Another Rant About The “Pipeline”

old pipeline

©Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Let me paint a picture for you. A woman presents something related to women in the tech industry to an audience of mostly women. She invites the audience to share their opinion of what the issues are. A man cuts her off, because he is so desperate to share his opinion with everyone. He says, it’s the pipeline. Schools. Universities. Etc.

Wonderful. Because, you know, I often feel like what we are missing here is a man’s opinion.

That is sarcasm. I never think this. Many of them are desperate to offer it, all the time, and it is invariably the pipeline. The pipeline. Because they are comfortable talking about it, because it is so much easier to look far out and criticise than it is to look closer and critique yourself, your environment, and the culture that you shape.

I’ve been pretty vocal about my frustration with the pipeline argument. Which sometimes makes people think that I don’t think we should focus on the pipeline at all. This is not true, I think it is necessary but not sufficient. I think in 10 years we will be having many of the same conversations, and all these men will be saying “Oh it’s a mystery, we invested all these resources in the pipeline and it wasn’t enough! Who knew?” We know. We have all the data to say it is not enough. They are just choosing to ignore it.

My three main frustrations.

1. It’s a Distraction

40% of women drop out within 10 years, and the pipeline is used as a reason to never talk about that. Gloss over the attrition, and let’s focus on The Big Picture. Don’t bother me with your Petty Little Details. And yet, why does it never come up that the numbers have been declining since the 80s?

I spend a lot of time with engineers, and I tell you: if I told them that I had a system and 40% of the data was just inexplicably falling out and proposed that the fix would just be to pump a bunch more in? There would be an outcry. If I had an issue where 40% of one of my resources kept going off-line, and proposed that we just keep allocating extra of that resource and hope that it fix itself over time? They would try and have me committed. They would want to know what the hell is wrong with me, and why I wasn’t looking at that glaring issue. They would object to the resource cost and wastage.

And yet women. No, let’s focus on making that pipeline bigger. That will solve everything.

2. It’s Half the Story

The pipeline argument says that society discourages girls from pursuing STEM careers, because they have no role models, because the school system is broken etc etc. Boys and men grow up in this same system. It’s the one that creates an environment where they send emails like this.

And yet, they graduate, get a job and at 22 are somehow completely egalitarian? Ha. Just not true.

The pipeline drives women out, but it also teaches men that women are not welcome.

3. It’s Easy

The pipeline argument is an external thing, you can point at it and use it as a reason as to why you can’t do better. You can throw money at it, and that money can actually be pretty effective.

You don’t have to do the hard work of looking at your system, your culture, critiquing it, and changing it.

Much easier to get a 16 year old girl to be excited about technology, than be there and support a 30 year old woman who has been so undermined and marginalised she has no idea what a healthy work situation looks like.

Changing the Conversation

There’s this reluctance to talk about what drives women away. These entitled white men, they won’t admit they are at fault here.

Let’s reframe it, and talk about how you give women a reason to stay. Three questions:

  1. Are you doing meaningful work?
  2. Do you feel appreciated?
  3. Do you feel respected?

These seem like a low bar for an industry that prides itself on world changing innovation in great working environments. And yet. I know very few women who could give a resounding yes to all three.



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