put differently I am sending somebody to a conference that costs me around $4000 per person if I believe that this person is able to add at least as much value over the coming year to my business.
But since last year getting tickets has turned into a crap shoot.
My fear is that companies are securing a ticket for their lead developers and development managers first to be certain that they can attend, because them getting the infos would be way more valuable than if they sent lower level engineers. A dev lead can spend more quality time with Apple engineers and talk to the app store review team on behalf of the company’s interests.
Because of this we probably will get even fewer female attendees. Of the few female engineers even fewer would be holding a sufficiently high up position to be sent to WWDC.
WWDC Scholarship for Women
Apple is literally giving away 150 tickets out of the 5500 to students. They have been doing that for many years now since it is in Apple’s best interest to get on a good footing with people while they are at school. In exchange for such a ticket students need to create and present an app that tells Apple something about themselves.
One could argue that this program is unfair to the rest of us hard working software developers. I need to scrape together about a month’s worth of earnings to be able to afford to travel to WWDC. And I think that I have done more for Apple ‘s business in my 4 full time years, than most of these students will do in their lifetime.
Even calling it a “Student Scholarship” is a misnomer. A true scholarship does not only pay for a ticket for an event but also takes other burdens off the student’s shoulders. What Etsy did is a true scholarship. What Apple does is just giving away free event tickets based in part on merit.
This is why I propose for Apple to adapt their “Scholarship” program to a be a true scholarship program. They would pay for living expenses and training for a larger group based on merit. And not just leading up to WWDC but throughout the year. Of course nowadays you have to do such a problem gender-neutrally, but Etsy’s experience has shown that you tend to get equal numbers of both sexes in such scholarship programs.
Apple then would be able to get first pick of the engineers coming out of the program and also they could give the student tickets to participants of their new scholarship program. The development public would see this as much “fairer” because you would have to learn programming for several months instead of being awarded a lucky break based on a simple quick app you whip up.
The main hinderance that US-based companies have related to hiring developers is that they require their on candidates to have a Bachelor of Computer Science (BSc). If you don’t have an academic degree most companies wouldn’t even talk to you, regardless of your other qualifications. I couldn’t work for Apple even if I wanted to, because I don’t possess a BSc nor any other academic degree. Instead I have an engineers diploma which i got from the Austrian government after a 2-year school and 3 years of working. My “engineer’s degree” is civil and not academic.
So I could bring much to Apple, but they wouldn’t ever consider me because of my lack of BSc. Also I would probably not even get a US work visa since for these you also need a BSc. The US work visa situation is a horror story in its own right.
This reliance on academic degrees is especially pronounced in the US of A. Programming was an academic endeavor 30 years ago, but in times of the Internet everybody can learn to program, and program well. If I need a certain algorithm I can look it up on Wikipedia or maybe find it explained on Stack Overflow or better yet find it already implemented in Open Source software.
To participate in Apple’s above mentioned “Student Scholarship” you need to be enrolled as a student for a BSc degree.
Reliance on academic diplomas or a specific age range or school attendance is a form of discrimination of it’s own. I have no numbers, but it is my feeling that this BSc-addiction also blinds companies to many amazing female prospects who didn’t have the necessary funding to go to college.
Some people see this a left-over from a patriarchal age where male managers where judging people’s worthiness based on their academic degrees.
There are too few women attending WWDC, period. This is a symptom of a large problem that needs to be addressed im my humble opinion by removing the outmoded reliance on academic achievements and by sponsoring young people who are interested in learning to program.
A true scholarship program needs to go over several months, unburden students from living expenses and include real work and learning. Companies like Etsy have shown that such a program will get an even number of males and females with the final result of ending up with an overall greater number of developers, of which females form a much higher than usual percentage.
Apple should be a shining example and “sherlock” the scholarship idea. In the least they should stop calling a scholarship which is none. Making apps has ceased to be a science a couple of years ago, it became vocational. Companies who still think that they need academics for programmers are only hurting themselves.