I Don’t Understand

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I suspect this may make a few people angry, but I felt the need to share.

I was recently asked to go through my contacts and put together calls with some technologists for a series of discussions. OK. I thought about what we’d need, compared it to a mental list of people and what I know about their work in my head and started sending emails. I got in touch with people. Everyone was interested in helping out. It was a win.


Well, I talked yesterday about reading that blog post by Susan J. Fowler and the confusion it caused. I just don’t understand it. Further, I don’t understand it on two levels.

Level 1

Acknowledging that I’m the most evil, privileged individual on the planet, cis-gendered white male, I just don’t see it. Don’t get me wrong. I see harassment of women… way more than I would like. Further, I see it within the IT community, especially out at bars… What the heck is wrong with you guys… Anyway… Different topic…  I’m saying I don’t see it occurring, in front of my eyes, in the working environment. No, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m saying if it does happen, it’s pretty well hidden because I’ve sure as heck seen other prejudices on open display in the work place. To my shame, I haven’t always called people out on it in the past (oh, but I have called people out on it).  I’ve never once seen someone passed over for a position or help or what have you because of their sex. However, I’m sure it happens, but I don’t get it. I’m pretty sure if you need someone to do VeryImportantTechnologyX within your company right darned now, it doesn’t really matter if they sit or stand when peeing.

Level 2

This is not a “oh I’m so awesome” moment, but I don’t seem to be able to do it either. Those technologists I contacted in my little story above, later, when I was thinking about all this, I realized, I had invited 3 women and 3 men. It wasn’t intentional. I hadn’t planned for parity. I just knew the knowledge that I needed to get and I knew the people who had that knowledge. It just so happened that some of them were women and some were men. This isn’t because I’m a saint. It’s because I’m a nerd. I need info. You have info. Your sex, orientation, skin color… I just don’t give a rats behind. OK, I need you to speak English. You could call that a prejudice, or you could just point and laugh at the person who only speaks one language (the first is silly, the second is appropriate). I really thought that was the way most nerds worked.

I Don’t Understand

In short, I don’t understand. If you’re hiring someone for a technical position, does it really matter the distribution of their chromosomes beyond how well they can do the job? If you need a problem solved and you know, absolutely know, that a woman has the answer, are you really going to skip by her trying to find a man? I guess I’m crazy, but I just don’t understand that attitude. No, don’t bother trying to explain it to me. You’ll just make me angry.


  • Be careful about trying to draw strong, short conclusions from data you have. We humans are very diverse, and there are exceptions to every rule, as well as every type of behavior out there.

    Have I see women passed over because they were women. Yes, explicitly stated among managers. I’ve seen managers state to me they didn’t want to hire a women because she might get pregnant, or she’d be a distraction (she’s pretty), or joke about not hiring because she’s ugly. No idea if that was the decision in the last case.

    It doesn’t happen often. It’s not something I think most people explicitly choose, though I have no doubt that there are women who are propositioned at work with pressure from their boss.

    However, I’ve seen plenty of men discuss and debate women in our community when they’re not around. Perhaps women do the same. It can be just a discussion, or it can be a way that one group sees the other as less valuable/smart/capable/etc.

    Don’t forget, we don’t hire as a meritocracy. What’s a good programmer? Is Joe better than Sam? Are either better than Sara? It’s a gross judgement to make with little information. Lots of “soft skills”, which include appearances, matter. This means certainly some people think an XY is better than XX chromosomes. Some are threatened.

    We don’t have “an answer”, what we have are multiple answers. I’ve seen men ignored for various reasons, while someone else with the same, or arguably a worse, answer is listened to. Women have to deal with that, plus being a woman.

    Don’t be angry. Set a good example, treat people as you’d like to be treated and based on the situation. Teach the kids to be better.

    • Steve,

      Sorry if it sounds like I said it doesn’t happen. I don’t think that at all. I’m just fortunate that I haven’t seen it (yet).

      And I agree. Anger isn’t the way to deal with this stuff. Unfortunately, being human, I go there sometimes.

  • Bryant McClellan


    Gotta agree with Steve on this one. Like you I’ve seen a lot of…misogyny in past working situations. But I think I also see some of the gains you mentioned in your previous post. Yeah, there are a lot more males than females in the IT department I’m in today but females are treated far better than those where I worked in the 90’s.

    We all get ‘opportunities’ to learn. Some of what we learn is that, for some of us, IT is not the way of the future. Many adults these days would not recommend IT for their children even though it made them a good living. By the same token I see more people today hired because of what they know and do, not how they look or walk.

    Some of us set an example. Hopefully many of the rest of us follow. And I think that is where Steve is going. I see you both as examples worth following. That is why I keep reading you both.

    • Bryant, sorry again if it seems like I said that misogyny isn’t happening. I pretty explicitly said otherwise. What I did say was that maybe it’s more hidden because I haven’t seen it (again, yet) in direct action in the work place. Not in hiring/firing/promotions or even technical decisions. Apologies if it seemed otherwise.

  • A few unrelated points.

    If you went and asked Susan Fowler’s male colleagues and asked them if there was any sexual harassment happening, they would probably say ‘no’. It’s not as if the manage was propositioning her in front of the rest of the department, and it’s not exactly something you chat about with colleagues over coffee,

    As for level 2, I suspect it’s often more unconscious bias than intentional decision. Like one time I was in an interview with a candidate and he assumed that I was from HR and that our HR rep (male, dressed in impeccable suit, outdressing everyone else) was a technical manager.

    • Thanks Gail.

      You’re probably right about #1, which is going to make it difficult to control.

      As to #2, I’m back where I was. I don’t get it. I tend to assume everyone knows about as much as I do and go from there. 5-10 minutes into a conversation I may (may) notice a blank stare and then I’ll realize that the person I’m talking to isn’t technical and I’ll start rolling back. I suspect, as in so much else, I’m just weird.

  • The issue with the current “victimhood culture” climate, is that people can attribute their failure to all sort of things. Noone will dare to point out the obvious (hard truth have never been pleasant to hear anyway) by fear of been demonized.

    I haven’t got the salary and the position that I believe I deserved. Is it because I’m black? Or because I’m a French in UK pre-Brexit era? Is it because of my religion? Or because of my poor background? Am I been discriminated because of my age? etc.
    The fact is, we all love attributing our failure to external factors and our success to ourself. But this is not very helpful in the long run. That might prevent us to really see what is actually preventing us to go forward. For example this victimhood mentaly might be preventing me to realise that to achieve a higher position in term of management demand more social skills that I have been able to demonstrate so far. Or that been highly focus and highly technical doesn’t garantee that I will be a good manager, especially if I lack “soft” people skills.

    In our industry, people are judged on what they do and not on how they look (I have had punk managers and a lot of my colleagues have gothic looks). If you don’t achieve something, before going full feminist/LGBT+++/BLM/etc.. it might be actually better to take a step back and look at your own skillset in a very lucid and impationate way.

  • Richard Clark

    Like you I’ve been in the field awhile (40 yrs). Mostly in development, but the first few years on big iron. Through it all, I’ve found that working for women managers much more pleasant. They make a better boss IMHO. Like you and your nerdish attributes, IR1. I’m so far from metro that I can’t really even understand them, but at the same time, I’ve never had the issue of under estimating the women I work with. I just assume nobody is going to have more experience than I do unless their name is Grace Hopper and she has passed on. There are a few out there with more experience, but not many. On the other hand, this crazy job changes so fast, being good is a moving target. You have to run just to stay in place. So any given day, you may have to reach out to any number of people who may not be part of the nerd herd. I’ve just learned over time to appreciate every oar in the water. Even those that are not actively paddling are at least keeping us from going backwards.

    I also have learned the hard way to assume that at some point eyes will glaze over, mine or theirs. Because computers are still not the end all and be all, though we are getting there as surely as the sun rises. Get into a conversation with a Lab Tech or a Physician and you can get a glazed feeling very quickly before the light starts dawning. Being who and what we are, we have to learn all sorts of things to be good developers. When I first started, it was cryogenics, fuels, and accounting. Then I switched to vehicle maintenance, parts management, then on to higher education and fund raising. For the last 26 years, its been medicine. Each of those fields required a different knowledge set and a different jargon to make yourself understood.

    So from my point of view, misogyny or racism or cultural bias is much less a problem than the shear inability to get the right information to or from the right people at the right time. Medicine is still predominately a male centered field, but it is changing fast. Female physicians are making their way into common practice now. And leading the charge are APN’s with their almost a doctor capabilities. As they are accepted, female doctors are finding more acceptance also.

    As for pay, that is something we all struggle with. I don’t think anyone who is actually making a living at computer science is paid what they are worth. Even Bill & Melinda. Certainly not me, but my closest coworker is a woman, and she makes a little more than I do. Both of us would rather work with the other than anyone else. She was my boss for about 19 years until we both dropped out of management to concentrate on new technologies. So from my point of view, there is no gender pay gap. But there does appear to be a gender bias in the field. I’ve known dozens of women trained in the field, but only a few who were great at it. Same for guys. Lots of people try it, come out of college with a degree and expectations and run head on into the unyielding 1’s & 0’s. Doesn’t matter how much smoke you blow, 1’s and 0’s don’t and can’t care.

    I appreciate what ever each can bring to the table. Healthcare is changing so rapidly, even we as the masters of change are struggling. And we have to get it right, because we all use our product. Even if a person (null gender) does not measure up to some imaginary standard, I assume they have qualities that will be useful or were at one time useful or they would not have been hired. We may have to retrain them, or move them into a better fit, but it is to the point that we can no longer depend on schools to supply our needed talent. They are worse at keeping up than we are. Add to that the cost of higher education, and we are going to be in much worse shape as my generation retires. We really have to scour the workforce, male and female, race aside, culture aside; and get every mind that can be part of the nerd herd signed up and training. Because we depend on computers for our very lives, we have to have people who can understand and work with them. The pundits predict that robots and computers will be taking over, tossing everyone out of work. I say if and only if we have an adequate supply of developers to drive that change. Otherwise, we will have some industries that will pay the price to automate, and others that will lag behind until they become irrelevant.

  • adrian

    BTW, the reason you don’t understand is that, for some reason, in spite of your age/experience you seem to expect people to behave in a reasonable, sane manner. The whole situation is very easy to understand if you realize that many people are just bat**** crazy, and that even the best of us are not always sane and rational. Understanding doesn’t mean it is right, or even that I can imagine any reason for acting in that manner, just that I realize that people will act in bizarre ways.

  • Mike


    I’m with you, mostly (I’m 54). What a lot of people here are trying to feedback to you is that more people are “idiots” than we would like to think. As an “operations” guy all I want is the best person beside me that the company can find. Once we know that we click together then I want that person kept happy. It makes me more effective if they are more effective and it allows both of us to suffer less stress. And management should be suffering less stress. So I don’t understand what has ever reinforced less than optimum behavior in their past? Over time I think the rough edges have been filed off of me a bit. I’ve learned things that work and things that don’t work and I’ve naturally repeated behaviors that had worked for me.

    I’m curious if people have seen more discrimination coming from certain disciplines? I’ve seen more “out of line” inputs coming from people in non-technical & non-operational positions. I guess you’d say I’ve never risen above the level of “line management”, where I’m responsible for some of the work as well as the managing the other direct workers actively delivering content to our customers. Also I’ve found that administrative managers who have risen up from technical ranks are more likely to focus on “operational” concerns. I’ve found more unbelievable behavior begin from “I may never have programmed a computer but…”. And that did run counter to what I thought I’d see, I expected more people from a business school background to be MORE attuned to things like EEOC rules and maybe push for hiring decisions where they might specifically want to hire or promote someone who fills a quota than the most technically competent. I have instead seen them try to talk around “other factors” in order to avoid hiring someone I thought was highly competent and just happened to be non-white, non-male, etc. Of course I’m only one sample so I’m curious what others might have experienced.

  • Lori

    I have been working in IT for 34 years, so I have some perspective. I have been the target of sexual harassment at work a few times, sometimes the person harassing me was male, sometimes female (equal opportunity, there). In all cases, I confronted the person directly, and strongly enough that they changed their behavior. I don’t remember if I ever reported the harassment to HR or a manager, this all happened in the ’80s and early ’90s. Was I their only target? I don’t know, I hope so, but I have never followed up with them to find out. Notice I said I was their ‘target’? I was not, and have never been, a ‘victim’. Victim mentality is way too common these days, and the topic of another conversation.
    I have worked at seven different places over the years, both private companies and government agencies. Up until the last 10 years, the offices were split pretty evenly between male and female employees. Only in the last two jobs have my co-workers been predominantly male. When I think about why, my answer is the influx of foreign nationals on work visas, working as contractors rather than full time employees. Remove them from the equation, and the full-time employee ratio becomes evenly split once again. I have never heard someone say ‘so-and-so can’t do the work because they are fill-in-the-blank’. Only reason I have heard not to hire someone was they lacked experience or aptitude.
    One last comment: when I was a senior in HS, my parents did not encourage me to ‘find my bliss’, or to ‘change the world’. They told me to find a job that paid well, and had prospects to be around for the 40 or so years before I could retire. I enjoy my work, I’m good at my work, but I find my bliss outside the office, thank you very much. Perhaps if HS job councilors focused students on jobs that paid well, and would be in demand for many years, we would have more STEM students overall.

    • Mike

      The problem with focusing solely on jobs that pay well is that they may not be in the same shape by the time you get done with 4 years of high school and 4 or 5 years of college. Let alone if you need a masters degree or even a professional engineering license. When I was first looking for a career Lawyer and Nuclear Engineer\Physicist were both high demand and high pay. By the time I was starting college Nuclear Power was a dead end (Thanks Three Mile Island!) and the supply of lawyers was glutted. Let alone where it stood by the time my college friends from freshman year were done with their law degrees.

      I think there is some legitimate sense to the concept “Do what you love and success will follow.” I had originally held no interest in pursuing computer science as my main career. I was good at it but at the time I was frequently heard to say that it made no more sense majoring in computers than it would have to major in slide ruler or calculator. They were all just a means to crunching numbers on your way to some greater end.

      Admittedly at the time I (and most everyone else) had not heard of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee and his ground breaking new work on HTTP and the eventual World Wide Web. But I was good at the comp sci part of it and eventually the Civil Engineering firm I worked for agreed to pay 100% of my tuition and books to go back and get my BS in Comp Sci if I would only maintain a B average! (I pulled a 4.0, there was cash on the line so I was considerably more motivated as a night school student than I was as an undergrad.)

OK, fine, but what do you think?