By Anne Currie
I’ve been working in tech for nearly 25 years and I’m currently involved in DevOps – a mashup of operations and development that works well with cloud infrastructure.
“Is DevOps more diverse than other areas of tech?” The Register asked me one day. There’s certainly a perception that it is – with a seemingly higher-than-usual profile of speakers who are women than elsewhere in the industry and attendees from outside the standard compsci-educated demographic.
In reality it’s not, but there’s still very useful stuff we can learn about minorities in tech from the DevOps experience.
The vital statistics
For the sake of ease, let’s pick women as our minority. How many female engineers are there in tech right now? According to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), fewer than 15 per cent (PDF) of those in UK tech are women. The US is doing better at 20 per cent, although a recent study in Psychological Science suggests female participation may be higher in countries with bad social safety nets because tech is a steady job. Fear of penury probably isn’t my dream motivation for increased diversity.
I didn’t realise the problem was that bad in the UK, but that’s presumably survivor bias on my part. So, is DevOps radically disrupting everything, as we’re all so apparently keen on at the moment, by bringing in loads of female engineers? What made The Reg think it was?
Skirting the issue
When they asked me if DevOps was diverse, I had the normal reaction – I mentally counted the famous folk I could think of. Ten sprung to mind and 50 per cent were women. Great! I had scientifically proven that DevOps was more diverse than the rest of tech.
Hang on, though, wasn’t that another cognitive bias (“availability” this time) combined with a statistically insignificant sample? Am I an idiot? Did I have access to better data than my own flaky recollection of keynote speakers I’d seen?
Well, I helped organise QCon London this year and we had nearly 150 speakers. I counted the public bios for DevOps stuff (cloud, deploy, security, containers, tooling and so on. I also included serverless, because they’re still people who think about hosting problems). I guesstimated 20 per cent of the DevOps speakers were women. Since that’s similar to the percentage of women in tech overall it implies DevOps isn’t female dominated when you start zooming out.
There’s a lot of selection (self and otherwise) that goes into conference speakers. Do we have any other data? Chef stated in 2016 that DevOps was only 6 per cent women. If they were right, DevOps is less diverse than pure development. Hmm, this is weird.
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What might cause an unusual number of women if not a large pool to choose from? As pure speculation, DevOps did get zeitgeisty at the same time as we started trying to promote more diverse tech speakers. As conference organisers, we did that by looking for talented folk from minority groups to talk. Maybe we’re seeing correlation rather than causation here – DevOps and pro-diversity activity came online at the same time and so DevOps speakers are more gender balanced because that’s exactly what we intended.
Irrespective of the reason, DevOps has a high proportion of big cheeses from minority groups. Did that cause an upward trend in diversity more generally? Hard to say. Chef’s stats suggest not, but they are two years old. Just as importantly, did underrepresented leaders help or hinder the DevOps movement? That’s easier, according to Computing: “DevOps is rapidly emerging as the de facto way of developing, delivering and refining software.” It doesn’t seem hindered.
We can’t roll back time and rerun everything without any diversity interventions, but we can say for DevOps that a) there are a lot of high-profile women relative to the tech sector overall, and b) adoption has been good.
So my suspicion is that active advocacy probably does help create diverse leadership figures and doesn’t have a negative effect on establishing a new tech approach. That wasn’t a given. If the sector was highly prejudiced then getting the DevOps Kool Aid messages from women might have slowed acceptance, but it doesn’t seem to have.
However, we don’t yet know if any of this delivers more knee boots on the ground. It may do in the future, if role models are a significant factor in folk choosing to enter or remain in tech.
So are role models a factor?
Why don’t girls like me?
Half of women, according to a study by PWC, say the number-one factor when choosing a career is “feeling like the work they do makes the world a better place”. That sounds a bit saccharine to me but we do seem to be walking the walk. In a 2016 report (PDF) by the Australian government, the top two (by far) careers for Aussie women were “Health Care and Social Assistance” and “Education and Training”.
Arguably, the shenanigans at Facebook involving its users’ data could see more budding female engineers deterred from entering the industry. Is the answer, therefore, to simply stop behaving like T-shirted sociopaths? I wish. It may be necessary but it’s not sufficient. According to a 2015 Grant Thornton report (PDF), the supposedly noble and mission-driven field of Cleantech employs just one percentage point more women than tech.
Apparently, most people just don’t see STEM jobs as directly benefiting society (National Academy of Engineering, 2008). Tech doesn’t appeal as a career to individuals who value making a social contribution. That is so crazy and dangerous it’s hard for me to get my head around it – the web, medicine, food, shelter, energy, basically everything society relies on relies on technology. But it is somewhat invisible.
Simply cleaning up the industry’s ethics isn’t going to be enough to get more folk to choose a career in technology. Last year Google developer James Danmore lost his job for complaining that women were more interested in people than things. Danmore’s more insidious, mostly unchallenged, assertion was that tech is interested in things rather than people. If this impression is the root cause of the low numbers of women in tech, then poor female representation is just a symptom of an even worse malaise: the chronic cultural undervaluing and misunderstanding of technology. The NAE recommends that if we want people to feel more positively about tech, we should start talking about ourselves as “concerned with human welfare”. That’s not a crazy suggestion.
Stepping back, our best strategies so far for getting more women into tech appear to be: have a crap welfare state thereby forcing them to take reliable employment (not ideal), or change the whole of modern western culture to appreciate technology (tricky).
What about just keeping the women in tech that we already have? That would seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, retaining the women we already have could be as big a problem as attracting them in the first place. A 2013 study by the University of North Carolina found that about half of women who originally worked in STEM left after 10-20 years, compared to only 20 per cent of their non-STEM equivalents.
What a colossal waste! OK, so why do women quit tech in droves?
Don’t leave me this way
According to the National Center for Women in Technology (PDF), women seem to be disappearing mostly because their career grinds to a halt due to lack of opportunities for training, and poor managerial support. Eighty per cent of leavers change sector away from IT or create their own businesses in order to progress.
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg might say ladies are failing to “lean in” and drive our own careers but those numbers don’t suggest that to me. People willing to start their own business or begin again from scratch don’t sound like big girl’s blouses.
What’s my conclusion? To start with if we want more diverse techies – all those folk interested in fluffy social stuff – then we’ll probably have to clean up tech’s ethics and stop sounding like arseholes in the news every week (duh). We’ll also have to shout more loudly about all we do that benefits society (“connecting people” isn’t going to cut it).
It’s that or we could bring down the welfare state, but Bitcoiners already seem to have that in hand.