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Finding Equality

posted on 22nd May 2011

So, I find myself here again, talking about the powder keg topic that is equality. My last post caused lots of argument on twitter. Things seemed to have calmed down and everyone had gone away to reflect on things. Today Faruk, who's initial post prompted my last post on the subject, posted a sort of rebuttal to my post and another person's post. It is a much more reasonable and well articulated post, but I still disagree with several points. Now what I ultimately found through the arguments on Twitter is that Faruk and I both want the same goal, but we disagree somewhat on the means by which to achieve it.

First off, I want to outline the three key points I'm going to make, just for those who don't like lengthy posts:

  1. Conferences are a symptom, not a solution
  2. I'm not immune from negative discrimination because I'm a white man
  3. Discrimination is wrong, but accounting for differences isn't discrimination

Those are my 3 key points. You may agree or disagree, with them already, but I hope you'll read of the rest of the post to understand why I make those points.


So my last post was focused around conferences. Now I admit I may not have articulated my point as well as I could have, but I still stand by the basic point, at least in the dev industry.

One thing that became clear, is that there are wildly different views depending on whether you're looking at design or development. I talked about things from the view of the dev industry, where we only have 20-25% women. As Faruk and many other have pointed out, in design women make up the majority (with figures of 60%+). This isn't very surprising to me, given the gender makeup I've seen in the various art and design classes I've been in. This difference can affect the importance you put on conferences.

If you already have a relatively balanced gender mix, then obviously you focus more on conferences. You haven't really got the problem of getting women into the industry. If you don't have the balanced community though, then fixing conferences is like trying to fix a leaky pipe on the Titanic. Sure, it helps a bit but it doesn't do much in the grand scheme of things.

On this point, when I was arguing that it's more important to change the makeup of the community first, rather than focus on improving conferences, Faruk replied:

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.

My argument there was largely that we need to avoid having a situation where we have "the token woman" or "the token black person". Everyone feels better if people are chosen based on quality. Attendees don't have to put up with crap speakers, and the speakers don't feel like they're there just to make up the numbers. You should try to get a diverse mix of speakers, but they should also be good. Ultimately if you're doing a good job of seeking out speakers then you'll naturally get a diverse speaker mix, but to enforce some constraint is more idealism than any pragmatic solution.

Ultimately though, conferences have minimal effect on the problem of getting people into an industry, which was the main point of my last post. Go up to anyone not yet in, or interested in, an industry and ask them to name a conference in that industry. Odds are they can't. Conferences are very insular. If you've solved the problem of getting a diverse mix into your industry then it's worth looking into making conference reflect that. Otherwise, you can change conferences all you like, you're going to make little impact on the imbalance in your industry.


Right, now for what may be the most controversial statement. Being a white man does not make me immune from negative discrimination. I hear this from many groups, even other white men. And it is absolute bullshit. White men may not get quite as much discrimination based on our skin colour or our gender, negative discrimination does happen. And it pisses me off when I see quotes like this:

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.

Or this:

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.

I was bullied for the largest part of my time at secondary school. I wasn't beaten up or anything, but I was constantly put down and laughed at. It wasn't because I was white or I was male. It was simply because that, while I was very intelligent, I was not the quickest on the uptake. I often said silly things, or did silly things. Or maybe it was something I didn't say or do. Give me enough time and I can work out anything, but put me on the spot and I'm not necessarily that good. Because of this I was picked on and I felt miserable and my confidence suffered greatly.

Now I would love it if I could challenge those "white men have never felt negative discrimination" folks to go up to my 13 year old self and say that the bullying doesn't count and it isn't really discrimination at all because I was white and male. And I've love to see them as they cowered away and realise the drivel they've been spewing about this. Of course I have an advantage as a white man that others don't have, and I don't try to pretend otherwise. But in the bluntest terms, those who say I'm immune from discrimination because of that can go fuck themselves.

Now that that rather emotional rant is out of the way, let's look at other ways that this fallacy that white men can't ever be discriminated against, and so can't ever understand discrimination, is wrong.

First off, we have the case of parents. Look at the case when two people with children divorce or split up. The legal system automatically assumes that one parent should have the main custody and that more often than not that should be the woman. Just as much as the idea that women should be the child carers is negative against women, it is also negative against men who want to be involved. Now there can be cases where the two people who are splitting up come to a reasonable and fair agreement, but equally there can be cases where there is an unfair agreement, more often than not favouring the mother because of the assumption that women should have a bigger role.

Secondly we have cases like car insurance. Now I've argued about this before, and had people say how it's ok that men get charged more than women for insurance because the statistics state that men are more likely to have accidents. The statistics also say that women are more of a risk to employ as they could have a child which would cause them to miss work and have to go on maternity leave. But pretty much anyone who has any sense would say that that's no reason to discriminate against women or pay them less or anything else like that. If it was a case of you paid more car insurance because you're a woman, or because you're black, or because you're gay then there would have been a massive deal made of it long ago. But because it is against men hasn't been see as a big deal.

Ultimately, white men as a group experience less discrimination than other groups. But to suggest they experience no discrimination and cannot understand what discrimination is, is incredibly ignorant, as much so as trying to write off the discrimination of any group.


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.

Faruk is again referring to me here. Now I'm not saying that his view of the current situation is wrong. In fact the research proves it is that way and I happen to agree with how he sees the problem. We just disagree on how best to solve the problems. There are lots of differences between how different groups are treated. Now I'm just going to focus on men and women here rather than other groups.

While there are differences in how men and women are treated, there are also differences in how they act. Countless studies show different ways men and women see themselves and see others, different ways in how they think and perceive the world. So how do we ultimately address these? Well as my point at the top of the post says, discrimination is wrong. We shouldn't just put women in front because they're women. But we should accept that given how things are now, women have an inherent disadvantage.

Now Faruk and I could ultimately be asking for the same thing, but calling it something different. I believe that society needs to accept and understand these differences, and approach people in a way best suited to the individual. I watched a really interesting video yesterday from the Scottish Ruby Conference, where a psychologist gave a talk on why there aren't enough women in the dev industry and what both men and women can do to change that. She talked about how small things can make a big difference and how men and women act differently.

Two good examples are that of environment and of applying for jobs. The environment can play a huge role. Geek culture can have a rather negative effect. One study the presenter mentioned was that of a computer science classroom. Women were less interested in computer science as a field, if they were shown round a classroom full of Star Trek posters and video games. But put up posters of nature and replace the video games with phone books, and women were just as interested as men. Ultimately the environment can play a role, as people have a stereotype of programmers, and women can find that stereotype more off-putting than men when looking into the industry. If the environment plays up to that stereotype, it won't do much to help.

When applying for jobs there are two components the presenter mention: CVs and job descriptions. With CVs, men make more of a deal about themselves whereas women don't necessarily do that. A man is more likely to talk about a project "I" did, whereas a woman may be more likely to talk about being part of a team that worked on a project. And with job descriptions, how they see their qualifications are differently. Both men and women can look at a set of required skills, and even if they know the same amount of stuff, the man is more likely to think he's qualified. So the job description, while seemingly neutral, can cause women to write themselves off, and those that do apply may have CVs that make them seem less capable than men, simply due to how they word them.

Knowing these differences is incredibly useful. They show that you can potentially have an impact by doing some relatively simple things. Maybe re-word your job description. Put less emphasis on CVs and more on interviews, or at least look at CVs from men and women in the context of being written by a man or a woman. And maybe aim for a bit more neutral environment, be it in the classroom, in the workplace, at a conference or even online.

Equality is an incredibly complex and difficult topic. There are lots of nuances to contend with. Because of this people can be arguing for almost the same thing, but it can seem like they're on opposite sides.

Ultimately discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality, etc is bad, and reversing it will do no good. If you imagine a seesaw that naturally balances itself, at the moment it has lots of weight on one side. Now we can try to balance it by putting more and more weight on the other side but we'll likely overshoot and then have to put more and more weight on the first side. This continues ad infinitum. Alternative you can just remove the weight and let things balance themselves out.

Positive discrimination assumes that in order to gain equality you need discriminate against the advantaged group. Instead I believe that in order to gain equality you need to remove the discrimination against the disadvantaged group. Only a fool considers society equal today, but similarly only a fool considers inequality a means to achieve equality. As we understand more and more the inherently differences between men and women, we should be adapting. The fact is that men and women ARE different and should be treated as such. Forcing women to behave more like men isn't going to get us anywhere, nor is the reverse. Instead, accept the differences. The current system works really well for men as it is geared to them, so we shouldn't necessarily change that side of it. What we should do is adapt it so that the system also is optimised for women.

Consider the situation as though it were two operating systems. Say men are Windows and women are OS X. Now imagine all the software was designed for Windows and OS X users had to run it. It wasn't optimised for them and Windows users had an advantage. Someone proposes that to make this more equal we need to design software for OS X instead, but then Windows users have a disadvantage. Instead the obvious solution is to design the Windows version for Windows and the OS X version for OS X and play to the advantages of each. People are different, and the only way we're going to achieve equality is to accept that not everyone is identical.

If you would like to send me a comment on this post, send an email to pilky@mcubedsw.com. Alternatively send a tweet to @pilky.