Meet the Guys: The Jerks of Computer Science

Originally posted July 16, 2013.

A perennial question in Computer Science has nothing directly to do with code or algorithms, and everything to do with people. To wit: Why don’t more women choose CS as a career path?

As a guy who has spent his entire professional career in CS and related policy arenas, this skewing has been obvious to me pretty much since day one.

It’s not restricted to educational institutions and the workplace, it’s also on display at trade shows, technical conferences, and even on social networking sites of all stripes.

And despite the efforts of major firms to draw more women into this field with some relatively limited successes, the overall problem still persists.

All sorts of theories have been postulated for why women tend to avoid CS and the related computer technology fields, ranging from “different nurturing patterns” to inept school guidance counselors.

But I suspect there’s an even more basic reason, that women tend to detect quickly and decisively.

The men of computer science and the computer industry are misogynous jerks.

Not all of them of course. Likely not even the majority.

But enough to thoroughly poison the well.

This goes far beyond guys crudely hitting on women at conferences, or the continuing presence of humiliating “booth babes” at trade shows.

The depth to which this pervades has been especially on painful display on the Web over the last couple of days, relating to a very important operating system technical discussion list.

Since I don’t want this to be about individuals, we’ll call the person at the focus of this list by the label “Q” — after the supercilious, intelligent, arrogant, omnipotent character from the “Star Trek” universe. Not evil per se — in fact capable of great constructive work — but most folks who come in contact with him are unwilling to risk the wrath of such a powerful entity. Indeed, an interesting character this Q.

Back here in what we assume is the real world, the current controversy was triggered when a female member of that technical discussion list publicly criticized “Q” and what we’ll politely call his “boorish” statements on the list — causing at least one observer to note that it was the first time they’d seen anyone stand up to Q that way in 20 years. This woman — by the way — is the formal representative to the list in question from an extremely important and major firm whose technology is at the heart of most personal computers in use today.

The particular examples she cited were by no means the most illustrative available — aficionados of the list in question realize she was showing admirable diplomatic tact.

But while reactions to her statements in the associated list thread itself can certainly be described as interesting, many of the reactions that have appeared externally in social media can only be described as vomit inducing.

I can’t even repeat many of them here, but just a sampling I’ve seen and/or directly received:

– “Nobody told her she had to work with Linux, get off the list!”
– “What is she, a slave? She doesn’t have to be there!”
– “Q is a god! He’s done so much good he can say or do anything else he wants, he can walk across your burned corpses!”
– “People should be able to say anything they want any way they want. If you can’t take it, go somewhere else.”
– “Bring her over to my house and I’ll show her what bad behavior is really about!”
– “Somebody is always going to be offended by everything, so there’s no point to even trying to be polite.”
– “She’s just having PMS and snapped!”
– “Hey, it’s not so bad on the list, it’s just good ol’ boys playing South Park! We don’t want political correctness here. Tell her to go – – – – herself, or ask me over and I’ll do it for her!”

And a wide variety of other specifically crude, sexist, and toilet humor remarks of all sorts, plus much worse.

It was getting so bad that I had to shut down comments on two discussion threads last night before going to bed to avoid their turning into rancid cesspools in my absence — and I wasn’t the only one who had to take that action.

One might argue that all this isn’t unique to computer science and the broader computer industry, and you’d be correct. This kind of “boys will be boys” sexism pervades our culture and in fact has driven many women into refusing to even identify as female in social media or discussion lists at all.

But the “it’s not really important, and everybody’s doing it anyway!” excuse is utterly bogus.

While we may not be able to change these attitudes in the culture at large, we can at least take steps to clean up our own house, to try bring a basic level of civility to our own work in these regards.

But first we need to admit that the status quo is indeed unacceptable, and many in our community’s “good ol’ boys club” are currently refusing even to go that far.

The technical and policy issues we’re dealing with are far too crucial to permit them to be distorted by juvenile, sexist, and loutish behavior that discourages maximum practicable inclusion and participation.

And rather than acting as tacit examples of bullying that help feed even worse abuses, leaders in our technical community should be taking the responsibility to be examples in public — if not of exemplary behavior — at least of basic politeness.

If people want to be jerks in their private lives, that’s up to them. But keep your bad behavior and sexist crap out of our work.

And that goes for you, me, Q, and everyone else as well.