Thursday, November 24, 2011

I Want To Work In A Meritocracy, Too

Lately when the topic of the gender imbalance in CS comes up, the answer I seem to hear a lot is 'I want to work in a meritocracy!' or 'We work in a meritocracy!', and as long as we do then it doesn't matter if there aren't many prominent female computer scientists, engineers, or CEOs.  You can get ahead if you're good.

But something about this line of thinking doesn't sit right for me.  For one thing, even if you ignore the initial gender imbalance for people in school or at the start of their careers, the percentage of women starting out isn't the same as the percentage of women at the top.  Where do they go?  Why aren't they getting there?  Unless the percentage of women who aren't meritorious is much higher than the percentage of men who aren't meritorious, this doesn't make much sense.  But having the percentage of meritorious people for one gender be much higher than the other doesn't really make sense either, as explained in this fantastic set of slides by Terri Oda.

Yesterday I came across a great article called 'Racism and Meritocracy', which also touches on the gender imbalance in tech.  It offers another explanation: there's a systemic bias which filters women (and other minorities) out, and that this systemic bias can exist even if individuals in the system don't have it.  I think this is a pretty powerful argument, but the article also proposes concrete, practical solutions that we can all employ to help correct the problem.  I highly recommend giving it a few minutes of your day to consider.

On a side note, another comment I hear on this topic is that people don't want to see quotas or to see people rewarded when they don't have the contributions or achievements that warrant it.  I don't think many people would want that, actually (I certainly wouldn't!).  I want to work in a meritocracy too, I'm just not sure our industry truly reflects that yet.

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