From Snarky Truth to Reasoned Explanation
For those who dismiss this post TL;DR, or too boring to read: this is the precise reason I wrote my snappy, snarky take-down first. This follow-up post is an examination of the issues, complete with citations from and references to studies. Also, a huge thanks goes out to my girlfriend Dot / @teacup, for her invaluable contributions to this piece.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a Translation of General Misogyny to Uncomfortable Truth, my highly snarky deconstruction of the misguided remarks made by two men in the design and web community during a debate about whether a conference roster of all white men is acceptable or not. Afterwards, I received an unprecedented (well, for my blog) outpouring of thanks from the community. Literally hundreds of people wrote in to say how much they agreed with it, supported it, liked it, and, in the case of many women, how relieved they were to see these things being said.
Relieved. Take a moment to think about the implications of what that means.
In sharp contrast to all of this, I received direct disagreements with the content from only four people, all of them male. Every single woman who responded agreed strongly. These observed facts are not coincidences (though that doesn’t mean they would extrapolate infinitely at the same ratios).
That said, not everything about my post is agreeable. The tone was clearly confrontational; this was absolutely intentional. What some people misunderstood was that the post was not meant to be a missive or treatise about discrimination. I wasn’t trying to solemnly dissect and explain the problems; I was pointing out the offensively-stated obliviousness to the real problems as exhibited by those people.
Two men wrote lengthy responses in disagreement with my piece, giving me this opportunity to properly explore the nuances of these problems and explain some of the fundamental mistakes that I believe underly their perspectives.
First, Martin Pilkington’s The Fallacy Of Equality At Conferences:
But in this post [Faruk] is not arguing about equality, no matter how much he may like to try and make it seem that way. He's simply arguing for a different form of discrimination that is more preferable to his world view.
Martin was half right: I was not arguing for anything at all. A snarky take-down of a collection of offensive and oblivious statements is as much making an argument on this issue, as President Obama’s roasting of Donald Trump is an example of formal political debate.
But Martin touches upon two important points. First, that we’re arguing this topic in the context of our own world views. He accuses me of applying my reasoning in such a way that it aids my world view. What he doesn’t realize is that my “world view” here is an as-neutral-as-possible perspective through the lens of a significant body of research, statistics, and a great deal of knowledge on how women (in particular) are treated differently throughout their entire lives. I have, through the course of countless of hours of trying to understand this problem and asking women to explain it to me, learned a significant amount about how women are offended and mistreated, and their activities treated as less serious, valuable or important, on a daily basis. Yes, even in our seemingly equal, progressive Web and Design industries. More on that later.
The second is his “different form of discrimination,” which highlights a core misunderstanding of the terminology. During a lengthy debate we had on Twitter it became clear that Martin (and John, and Matthew) believe that any and all forms of discrimination are intrinsically bad; that the idea of positive discrimination is equally unfair as negative discrimination. To explain why that is not true, we must first understand that there are two forms of equality:
The goal of antidiscrimination law [is] to promote equality, but the concept of equality can be divided into at least two types: formal equality and substantive equality. Formal equality requires that employment decisions be made without discrimination based on certain stereotypes or harmful assumptions. Substantive equality moves beyond this neutral process, requiring action to redress disadvantages suffered by some groups, action that sometimes amounts to positive discrimination. There are obvious tensions between these two concepts of equality.
— Tor Brodtkorb, The Role of Positive Discrimination in UK Anti-Discrimination Law [pdf]
What we ultimately want is Formal equality: a world in which race, gender, ethnicity, orientation and religious beliefs do not affect the opportunities and treatment of any individual. Unfortunately, the only people who think we live in such a world (or work in an industry that enjoys Formal equality) are a certain class of people who have enjoyed privileges their entire lives. Many women, if you care to respectfully listen to them, will readily assure you that we do not live in such a world—or industry—at all.
Let’s break down two myths:
Myth 1: Women are intrinsically less good at computer programming or design
The argument that is most frequently used is that there are fewer women in computing and design because the women are either less interested or less adept. But even a casual observation reveals this as a fallacy: In the U.S. the percentage of women in undergraduate studies has dwindled to 11% [pdf], yet in India (in 2003), 55% of the Bachelor’s of Science degrees in Computer Science studies were awarded to women [pdf]. With India being a strongly patrifocal country, you would expect these numbers to be the other way around. Various findings indicate that women in India find Computer Science a female-friendly field; other studies reveal that women in the U.S. find math and science to be not female-friendly.
Myth 2: Men claiming women are less good has no negative influence on their joining the sector
This refers to John O’Nolan’s original piece, wherein he argues that “different people are naturally good at different things […], sometimes as a result of education, experience and skill (for something like, say, design).”
This myth keeps being perpetuated despite being especially ridiculous in the world of design, where women have consistently formed the majority (>60%) of design students in higher education.
The earlier-linked study also revealed the crucial role that women’s self-efficacy—the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals—plays in their participation in a certain field. With math for example, it was discovered that “the math gender divide is not one of ability, but of confidence.” Pre-college level education played a part, too:
Among the biggest factors that helped women stay in science and engineering were the numbers of physical science courses taken in high school and higher confidence in mathematical skills. As the research on gender and math has found psychological factors such as confidence and attribution to impact women's persistence, so, too, have we found this to be the case in computer science.
— Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher and Faye Miller
The percentage of women in a certain field is consistently linked to how female-friendly the field is perceived both culturally and individually. Thus—and repeated government studies across several nations back this up—mere ‘equal pay’ legislation and tepid hand-waving about encouraging women to a field does very little to correct gender imbalances.
Studies show that corporate managers tend to appoint clones of themselves; people who walk, talk and dress like them - in short, other men.
— The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C. Chief Justice
Substantive equality: breaking down barriers
This brings us to Substantive equality: the principle of taking action to “redress disadvantages suffered by some groups.” Of course this concept creates tensions and is met with resistence: nobody likes experiencing discrimination—least of all a group of people who have never been discriminated against their entire lives, and have enjoyed all the privileges of that fact. Subconsciously or otherwise.
I previously wrote on Twitter:
It would be great if we could only judge people on merit, but that’s only fair to do if everyone can get on the playing field equally.
It should come as no surprise that some members of this group perceive the world as equal opportunity: they are already on the field, playing with each other, not realizing that they’ve put barriers up around the field that make it difficult for others to participate. These barriers are the countless little offenses, maltreatments and discriminations against women and minorities. They manifest themselves in things as seemingly innocuous as a single word we use to express negative emotions with (such as the pervasive referencing of professional women as “girls”), all the way to our decision-making process when finding and choosing speakers for a conference (or poorly-done lunchtime entertainment at a conference).
One such barrier is the very simple fact that I, a self-identified white male, wrote that Translation of General Misogyny to Uncomfortable Truth. Numerous women have told me that they wouldn’t have dared write such a post for (rightful) fear of vitriol and death threats. Further, many men would have dismissed or discredited the piece altogether for the sole reason it was written by a woman. Matt May explains this phenomenon perfectly:
The disempowered in general tend to be shouted down when they point out their disempowerment.
Returning to those barriers, it is understandable that people who have lived privileged lives don’t readily acknowledge them: they’ve never truly experienced what discrimination feels like, and so don’t know what to look for. Perhaps this explains their fear of and strident resistence against positive discrimination: they don’t know what it’s like but they know from history and culture that it’s a terrible thing to experience.
Sadly many people are under the impression that avoiding positive discrimination allows for equality. But since we are currently in an unequal situation (as outlined above), to do nothing, or only so little as to amount to tiny incremental changes, simply perpetuates inequality. Thus they are not arguing for equality at all, but for permission to continue living in a discriminatory environment which benefits them, whilst paying nominal lip service to changing things, such as:
We need to treat the cause of the problem. All groups are equally good at speaking, so the only way to increase the numbers of the speakers in minority groups is to increase the number of community members in those minority groups.
I don’t disagree with this necessarily, but it strikes me as hilariously backwards that Martin uses this as a means to argue against what Mike Monteiro and I (and many others) are fighting for, which is ensuring the presence of at least one woman and one minority group member in a conference line-up.
You want to know how to get more women and minority members in your field of work? Stop fighting and arguing against people who are asking for more women and minority members to be recognized. It is precisely these fighting efforts ones that make those groups feel unwelcome. Every post such as Martin’s, or John O‘Nolan’s or Matthew Donnelly’s, is something that makes women and minority groups feel less welcome, thereby exacerbating the problem. This is why I vilified these men’s posts; because they wrote them in a self-congratulatory manner as if they were fighting for equality, when their efforts were in fact more harmful than helpful.
The only evidence that any of the men have provided as the basis of their entire argument is a fictional one: that because we have fewer women in this industry, conference organizers can’t find enough suitable candidates. “What few there are, are already too busy speaking at other conferences” is what they say. Yet not only is that a fallacy, it highlights that they haven’t examined the actual causes behind this problem nor discovered the valuable lessons for solving it:
If your system of finding worthy students or speakers to promote is to have them come to you and ask, but a solid body of research shows that women won’t do so, you’ve institutionalized a gap.
— Sarah Milstein
Finding great women to speak is really not that hard; my small sample, aggregated in one Twitter list, was less than half an hour’s work. (more suggestions welcome, by the way)
But let’s move on.
The other major response to my post was by Nate Abele, who attempts (as the third person to do so) to explain John O’Nolan’s views in his piece On Discrimination. Before I respond to Nate’s piece, I want to stress that nobody actually misunderstood John’s post, nor did his words need additional explaining. His arguments were ill-informed and the words he chose to present them in were offensive and hurtful, simple as that.
Now, Nate’s post contains some pretty baffling hyperbole, which makes it difficult to ascertain when he’s trying to actually argue a point and when he’s just being sarcastic. However, he seems sincere in considering this quote by Ron Paul as “insight”:
Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Racists believe that all individuals who share superficial physical characteristics are alike: as collectivists, racists think only in terms of groups. By encouraging Americans to adopt a group mentality, the advocates of so-called 'diversity' actually perpetuate racism. Their obsession with racial group identity is inherently racist.
I don’t even know where to begin. Rep. Paul suggests that anyone trying to address the problem of discrimination in our society is “inherently racist,” thus failing to understand what the meaning of the word “prejudice” is. To make sure no one reading this has any wrong definitions in mind:
Prejudice: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason.
Racism: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
• prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief
Stating that a black person is black doesn’t make you racist, it makes you accurate.
It’s not that Rep. Paul is entirely off the mark—it would make the country better if everyone thought of everyone else as nothing more than another human being. But that’s a goal, not a means to achieve it. Attacking the people who are actually trying to get us all there is unhelpful. These problems that our society suffers from need to be tackled and dealt with using proven measures and concrete, pro-active methods; not by waving around washy ideologies.
For instance, we live in a pretty terrible rape culture, one where “up to one in four women in US universities report having experienced an attempted or completed rape while in college.” And that’s not even considering the fact that 75-95% of rapes are never reported. Countering that takes a lot more than simply not talking about this problem, which is what Rep. Paul suggests we do. It requires activism to fix our judicial systems so it no longer makes the grave mistake of blaming a rape victim ever again; it means we need to stop attacking women when they report being sexually assaulted at tech conferences as if they did something wrong.
The problem is that human beings don't work right. We're broken. Collectivism, prejudice and conflict are part of our condition.
This is a common excuse used by men who have no interest in changing the status quo, such as this outrageous hackernews comment, saying “you're presupposing that sexism is wrong. If it is wrong, why has it survived for so long?”
We've tried to paper over our internal, systemic failures with the ultimate feel-good ideal: fairness. Whatever the inequity, we'll just force people to play fair. We've tried everything from affirmative action, to equal pay for equal work, and so on.
Nate apparently believes that legislated enforcements to protect the disempowered have somehow been a failure, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sure, these measures have caused friction, tension and even conflicts here and there; yet despite the occasional setback they have made our society better, the lives of citizens fairer, and helped us all towards Formal equality.
So why are these acts wrong? Nate goes on to explain:
What, then, is the error in these policies? Three things. First, forcing bad (broken) people to do a good thing only fixes one surface symptom. It does nothing to address the underlying brokenness. In other words, you can't legislate morality.
First of all, Nate’s link doesn’t even back up his own argument; it points to the Political Repercussions section on the Wikipedia page for the Civil Rights Act. In it, we are reminded that President Johnson was told that signing the Civil Rights Act would cost him the South and the election. What happened, however, was that Johnson won the elections in one of the greatest landslide victories in American history.
I can bring no greater argument for the dangers of the ignorance and bullish wrong-headedness that so many individuals in the tech industry bring towards this subject than someone using arguments against The Civil Rights Act as their platform.
Second, though, the notion is unbelievably wrong to begin with. You can’t legislate morality? The very idea of law is the legislation of morality and fairness! In fact, the only two ways morality has ever progressed throughout history has been through either legislating it, or through a (typically violent) uprising by the suppressed demographics.
Second, people tend to resist being told what to do, which gives rise to more bad things.
People don’t seem to mind being told that they cannot murder other people. People don’t seem to mind being told that they cannot steal, and so forth.
Third (and this is a problem that is endemic to our political process), discussions over policy decisions are often far too focused on the good intentions of well-meaning sponsors, at the expense of a practical examination of the real-world effects. This leads to disasterous consequences, as the results of a policy implementation often harm the very groups they were instituted to assist.
Disastrous consequences which Nate is unable to provide any evidence for, and, as illustrated quite thoroughly above, all studies we do have in this regard point to the contrary thereof: that these policies yield very positive real-world effects.
It gets worse. Because people who make rules intend them to be followed, there has to be a consequence associated with breaking them. If I discriminate against a person in an under-represented group in my hiring process, I'm probably going to get a fine. If I don't pay the fine, I have to go to court. If I don't go to court, people with guns are going to show up at my house and take me to a small concrete room featuring an uncomfortably short distance between the bed and the toilet. Violence is therefore an acceptable means of enforcing fairness.
Two points: first, the above illustrates the enormously civil process in which today’s society deals with a wrongdoing. In times before we started legislating morality, wrongdoings might easily have led to a fatal beating with a club.
Second, the obvious flaw in Nate’s argument is his conclusion: “Violence”? All he had to do to escape this non-violent “violence” is pay a fine he could’ve easily paid. That isn’t violence. Murder or assault is violence. Rape [warning: disturbing material] is violence. And those are things that almost every woman has to worry about just for being a woman.
There is much more to be said about this issue. And it doesn’t stop there, either; this problem is far from solved. At the heart of the issue lies our current culture, which has been built for so many centuries around a false belief in male superiority that it pervades our lives in ways most of us don’t even notice. But it all adds up; each little discrimination or oppression, each act that aims to exert or maintain control over women, is something that makes the lives of women more difficult than for men. And why? Because nature decided in its coin-flip of a decision that this person was to be born with two X-chromosomes.
It’s not fair that a pre-birth event should negatively affect the entirety of a human being’s life—and it’s up to us all to change that. Because that’s what being human is all about.