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When terrible engineers are good

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06 August 2013



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A recent post “I need terrible female engineers” on Medium by Amy Nguyen describes her feelings as a female engineer; feeling that technical women are expected to be super humanly perfect – like Summer Glau pictured above fixing a hard drive – both kick ass competent and pretty, social etc. This seems to happen in robotics just as much as in other engineering and comp sci fields. While Summer Glau may be a great role model for inspiring students at the start of a career, Nguyen’s piece exposes the danger that this poses to women with careers in engineering or coding. Full article reprinted here with permission from Amy Nguyen @amyngyn.

I need terrible female engineers

Think of a woman in the tech industry you admire. Describe her. If you’re thinking of someone particularly memorable, you might say, “She’s amazing! She’s an awesome software engineer, always has interesting things to say, and is really pretty.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m fascinated with these women because they reject all the stereotypes to which I’ve grown accustomed. They’re perfect.

It’s wonderful and crucial that these bright female role models exist. These women are living proof that women in technology are not just the caricatures that we are so often portrayed as in mainstream media — proof that we can be excellent programmers and normal people (for some definition of normal). We’re so far from achieving this abstract concept of equality in the tech industry, but I appreciate the fact that I can think of several women whom I admire and aspire to be like one day. I’m not against the existence of awesome women in tech. They are not the issue.

The problem starts when we reject women who don’t fit this mold of excelling in every way. You don’t have to look far to find examples of people advocating for women in tech (and other fields) by claiming that the tech industry isn’t just for socially awkward, unhygienic men — it’s also for women who buck the trends by being charismatic, stylish, talented engineers.

As an example, if you watch the she++ Documentary, you’ll find handfuls of inspirational, multifaceted women who reject the notion of being a stereotypical computer science major in favor of sororities, extroversion, manicures, and Gossip Girl. she++ keeps using the slogan “#goodgirlsgonegeek” to promote their cause, but I can’t get behind the idea that we are looking for good, sweet girls to turn into programmers. You shouldn’t have to be pretty or nice or really anything besides interested in tech to go into this industry. As much as I appreciate and support the work these groups are doing — and to be clear, she++ is not the only group I’m thinking of — I’m left with this nagging feeling that the only women we value are the ones who can be everything at once. That we’re only worthy if we can destroy the curve in the algorithms class and write beautiful lines of code while painting our nails. Otherwise, if we’re just okay programmers, or if we’re socially awkward, we don’t matter.

I resent that we keep perpetuating this idea that women in tech are good at everything because we shouldn’t have to be any better than anyone else to belong in this field. We belong in this field because we’re people who deserve a shot, not because we are geniuses. Nicki Minaj puts it best:

When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice, and you have to — it’s like, I can’t be all of those things at once. I’m a human being.

We put so much pressure on women to be brilliant, attractive, personable, successful, and everything in between. You can be a respected politician and still have journalists ask you where you like to shop, be the highest paid actress in Hollywood and still be known as a bitch just for not smiling all the time, or really be in any field and still considered a social failure if you don’t plan to have kids.

I don’t want to combat misogyny by showing people who hate women that there is absolutely nothing to hate. That’s not how you garner acceptance for women — that’s how you put some women on a pedestal and put down anyone who isn’t perfect, who doesn’t want to be perfect. This trend of glorifying brilliant women is great for the short-term, but it’s not going to create lasting acceptance for all women. We don’t deserve to be in this industry because we’re all so incredibly exceptional and talented. We deserve equal treatment for no other reason than the fact that we are people.

It needs to be okay for women to fail. We need flawed women whose mistakes represent just that — their own mistakes. Not reflections upon our entire gender, not held up as reasons for why women aren’t meant to be in tech. We need to accept women in this field who aren’tincredibly talented, who aren’t going to send shockwaves through the industry, who want to be here just because it’s a great place to be.

xkcd’s “How it Works”illustrates exactly what we need to combat. Not by portraying women as geniuses, but by making us into fallible people.

If I had started this piece with “Think of a man in the tech industry,” I wouldn’t have been able to predict the responses. When I think of men in tech, I don’t think of one particular skill level or one particular personality. I think of the guy who’s been coding since he was 12, the guy who’s pretty good at front-end development but not so great with functional programming, or the guy who actually kind of sucks at coding. I think of brogrammers, nerds, guys who love ultimate frisbee, and guys who love StarCraft. And they’re all welcome in this field to find their own varying levels of success. If the tech industry were only for geniuses, I would have a different message. I would say sure, only let the brilliant women in (or hey, let the rest of us in, too). But that’s not how it is. There’s room in this industry for everyone. There are plenty of men who are terrible at what they do, and they’re still here.

More than women who are at the top of their fields, I need women who suck at programming. I need women who are okay at their jobs. I need women who sometimes have to ask questions and admit weakness. I need women who are antisocial, who love video games, who fall right into the stereotypical depictions of a woman in tech. Because no matter who you are, if you want to be in this field, you should be allowed in. And the way we keep promoting only the exceptional isn’t going to create more acceptance for women in tech as a whole. It’s going to reject all the women who don’t meet those impossible standards.


Update: Since I’ve published this, I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, but also some misinterpretation.

I am absolutely not saying “hire terrible female engineers.” Not at all. Hire the best person for the job. If a woman sucks at software engineering, it is not sexist to acknowledge that. In a perfect world, this would be perfectly fine advice. But we all have our own biases, whether conscious or subconscious, and people do tend to get this idea that women are either incredibly talented programmers or completely useless. People sometimes need to be reminded that one woman’s failures do not reflect the entire gender as a whole. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that people examine their biases and consider whether they’re truly judging men and women’s performances equally.

Being expected to be either a “perfect super-human” or a “girl who can’t code” puts a huge amount of pressure on women. I’m suggesting that showing women it is okay to not fall into those categories would help the tech industry feel more inclusive as a whole. Women, like men, fall on a spectrum and having a diversity of talent would relieve the pressure for all of us who feel as though we have to be on one of the extreme ends.



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Andra Keay is the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics, founder of Women in Robotics and is a mentor, investor and advisor to startups, accelerators and think tanks, with a strong interest in commercializing socially positive robotics and AI.
Andra Keay is the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics, founder of Women in Robotics and is a mentor, investor and advisor to startups, accelerators and think tanks, with a strong interest in commercializing socially positive robotics and AI.





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