Why the Telegraph is wrong on women in IT

Reading the half-baked arguments of the Telegraph’s Milo Yiannopoulos is both depressing and exasperating. His “discrimination does not exist” blog can be summed up in one statement: men good, women bad.

He says women should stop whinging that they get a raw deal in tech, because IT careers should be based on merit. Whinging undermines the achievements of those women who are already succeeding in technology. So if more women were technically gifted, more women would go into the sector. It’s that simple – the reason there aren’t many women in IT is that they’re naturally just not very good at it. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, although generally in less stark language and usually by some old fat bloke in Claridges or Parliament.

The problem I have with Yiannopoulos’ carping is that he makes the limiting assumption that merit, or ability, is the only thing that matters when it comes to doing well in IT. Either he is wilfully and deliberately twisting the point women are trying to make, or he is truly misunderstanding it and genuinely believes what he is saying. If the former, he’s probably doing it to increase interest in his blog, and at least, I suppose, he is stoking debate. If the latter, he’s just a bit thick.

Before the horse gets so high I fall off, here’s his first point. He appeared on a panel discussing the issue of women in technology at the Geekn’Rolla event, hosted by TechCrunch.
“Well, what a lot of fuss my impromptu appearance on the Just A Girl panel at yesterday’s Geek’n Rolla caused. Whinging about what a raw deal girls get in tech is not only rubbish, I said, it’s also massively patronising to other girls.”

If only all of us could be spectacular enough to cause a fuss among hysterical girls with a little impromptu appearance. What a clever boy he must be. He doesn’t really go on to explain how, exactly, wanting to boost the number of women in IT is patronising to the women already there. The argument is unclear and illogical. And from the testimony of colleagues who attended the event, there was no “whinging” done at all – just intelligent debate.

It’s also unclear, but simultaneously hugely patronising, why he refers to “girls” in IT. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t that many female software programmers who are under 18. You never hear about boys in IT. It may seem like a small point but the use of “girls” instead of “women” implies immaturity and a lack of experience, and should be stamped out. Incidentally, he also refers to women who do well in IT as “brilliant chicks”. So if the bird analogy is extended, does that make him a brilliant cock?

His next point, printed as a transcript from the discussion:
“Milo: Finds this discussion patronising to women. There are reasons which have nothing to do with prejudice why women are not more involved in the tech scene. Do we need to change the game? […] No! We shouldn’t be apologising for having fewer women in a sector in which men naturally perform better […] We need a serious, systematic study that looks at the actual reason why women are not in tech, rather than tiptoeing around each other with anecdotal evidence.”

The main sentence here is the third: “We shouldn’t be apologising for having fewer women in a sector in which men naturally perform better”. This is just offensive – and, incidentally, patronising to women who have worked hard to get where they are in IT, and who now hear they’re “naturally” less good than their male colleagues. He offers no evidence showing men perform better in technical realms than women, and doesn’t explain his reasoning. He seems to think it’s true just because he says it is. There is no evidence that men are naturally better suited to IT than women. The lack of women in the sector is unrelated to women’s ability – it is down to other factors.

Yiannopoulos goes on to call for a “serious systematic study” into why there are not more women in technology. This is actually one of his more positive points – at least he seems to be acknowledging that there are reasons why women don’t choose IT that are not related to their “lack of ability”. But if he’d bothered to do a Google search he’d realise there’s large amounts of research already available.

Next: “Leisa to Milo: I think you’re implying that the reason there are more men in tech demonstrates that they’re the best people for the job. What about people who are as talented but can’t make the same commitment because of family commitments?
Milo: It’s not fair to suggest that men don’t make sacrifices when they choose to work 20-hour days.”

I’m amazed he chose to reprint this exchange. His point is totally unrelated to what Leisa says. She’s talking about people who are unable to work 20 hour days because they need to care for children or other family members. She’s not suggesting men don’t work hard or make sacrifices for their job. She’s saying that some women are simply unable to, however much they might want to. Men are often able to have children, but still put in the hours at work to enable them to succeed – they are sacrificing time with their family, yes, but they have the choice to do so. Many women don’t have that choice. The burden of care still usually falls on women, which often gives them less freedom to pursue career goals.

He adds, “Here’s the thing: tech is an absolutely brilliant place for women to work. They are welcomed as in perhaps no other industry – especially by men.”

This may be true – again, he gives no evidence or explanation, but it’s true that tech is a great place for women to work, and that they are (usually) welcomed by men. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are under-represented, and that there must be reasons for this.

“As Joshua March pointed out yesterday, since most start-ups are founded by developers, and most developers are men, it’s natural that a lot of the CEOs on the scene are male. But the tech scene is much bigger than the startups themselves: there’s an entire ecosystem of VCs, PRs and journalists. Many of these jobs are done by girls. As Paul Walsh puts it: “The women who want to work in technology are working in technology.” (Read his blog post on the subject, “Manufactured anger over the lack of women in tech“)
If those women don’t “identify” as women in tech, and prefer to call themselves PR girls or journalists, well… whose fault is that? It’s not as if they won’t be accepted into the community – quite the reverse.”

It’s not totally clear what point he’s making here – it might that there are more women in IT than we think, because of the number of female tech PRs and journalists. These are relevant roles, but I can safely say, being a female tech journalist, that writing about IT is not the same as working in IT. I know nothing about programming or designing a website. I did degrees in economics, journalism and philosophy, and I came from a local newspaper, not IBM. The tech PRs I’ve spoken to (male and female) have similarly non-technical backgrounds. This doesn’t mean they don’t play an important role, but the argument we’re having should be focussed on the number of women in technical and IT managerial roles, who are linked to the IT industry in a much more direct way. Otherwise, the implication is that men “do things” – they manage teams, they write code, they start businesses. While women write press releases about it.
“The question posed yesterday was: how do we get more women into the tech sector? That’s entirely the wrong question. We need to find the best candidates for each job. Gender doesn’t come into it.”

Absolutely: we need to find the best candidate for each job. Gender doesn’t come into it – until you realise that many of the best candidates are women, who are not going for these jobs. Why? There are a multitude of answers. It starts in school, where technology and other scientific subjects are subtly, sub-consciously, presented as things that boys do. It continues into adolescence, where girls read magazines telling them how to look nicer, while boys’ interests are able to roam far wider. There is plenty of excellent work looking at why girls don’t choose IT at school – notably by e-skills, which is also working to get more young women interested.
If girls do grow up and decide to go into IT, they don’t “whinge”. They work hard, as do men, but they do notice that they’re the only woman in their team, for instance, or they’re one of about 10 women at a networking event for 150 people. I doubt Yiannopoulos has ever tried to imagine what it feels like to be in a minority at work, but it can be alienating and frustrating. It’s difficult to get a promotion if you’re not on the same wavelength as your boss, or worse, if you’re constantly patronised or disregarded when opportunities come up.
Ciara Byrne makes a good comment underneath Yiannopoulos’s blog, saying, “Working in an environment where you are always the only woman (apart from the secretary) does get wearing and you always feel like an outsider to some degree. While positive discrimination is not the answer, creating an environment which is more female-friendly would help.”

That is the point women are trying to make – they’re not anti-men, and they’re not calling for special treatment, they’re just trying to describe their own experiences and think about how they could help more women get involved in the sector. It’s obvious that there are plenty of excellent female technicians and IT managers around: the problem is that they make up just 15% of the industry, and there should be more. The caveman proponents of “men good, women bad” arguments are getting increasingly lonely as more and more men decide mixed teams are more successful, but there’s still a long way to go.