Born with a vagina and pattern matching

Lea Verou is (via the New York Times) an incoming Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at M.I.T. She wrote a much-read essay on Women in Technology initiatives, which she thinks mostly do more harm than good. Near the beginning she says this:

I want to be invited for my skills as a developer and a speaker, not because I happened to be born with a vagina.

On female role models

I’m tired of being told I will be a good “role model” for other female web developers at a conference. If somebody is a good role model, they’re a good role model for everyone, regardless of gender. I never cared if my role models had dark eyes like I do, why should I care if they are the same gender? It’s equally meaningless. The whole notion that women need female role models springs from the notion that gender is this incredibly important characteristic that defines who you are. I call shenanigans on that.

Then later she says this:

I can’t say that I’ve experienced more sexism in tech than outside the industry. Quite the contrary. Engineers (yes, including male ones) are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met. It’s not our industry that has a sexism problem, our society has a sexism problem. In many cases, a lot of what we consider sexism is just pattern matching gone wrong: If you don’t meet many technical women, your brain tends to pick up the pattern. It even happens to women and I know a few who were brave enough to admit it. Instead of shaming people, it would be much more efficient to change the pattern in the first place.

The second passage is a rebuke to the first.

Yes, of course it’s not ideal to have all this god damn affirmative action and reaching out and making sure to remember to invite some women and all the rest of it. Of course it’s not. Of course it trails with it some unpleasant implications, including the whole being invited because of having the Other kind of genitalia instead of because of having the appropriate talents issue (or canard, which it usually is). Of course it does. But as she points out herself: If you don’t meet many technical women, your brain tends to pick up the pattern. Yeah, it does, and then you think and say it’s more of a guy thing, and the pattern gets that little bit more entrenched, and everybody gets even more convinced that it’s more of a guy thing, and we spiral on and on forever.

So there it is. We need to deal with that pattern matching gone wrong problem. Doing that entails weariness with being asked to be a role model and all the rest of it, but you know what? Too bad.


  1. Bernard Bumner says

    Whenever we run STEM outreach events we try to make sure that the volunteers for any particular session are diverse, and we have to make an effort because men are overrepresented in our pool of biologists/chemists/biochemists. If we can’t show young people that researchers are people like them – including presenting role-models who share identifiers of gender, class, ethnicity – then, firstly, we actually struggle to engage them (remember that they hold prejudices and preconceptions just as much as we do), and secondly, they are going to think that we have some sort of middle-class, white, boys club.

    The effort, in our case, is not find good women, but simply to fairly spread the load – we end having to ask the same willing volunteers time and again. The proportion of people willing to volunteer for outreach is small, and the proportion of our researchers who are women is less than 50% (despite females outnumbering males at UG level). Therefore, the same (willing) women get asked time and again to do events. Because we have a much bigger pool of men, they don’t have same burden placed upon them – they can easily opt in and out from one event to the next, because we have enough numbers to cover them.

    I wonder whether being one of the go-to women for outreach can make you feel like a token, because although there might be a pool of, perhaps, five or six of you, you always end up doing events surrounded by men in order that we (as an organisation) can display diversity)?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Bernard Bumner @ # 1: …despite females outnumbering males at UG level…

    Does that mean that this particular problem will go away (or invert) in a few more years?

  3. Dave Ricks says

    For this question:

    Does that mean that this particular problem will go away (or invert) in a few more years?

    Anecdotally speaking (from my MIT School of Engineering SB/SM 1983 & PhD 1994), we have a leaky pipe (from the % women in school to the % women in industry).

    I mean, since I started as an undergrad at MIT in 1978 with a 5:1 male:female ratio (undergrad), I’ve seen growths in the % women in school and industry (over the range of career levels), but there’s a leaky pipe between the growth of % women in school (undergrad) to the % women I see in industry (over the range of career levels).

    My personal observation is anecdotal, but well-defined statistically, so someone else can evaluate it objectively. Oh, now I see Ophelia just quoted:

    Among the women who join the field, 56 percent leave by midcareer, a startling attrition rate that is double that for men, according to research from the Harvard Business School.


    nearly a third of the women who leave technology jobs move to nontechnical ones, according to the Harvard study.

  4. anbheal says

    I’m sympathetic to her as an INDIVIDUAL, who may not want to be draped with the mantle of “mentor” or “role model”. Charles Barkley made a media career out of rejecting the calls for him to be a better role model, and both Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods were extremely uncomfortable taking on the leadership roles in speaking out for race relations in the same manner Ali had done. It’s not for everyone. Some people fear public-speaking, some are just introverted, others risk-averse (she may well be shunned, or worse, threatened, if the experience of women in gaming communities is any indication). She has every right NOT to want the role others are demanding of her. Just as your colleague Ms. McCreight chose to take a leave of absence.

    But her logic is a bloody mess. As you so deftly point out, she can’t have it both ways, decrying sexism (and who cares if it’s societal or industrial???) while simultaneously decrying efforts to alter the balance. So I contest your final comment of “Too Bad”, as it pertains to her personal decision to decline the invitations and play a larger role. Her reasons may be good, bad, or too complex to categorize. But I heartily approve of the “Too Bad” if it means “screw you for saying the industry shouldn’t be making these outreach efforts”.

  5. says

    Yes, good point. I definitely didn’t mean she has to be a role model herself, I was disputing her generalizations about the wider project.

    Well and I guess (re-reading the final sentence) I was saying she shouldn’t get too pissed off about being asked. On her own terms, she shouldn’t get too pissed off about that, since the only way to fix the pattern is to fix the pattern.

    I get why people don’t like it. I don’t like it myself. I agree that it’s not ideal. But if you see that the pattern matching goes wrong…then you see why it needs fixing, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to treat the fixing as wrong-headed.

  6. Bernard Bumner says

    Pierce R. Butler @ #2,

    As Dave ricks points out, the “leaky pipeline” is the real issue – diverse recruitment to the field is now very successful, but retaining people is difficult. I would say that I have seen some imporvements over the last decade – there is much better representation within the faculty of women, and more senior women, but I know that even amongst recent fellowships, the numbers of men are disproportionately greater.

    There is much work to do to redress the balance, and there is no hope in thinking that merely waiting for women to filter through from UG level will do it.

    I think that we may be heading towards the tipping point, but we are not there yet.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Of course it trails with it some unpleasant implications, including the whole being invited because of having the Other kind of genitalia

    I think perhaps you meant,

    an Other kind of genitalia.

    There are these other Other people who, inconveniently, exist.

    I love you, Ophelia, I do, but pretending trans* & intersex folk don’t exist isn’t a way to help make feminist points more snappy.

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