The Pipeline is a Bullshit Argument, and Other Rants

melting girl

Credit: Flickr / Charis Tsevis

The latest comments are from a guy who runs a startup incubator, but next week it will be someone else. Men, so many men, would like to explain why there are no women in the tech industry, and how it is not, actually, their fault, and there is nothing they can do, so can we just stop complaining, please? Why do they have to feel so bad about it? It’s just how the world is. Watch your tone.

It’s The Pipeline, Stupid

The pipeline argument is the ultimate refuge of the tech company or incubator that would like to pass the blame. There aren’t enough women graduating, so that explains the numbers. There aren’t enough girls going into the right courses at university, so there is nothing they can do.

This argument is blind to privilege, but also, I think, classist. The tech person making in excess of $100k a year, would like to blame the school teachers who make a fraction of that.

The school teacher could argue that 63% of women working in STEM report experiencing sexual harassment, why would they encourage students to go into that kind of toxic environment? They might be better off being accountants.

The pipeline leaks from the age of 5 until all women have dropped out, or died. (See The Primer). Handily it means that everyone can divert attention from the leaks closest to them by pointing to leaks further away.

Fast, Cheap, Good – Pick Two

A constraint of project management is – Fast, Cheap, Good. Pick two. My understanding is that the VC model is built on Fast and Cheap. Postpone as much as possible (including finding a business model) until after the big exit.

Women are shut out of this, and so women run business tend to more the Cheap and Good – bootstrapping – with a business model, and customers! – over a long period, with lower rates of failure.

The myth of the 20 something male, is correlation, not causation. What are VCs really looking for? Hubris? Lack of interest in anything else, willingness to work 80 hour weeks and put their life on hold in pursuit of some definition of success?

10,000 Hours and Other Nonsense

One argument is that starting at 13 is necessary in order to have put in the 10,000 – as explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his best selling book – in order to be good enough at 23. Except it’s not just about the sheer number of hours thrown at it, it’s about the type of work done. 10,000 hours will get you a middle ranking at chess, but it takes 5,000 hours of deep practise to become a chess grandmaster.

Also, this level of dedication is when you aim to become the best in the world at something. This is a master craftsman level of wood carving. Except what we are actually talking about is something closer to assembling a bunch of Ikea furniture, albeit in a tight timeframe. We wouldn’t extrapolate that playing with hammers and bashing together chaotic structures with no stability bears much relationship to the wood carver. And yet, writing terrible code with little feedback other than “it works” – for some definition of works, not a definition that includes any QA control – is seen to bear a significant relationship to the ability, 10 years later, to build a production quality service with millions of users and 99.9% uptime.

The level of “deep practice” during universities is unclear, but at the very least, whilst men definitely outnumber women in university computer science, I can’t find any data that suggests they outperform them – I’ve actually heard the opposite, that women tend to do better in 3rd and 4th year, by which point they outperform men. The thing that women do score less well on than men, is confidence.

So back to that argument about hubris.

The One True Way of “Hacking”

I posit that programming is a way of thinking, and that programming languages and technologies are just tools that we use. Why is there such a fixation on tooling? This is just an extension of the Vim vs Emacs war.

In sports, something much more measurable, as things like how fast someone can swim 100 metres of butterfly has a definite answer, path is less prescriptive than it is in the tech industry. There are different ways of training, people who come to the sport late and still succeed – I heard a talk by Alisa Camplin who won Gold in aerial skiing at the Olympics, who didn’t consider the possibility of competing as an aerial skier until she was 20.

Why is there this limited view on what it means to become good at something? Is it because we don’t really know what it means to be good at it? Or is it a deliberate attempt to keep the barriers to entry artificially high? Oh you’re learning to code at 18? Wow, you left it too late, may as well give up.

Inclusive, Not Pink, Makes $$

The video game industry was saturated, and then Nintendo launched the wii – opening up the market to people who had not bought video games previously. This included women, but please recall, the wii wasn’t pink.

Women control the majority of consumer spending. Women are the dominant users of social networks. Inclusive products, make a lot of money. Under-powered pink products get cancelled.

In 2014, still the idea of making something “for women” means making it pink (hilarious parody commercial of a pen for women). As a business strategy, this is stupid. This experiment in funding teenage boys to work incessantly and build things has only demonstrated what adult women have known all along – teenage boys have no idea what women want. The result is that the female market (and British women actually spend more money on technology than cosmetics) is completely underserved. The old way hasn’t worked. Surely, it’s time to consider the assumptions?

Meanwhile, women have been bootstrapping companies, and turning to Kickstarter, and it might take longer, but I do think that eventually women-led technology companies will show the adolescent boys and their admirers what women really want, and importantly, what they will pay for.

Such products may or may not, come in pink.

 

21 Thoughts

  1. Chris Wage says:

    Disclaimer: I am a male, and I run a tech company.

    I had to read this through a few times to try and figure out what I should take away from this article, and found it a bit challenging. You start by referencing Paul Graham’s (presumably) comments, but then segue into a description of “many men” saying, paraphrased, “there is nothing they (men) can do, so can we (women) just stop complaining, please”

    If the primary point of this article was “men often say there’s nothing they can do and that women should stop complaining. They should stop doing that”, I’d be, and am, fully on-board. I’ve also never actually heard someone espouse that particular point of view, but hey.

    But the rest of the article is spent elaborating on/against “the pipeline argument”, though it’s never made quite clear what this pipeline argument is in this context, and what it’s an argument for/against. I’m assuming that “the pipeline argument” is something akin to what Paul Graham had to say, which is “tech companies have a shortage of women, because there’s a shortage of women to hire — i.e., ‘in the pipeline'”. The reasons for this shortage are myriad, naturally (leaks in the pipeline). You end the first paragraph here with “so there is nothing they can do”. I’m 100% confident that anyone in a hiring position in the technology industry would concede that there’s a shortage of qualified women candidates, None of them that I’ve ever known or encountered would add “so there’s nothing I can do, can you please stop complaining”.

    “This argument is blind to privilege, but also, I think, classist. The tech person making in excess of $100k a year, would like to blame the school teachers who make a fraction of that.”

    I’m not really sure I follow, here, or at least I’m not sure what you are referring to. Who is blaming school teachers? Are you saying that if I think that public schools haven’t kept up with modern technology in their curriculum that I’m a classist? Very confused.

    As for the “10,000” hours argument, I’m a little confused as to what you are trying to say, but I think it boils down to a certain similar situation/learning-curve I’ve had to deal with.

    “This is a master craftsman level of wood carving. Except what we are actually talking about is something closer to assembling a bunch of Ikea furniture, albeit in a tight timeframe.”

    10 years ago, when you wanted to hire someone to work in the internet technology industry, you looked for a certain demographic of person: they grew up with the technology, they’ve been using it forever, and they’re somewhat a jack-of-all-trades. Neckbeards, to use the lexicon of the day. Despite the gendered nature of this term, it described very well the certain type of smartest-kid-in-the-room you wanted to hire. There were (and are) women that fit this demographic (I know many of them), but yes, by and large institutional forces have historically kept women far out of contention and the numbers reflect that.

    Since then, as technology has evolved, fragmented, specialized, and been commodified — so to has the profile of the people you’d want to and are able to hire. Over the course of the last 10 years I’ve had to force myself to slowly adjust to the fact that if you wanted a competent programmer, you didn’t necessarily have to find a jack-of-all-trades neckbeard who grew up committing to the openbsd project and hacking on everything under the sun. Those people are harder to find — what’s not hard to find are qualified people who have acquired a trade doing one (or more) of a handful of valuable skillsets, and are able to do them well.

    I think a lot of companies still look for the prototypical neckbeard as their ideal hire. This is a mistake in a number of ways, since neckbeards are inreasingly rare, and if you ARE one that is so foolish to have a gender bias, you may pass up a viable female neckbeard. You are also most definitely missing out on newer/younger talent who don’t know the entire internet by heard, but they can get the job done.

    So, yeah, add this to the overflowing laundry list of ways women are left out in the cold when it comes to the technology industry. (or any industry. same as it ever was.)

    So, to sum up — there are a lot of interesting thoughts here, but I don’t see a cohesive point to take with me after reading this, other than, again, “so many, many men (who?) say there’s nothing they can do, and that women should stop complaining”. Taken to heart, I assure you, but I’m left scratching my head as to who is saying this. Like it or not, there *is* a pipeline problem. The leaks exist everywhere. We’re all trying to patch them when we find them.

    You use the phrase “pass the blame” early on, as if there’s one man you can hang the hat of “institutionalized sexism” on and call it a day. It’s a complicated web of injustice that we’re all trying to untangle.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    • Cate says:

      “If the primary point of this article was “men often say there’s nothing they can do and that women should stop complaining. They should stop doing that”, I’d be, and am, fully on-board. I’ve also never actually heard someone espouse that particular point of view, but hey.”

      I encounter this on a roughly weekly basis.

      The “pipeline” argument is that there aren’t enough women at point X, so the people at point X are powerless because it is too late. The pipeline is long enough, and leaky enough, that this claim can be made at any point along it. Universities can (and used to) point to the way female students were coming out of schools, unqualified to take CS courses. Boards claim that there aren’t enough qualified women because of earlier in industry. Take your pick.

      My main point is that you could point in the other direction too – if the data shows that women drop out later anyway, why encourage them down that route? If the data shows that women are mistreated, why encourage them down that route?

      On the classist argument:

      I’m not entirely sure I used this in the right way, I used it based on my understanding of US culture.

      Anyway, the point is that the people with more power and money are pointing to people with less power and money as the problem. I’m so in favour of education reform, and I absolutely don’t deny that there are issues in the school system that exacerbate these problems (well outlined in the book Pink Brain Blue Brain). They are just not the extent of the problem. I find it unfair to pass blame in this way without looking closer to home.

      The 10,000 hours argument – the correlation between time and expertise is weak, at best, and it comes down to the amount of deep practise people put in.

      In response to your point about hiring neckbeards – early programmers (and I’m not even talking first programmer – Ada Lovelace) but those who wrote code for the ENIAC, were women. These women were left out of their rightful place in the history books for a long time, because at some point people started giving (less experienced) men a chance instead.

      “Like it or not, there *is* a pipeline problem. The leaks exist everywhere. We’re all trying to patch them when we find them.”

      Then we agree, and what differs is our experience. You see people trying to fix things, and honestly I do too. But I also see a lot of hands thrown up in the air, fixation on schools and universities, and wilful ignorance of other structural problems.

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. […] was probably around the time I got really fed up of people in the industry pointing to schools as the […]

Leave a Reply



All content © Copyright 2016 by Accidentally in Code.
Subscribe to RSS Feed – Posts or just Comments

Workaholic WordPress Theme by Graph Paper Press