Gender Equality is Not Enough

Throughout my childhood, I have strong memories of my mother, an IT professional, singing “Anything you can do, I can do better” (from the Irving Berlin classic, “Annie, Get Your Gun”.) In the song, Annie Oakley wasn’t satisfied with equal. She knew she could do it better and so did my mom.

Having grown up hearing that, I agree wholeheartedly that all people ought to have equal opportunity and access to programming careers regardless of their gender.

But looking at our industry now, I think that equality is not enough. It’s not enough to want the world to be fair and equal for everyone. A morality based only on fairness runs the severe risk of homogenizing a culture so severely that all creativity disappears.

The volume of rhetoric about women in programming has been rising over the last couple of months, but much of the content disappoints me. The rhetoric is so largely based around failures: who used what inappropriate metaphor or who published sexual content to promote which event. Backlash and counter backlash. It escalates quickly, turns nasty, and then quickly fades leaving little change in its wake.

So much of what people are saying seems to come back to fairness and equality. Men and women should be treated the same. They should stand on equal footing, level the playing field, break the glass ceiling, and what ever other metaphors you’d like to throw in there.

These are important goals. Discrimination takes many forms and it takes vigilance to root it out. But talk of equality easily degrades into talk of sameness. The reality is that gender is one of the things that makes people different from one another. To ignore the differences and think of every person as being the same is just as much a problem as preventing a person from taking a job or underpaying a person because of their gender. Sameness robs us of a much richer and more beneficial discussion about how we are different because of gender.

Our goal ought not to be to make women more like men so that they can be programmers. Instead let’s talk about how to build workplaces that embrace difference and foster the tension and dialogues that produce great software.

Programmer Ashe Dryden talks about a number of benefits of a diverse workplace. She cites increases in sales revenues, number of customers, market share, and profits. She also talks about better and faster complex problem solving; more creative and stimulated workers who make better decisions.

Those benefits are great, but why do they exist? Why are companies, and specifically programming teams, better with more women on the team?

Those are the questions we need to be asking and wrestling with. Rather than fighting about who most offended whom, let’s change the conversation and talk about “Why?”

Why is it important for product companies, IT organizations, and consultancies to have a strong representation of female programmers?

I’ll be posting some of my specific thoughts in the weeks to come and in the meantime, I’d like you to do the same. To get started, answer the question above or the ones below:

What is unique about women that make them not just equal, but superior on software development teams? How can our differences make stronger teams and a stronger industry?

Let me know on Twitter (@dougbradbury) if you do!

Doug Bradbury, Director of Software Services

Doug Bradbury is a maker, a thinker, a craftsman, and a learner.

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