How can we increase gender representation in software engineering?
Our Developer Hiring Experience team analyzed this topic in a recent user-research study. The issue resonated with women engineers and a strong response enabled the team to gain deeper insight than is currently available from online research projects.
Seventy-one engineers who identified as women or non-binary responded to our request for feedback. Out of that pool, 24 answered a follow-up survey, and we carried out in-depth interviews with 14 people. This was a highly skilled group, with the majority having worked in software development for over 10 years.
While some findings aligned with our expectations, we still uncovered a few surprises.
Excellent research courtesy of my soon-to-be new employer about the driving factors affecting women who are experienced software engineers. Interesting (and exciting) to see that changes are already in effect, as I observed while writing about my experience of their recruitment process.
As a child, I wanted to be a botanical researcher. I loved being outdoors and used to visit the botanical gardens near my house all the time. My grandma inspired me to change my mind and helped me get interested in science. She lived in the country and we would look at the stars together,…
As a child, I wanted to be a botanical researcher. I loved being outdoors and used to visit the botanical gardens near my house all the time. My grandma inspired me to change my mind and helped me get interested in science. She lived in the country and we would look at the stars together, which led to an early fascination in astronomy.
Unusually for the era, both my grandmothers had worked in science: one as a lab technician and one as a researcher in speech therapy. I have two brothers, but neither went into technology as a career. My mum was a vicar and my dad looked after us kids, although he had been a maths teacher.
My aptitude for science and maths led me to study physics at university, but I didn’t enjoy it, and switched to software engineering after the first year. As soon as I did my first bit of programming, I knew this was what I had been looking for. I like solving problems and building stuff that works, and programming gave me the opportunity to do both. It was my little eureka moment.
Wise words from my partner on her workplace’s blog as part of a series of pieces they’re doing on women in technology. Plus, a nice plug for Three Rings there (thanks, love!).
In addition to the pension I get from my “day job” employer, I maintain a pension pot with a separate private provider which I top up with money from my freelance work. I logged in to that second pension provider’s (reliably shonky, web-standards-violating) website about a month ago and found that I couldn’t do anything because they’d added a new mandatory field to the “My Profile” page and I wasn’t allowed to do anything else until I’d filled it out. No problem, I thought: a few seconds won’t kill me.
The newly-added field turned out to be “Gender”, and as it was apparently unacceptable to leave this unspecified (as would be my preference: after all, I’ll certainly be retiring after November 2018, when gender will cease to have any legal bearing on retirement age), I clicked the drop-down to see what options they’d provided. “Not provided”, “Male”, and “Female” were the options: fine, I thought, I’ll just pick “Not provided” and be done with it. And for a while, everything seemed fine.
Over three weeks later I received a message from them saying that they hadn’t yet been able to action the changes to my profile because they hadn’t yet received hard-copy documentary evidence from me. By this point, I’d forgotten about the minor not-really-a-change change I’d made and assumed that whatever they were on about must probably be related to my unusual name. I sent a message back to them to ask exactly what kind of evidence they needed to see. And that’s when things got weird.
I received a message back – very-definitely from a human – to say that what they needed to see what evidence of my gender change. That is, my change of gender from “not specified” to “not provided”.
They went on to suggest that I could get my doctor to certify a letter verifying my gender change. Needless to say, I haven’t made an appointment to try to get my GP to sign a document that confirms that my gender is “not provided”. Instead, I’ve emailed back to ask them to read what they just asked me for again, and perhaps this time they’ll engage both brain cells and try to think about what they’re actually asking, rather than getting tied up in knots in their own bureaucratic process. Let’s see how that goes.
Do you know a guy who’s rubbish at cleaning or any other kind of domestic chore?
Of course, you do.
It might not be their fault; many men are raised in traditional families where women do all the household tasks, ironing their little prince’s pants and serving up regular, large dishes which his future girlfriend then has to try to replicate.
Male incompetence is tolerated far more than female ineptitude…
I’m back after a long hiatus, with a new baby and (at least some of) the same old struggles. Big Bobbin is now 6 (six!) years old (how did that happen?) and New Moo is 9 months. While I was out shopping this morning, the woman at the checkout in the charity shop said “hello,…
The most recent column in Savage Love had a theme featuring letters on the subject of gender-neutrality and genderfluidity. You’ve probably come across the term “genderqueer” conceptually even if you’re not aware of people within your own life to whom the title might be applied: people who might consider themselves to be of no gender, or of multiple genders, or of variable gender, of a non-binary gender, or trans (gender’s a complex subject, yo!).
For about the last four or five years, I’ve been able to gradually managed to change my honorific title (where one is required) in many places from the traditional and assumed “Mr.” to the gender-neutral “Mx.” Initially, it was only possible to do this where the option was provided to enter a title of one’s choosing – you know: where there’s tickboxes and an “Other:” option – but increasingly, I’ve seen it presented as one of the default options, alongside Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., and the like. As a title, Mx. is gaining traction.
I’m not genderqueer, mind. I’m cisgendered and male: a well-understood and popular gender that’s even got a convenient and widely-used word for it: “man”. My use of “Mx.” in a variety of places is based not upon what I consider my gender to be but upon the fact that my gender shouldn’t matter. HMRC, pictured above, is a great example: they only communicate with me by post and by email (so there’s no identification advantage in implying a gender as which I’m likely to be presenting), and what gender I am damn well shouldn’t have any impact on how much tax I pay or how I pay it anyway: it’s redundant information! So why demand I provide a title at all?
I don’t object to being “Mr.”, of course. Just the other day, while placing an order for some Christmas supplies, a butcher in Oxford’s covered market referred to me as “Mr. Q”. Which is absolutely fine, because that’s the title (and gender) by which he’ll identify me when I turn up the week after next to pick up some meat.
I’d prefer not to use an honorific title at all: I fail to see what it adds to my name or my identity to put “Mr.” in it! But where it’s (a) for some-reason required (often because programmers have a blind spot for things like names and titles), and (b) my gender shouldn’t matter, don’t be surprised if I put “Mx.” in your form.
And if after all of that you don’t offer me that option, know that I’m going to pick something stupid just to mess with your data. That’s Wing Commander Dan Q’s promise.
Sorry about the long break — I just wish I could tell you that it was because I’d been completely unable to find any awful examples of the pink/blue ‘colour bar’ in kids’ stuff. Sadly the truth is quite the reverse: there seems to be more of this crap every day, it gets demoralising, and…
GoldieBlox have been in the news (by which I mean the blogs) a lot lately because of their Princess Machine video. In case you missed the memo, GoldieBlox do engineering toys for girls, by which they mean a) they’re pink, and b) they’ve got stories, because girls need everything to have a story. Think I’m…
A few months ago now (OK, this post has sat in drafts for a while) when I came to pick my daughter up from nursery I found her wearing a pink ‘fairy skirt’ (something like a tutu). “Her trousers and her spare trousers both got wet and it was the only thing we could find!”…
There’s a difference between having understanding and compassion for the men who are trapped in the Box and cutting them slack. After all, it isn’t as if the dude in the Box is giving any slack to women, queers, transgender or genderqueer folks, or for that matter, heterosexual cisgender men who refuse to pretend to be Real Men. And cutting men slack is another way of coddling them instead of helping them learn to let go of the Box and discover the freedom that comes from being who you are. Having compassion without coddling people is fierce. It’s powerful. And it requires the ability to hold onto both the fact that the Box hurts us all and that it gives heterosexual cisgender men privilege.
Spoiler alert: this blog post contains significant spoilers about WALL-E, and contains minor spoilers about Salt (although these shouldn’t be spoilers to anybody who’s ever seen an action film before).
The Bechdel Test
I’ve talked to some of you already about my thoughts on the Bechdel Test, which aims to illustrate the under-representation of women in contemporary film. I first became aware of the test when I saw this video by YouTube blogger “feministfrequency”, earlier this year. If you can’t be bothered to watch the video, here’s a summary:
Alison Bechdel is the author of a long-running comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. In 1985, one of the characters in the strip states that she only watches a movie if it meets the following requirements:
It has at least two women in it, (some later versions of the test require that the women be named characters)
Who talk to teach other,
About something besides a man.
feministfrequency goes on to show that the problem is endemic by flicking rapidly through a list of films that “fail” the test (she skips over the part of her argument where she demonstrates that this is a problem, presumably because she feels that this is obvious and, besides, YouTube’s consumers will often have too short an attention span to take in a proper argument anyway).
In the snapshot above, we can see her explaining how WALL-E fails the test.
Whoah, hang on a minute. WALL-E? Are we sure?
The Problem with The Bechdel Test
Let’s have a look at WALL-E. Here’s a summary of the plot, in case you’ve been in a coma for the last few years and the first thing you chose to do when you came around was to read my blog:
Runaway consumerism and lack of ecological foresight results in Earth being too polluted to live on.
The humans all evacuate to space, leaving behind an army of trash compactor robots, “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class”.
After centuries, only one of these survives, and has achieved sentience.
A robotic probe sent down by the humans, an “Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator” (EVE) probe and the surviving WALL-E unit form an emotional bond.
The EVE is called back to the mothership with evidence that Earth is becoming livable again. The WALL-E comes aboard as a stowaway.
Meanwhile, on the spaceship, the human captain (male) is in conflict with the ship’s computer, which hides evidence of Earth’s livability in order to keep the lazy, dis-focused space-dwelling humans under its authority.
Through a series of scrapes and adventures, the WALL-E unit and the EVE manage to survive the ship’s computer’s attempt to kill them and present the evidence that Earth is becoming habitable to the humans, who land the ship.
Finally, in a heartbreaking moment, the WALL-E appears to have been reset to its factory configuration, losing its intelligence and self-awareness, until an electrical spark passed during a “kiss” from the EVE causes the WALL-E to jump-start back into being its usual, quirky, self.
So there’s WALL-E. Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No. Well, I guess I’m wrong, then.
But the problem is: I only feel that a failure to the Bechdel Test is in any way significant if the film would pass its male-centric analog. After all, we can all say that the world is unfair because we haven’t personally passed the “Lottery Jackpot Test” – winning millions of pounds – but if only a handful of people ever do pass that test, then it’s not fair to say that I personally am unlucky: I’m pretty much just as unlucky as everybody else.
I propose a male-centric analog to the Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a film must have at least two male characters (ideally named), who talk to one another about something other than a woman. It may seem like I’m being facetious – after all, virtually all movies will pass this test – but I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to comment on the fact that a movie fails the Bechdel Test unless it also passes the male analog, for the same reason that I don’t feel it’s fair to use the fact that any given person has failed the “Lottery Jackpot Test” as evidence of anything in particular either.
So, here’s my Revised Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a movie must:
It has at least two women in it,
Who talk to teach other,
About something besides a man.
AND it can not fail the test unless it has at least two men in it who talk to one another about something besides a woman.
So does WALL-E fail the Revised Bechdel Test (i.e. fails the Bechdel Test, but passes the male analog): I don’t think it does, but it depends, perhaps, on how you choose to define gender. Many audience members will choose to identify the protagonist WALL-E unit as male, for example, despite the fact that it is clearly a robot manufactured in a way that makes gender irrelevant. They choose to do this because of their conditioning:
Lead characters in films are frequently male, so – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – an audience will associate masculinity to a genderless character presented to them.
WALL-E units are dirty, engaged in manual labour, and with “rugged” square corners; these are characteristics that audiences will readily assume to be masculine traits because of the stereotypes within our society.
The WALL-E unit engages in a romantic relationship with a robot that – for similar stereotype-based reasons – the audience will often designate as being female. Our culture of heteronormativity means that when we discover that a character of a suspected gender forms a romantic relationship, that the subject of that relationship must be of the opposite gender.
Here are the options, then:
We assume that all robots in the film are genderless. If this is the case, the film fails the Bechdel Test, but passes my Revised Bechdel Test. Note that the same would be true of March Of The Penguins (this also fails the Bechdel Test, but I doubt that any feminist could rightly claim that women are under-represented in it).
We assume that all the robots in the film are of the same gender that their voice actor (please note that I don’t feel that this is a fair way to assign gender to characters: at least six of the recurring male characters in The Simpsons are voiced by voice actress Nancy Cartwright), with the exception of the ship’s computer, which – voiced by a synthetic algorithm called MacInTalk – remains genderless. In this case, the film still fails the Bechdel Test, and still passes my Revised Bechdel Test.
We assign arbitrary genders to the robots in order to make our argument fit. Only in this case can we pass the Bechdel Test or can we fail my Revised Bechdel Test.
The Revised Bechdel Test I propose solves the greatest fundamental problem with the Bechdel Test: that it discriminates unfairly against films where gender is not an issue. In most films involving nonhuman characters, the Bechdel test doesn’t provide sufficient granularity to tell the difference between “women being underrepresented” and “gender being irrelevant to the story”. Note that “nonhuman characters” is still an ambiguous term, for there exist characters with sufficient anthropomorphism that they can be treated as human analogies, like the stars of the original Toy Story, which fails both the Bechdel Test and my revised test, and rightly so.
The Problem with The Revised Bechdel Test
I’m not claiming to have fixed the Bechdel Test completely, though, as a measure of the representation of women in films. Last night, I watched Salt.
I first became aware of this new film when I saw a trailer for it at the cinema when watching Inception (doesn’t pass either the Bechdel Test nor my Revised Bechdel Test, although this isn’t a measure of how good a film is, and Inception is fantastic). Salt is a very typical modern action flick in many ways. Here are some of the common tropes of a modern action film, that Salt also has:
The lead character is a secret agent, spy, assassin, detective, mercenary, or similar “cool” profession that entitles them to carry a gun.
The lead character exhibits an almost-superhuman ability to withstand pain and torture, fight with a variety of weapons or barehand, learn multiple languages, pick locks, hack computers, and so on.
The organisation for which the lead character primarily works is of dubious trustworthiness.
The lead character is betrayed by somebody once trusted to them, and is on at least one occasion described as “rogue”.
A major motivation of the lead character is the liberation of their primary love interest.
The whole movie is full of badass fight scenes and explosions.
From a point of gender equality, this film does a really, really good job. It would be perfectly possible to change the gender of any of the major characters and still have movie which remained perfectly intact. The lead character’s femininity is part of the plot, certainly, but not in a way that makes mockery of it or belittles her for her gender. Not once does the lead female require the lead male to come and “rescue” her, or she is disadvantaged by her gender. Even the scene in which she disguises herself as a man is done not because a man would have been required but because it was the most effective disguise that she could have used, at the time: one that completely changed her appearance.
But guess what: this fantastic (and undeniably-feminist) film… doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. It doesn’t even pass my Revised Test! Why? Because despite the fact that it represents women equally and counters the culture of male leads to action films (without making a point of doing so – gender is not a factor)… it doesn’t have a second named female character for the lead female to talk to (about something other than a man). Men talk together during the film about something other than a woman (although not much – a lot of their discussion is about the lead female, but they do on occasion talk about other things during the set-up), but it’s somehow a failure in the Bechdel Test simply because the film spends most of the time, without dialogue, watching the protagonist be a awesome gun-toting badass.
The Bechdel Test is too coarse. My Revised Bechdel Test improves its biggest failure, but still fails to detect films like Salt as being a good representation of women in movies. And if anybody’s got any suggestions about how we could refine the test any further, I’d love to hear them.