There are days when I want to stand on the rooftops and scream like Zuska.
I’m no longer in academia, but as those who are longtime readers of my blog know, I became painfully aware of how sexist the culture of Physics is and how amazingly unequal the playing field is for women— not just, or not even primarily, because of differential standards, but because of the atmosphere that is created by that culture. I also became painfully aware how amazingly in denial a lot of men (and even a few women) are about the pervasive and sinister effects of that atmosphere.
One would often see borderline open misogyny hiding behind protestations that Physics needed to maintain their “meritocracy” — the existence of which I have argued previously is a myth. (And before you get all huffy and point out that I’m just sour grapes because I “wasn’t good enough” to stay in academia myself, bear in mind that not only did I win multiple awards for my research, including one from Vanderbilt itself, before Vanderbilt made it clear that I wasn’t going to get tenure, but also that I held these opinions back when things were still looking promising for my future at that place.)
In Free Software, however it’s far worse.
Whereas the number of women in biology and chemistry has improved a lot in recent decades, the number of women in Physics creeps up much more slowly. Meanwhile, in computer science, the number of women has actually be declining. As for the absolute values of those numbers, one need only look at a picture of a Linux Kernel Developers’ Summit to realize that within statistical uncertainty, the number of Y chromosomes is the same as the number of people in the picture.
Recently on the “daily updates” (i.e. front) page of Linux Weekly News, there have been links to a couple of articles (one, two) about increasing the number of women actively participating in open source software development. What is most depressing about this is the storm of comments that come. Whereas sometimes I was a little shocked about how misogynistic physicists are in their honest protestations that men must just be “smarter”, physicists are nothing compared to what the open source geeks are. It’s really quite embarrassing.
One thing that you always see is studies pointing to different IQ ranges in men and women. This is a really common canard. Never mind the fact that IQ is widely recognized as being a test that is subject to sociological systematic errors, people seem to latch on to it (and other similar types of tests) as a completely reliable measure of “intelligence.” There is also the fact that “intelligence” simply cannot be a single-valued thing. But, most egregiously, there is this implicit assumption behind all of these protestations that it is one’s “intelligence” (whatever that is) that is the primary predictor of success and great contribution in fields such as physics or software development. That is, at best, a naive view. As with anything else, success is largely predicated on your ability to market yourself, how aggressive you are in pushing yourself and your agenda, and how good you are at networking with the other people who are going to be judging you and deciding whether or not you are able to stay in the field and hence to be able to keep making contributions. “Intelligence” of a certain level is a prerequisite, but you don’t have to be the best to make great contributions, and being the best won’t keep you in if you don’t have the absolutely essential self-marketing abilities.
This is even more true in the wild-west, each person for his or herself nature of open source software development than it is in physics, where the molasses of institutional approval and policy can at times help to moderate the depredations of the most offensive individuals.
At Linden Lab, there are assuredly more men in engineering (operations and development) than there are women— just like in the community at large. But I believe that the disparity is lower, which I think says positive things about the culture that has been fostered largely from the beginning by CEO Philip Rosedale. When I read comments on lwn.net threads about how people have met and talked to women and “they” just don’t share the interests and aptitudes that the commenter does about these techie things, it just makes me wince. I have met multiple women at Linden who are clearly every bit as much of a techno-geek as I am, if not more so. Just this last week I participated in a couple of code reviews with a woman who’s every bit as much (if not more so) a Perl hacker as anybody else you could find— I don’t know this woman well enough to have any clue about her fashion sense, but even if she doesn’t dress “like a geek,” I know everything I need to know about her, in some actual depth now, to have absolutely no doubts that her “intelligence” (whatever that is) about Perl-type development stuff is at least as good as mine. And I don’t feel threatened by that… rather, I realize, hey, here’s another person I can ask questions of if I’m trying to figure things out. (Which I’ve already done.)
On a side note: it’s interesting to me how many subcultures like to congratulate themselves for being of above average intelligence. I’ve seen this on mailing lists for roleplaying gamers (who are convinced that they are more intelligent than the general community) and science fiction readers (likewise). Somehow, enjoyment of RPGs and reading science fiction are supposed to be evidence of intellgence; I don’t get it, but it’s a very pervasive idea. In physics and in software development, it’s worse, for there everybody in the community is convinced that only the most intelligent are able to get into that community at all. They are convinced not only that are they smarter than everybody else, but they’re all really out there on the extreme tails of the distribution, and that nobody not on those extreme tails is capable of making a contribution.
To which I say foo. Look, I know I’m smart, it would be false modesty to say otherwise. I suspect I’m of above-average intelligence. But I really, really doubt I”m out on the tail of the distribution; I think I’m probably just somewhere around one sigma on the high side of the distribution for most ways in which that distribution might meaningfully be measured (which, of course, is at the moment purely hypothetical). However, I am highly skilled both as an astrophysicist and as a software person, and able to make great contributions. What I really don’t understand is why so many other people who are similar feel the need to sit around and convince themselves that they and everybody like them are way the hell out on the tails of the distribution. What’s worse is when they combine that with various studies that seem to indicate that men and women occupy those tails differently to justify misogyny. It’s just sick.