Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Women in science

When I was a youth, I considered myself a feminist. I even wrote stories about a swash-buckling woman pirate (there were actually real women pirates--look it up). As I grew into adulthood, that began to unravel--about the time, in fact, that I took a course in women's studies at university. A friend of mine from the physics department was the AV guy for the course and so had to sit in on the lectures. After one of them he said to me, "I find her arguments speculative and inflammatory." After some thought, I realized that he was quite right.

One of the essays I wrote for the course was about discrimination in science. Increasingly, I'm also beginning to question whether the lack of women in the "hard" sciences, math and physics in particular, has anything to do with discrimination and might rather be caused by other factors. To tease out the answer to this question is quite difficult and there are no doubt multiple factors.

Instead, I'm going to look at a closely related phenomenon: the lack of female editors on Wikipedia (estimated at around 16%) and the lack of females creating open source software (probably less than 5%). Based on personal experience, it's virtually impossible that this discrepancy is caused by any kind of overt discrimination. The reason I say that is simple. I have been both a Wikipedian and an open source software developer for several years now. Neither activity require any qualifications, nor do they require permission. All you need are a few technical skills or the patience to learn.

In the case of Wikipedia, you don't even need to be the stereotypical "tech geek"--the only technical skills you need are the very simple mark-up language and you can write about anything you like. So if you aren't interested in math or physics or computer programming, you can write about ladies handbags or your favourite soap operas or whatever. The articles on popular culture, in fact, far outnumber the articles on technical subjects.

In all the time I've been working at these things the amount of human interaction I've experienced has been minimal which is the way I like it. So I can only conclude that the real reason for the lack of females is up to one factor and one factor only: interest. Women are simply not interested in doing this kind of work. After all, unless your project hits it big like Linux, you get no rewards other than personal satisfaction.

If you enjoy programming, you already know how easy it is to engage your passion, but in case you don't, let me tell you.  Most of my programming is done on a netbook that cost me $350 which is not a large sum of money and I've seen similar models go for as little as $200.  My computer has a dual-core, 1.66 GHz processor and is more powerful than many super-computers from 20 years ago.  In addition to a computer, you will also need software: a programming language in the form of a compiler or interpretter.  I use the GNU suite of compilers which includes C, C++ and Fortran and can be downloaded for free.  It will even run on Windows using another free program called Cygwin.

To turn the software you write into open source, you can start an account on Sourceforge and upload it so that others can download and use your software, or if they choose, modify it or use it as a starting point for their own work.  The amount of human-to-human interaction up to this point has been all but nil.  In other words, ladies, if you want to become free software developers, get coding because nobody and nothing is stopping you.

Suppose that you are a geek (which in my case is not supposition). You have virtually no romantic prospects, maybe not much of a social life and you are wary of the bullshit that might get you there. But you know what you like. You enjoy tinkering: writing computer programs and learning about science. And you are honest. So you take this passion and this integrity and you pour it into a hobby--developing free software. At first, nobody notices because you yourself are also a nobody. But because of your passion and because of your integrity, everybody starts using it because it's just so damn good.

Seems like the dream scenario right? Geek loser makes good. Except now come the wannabes and coat-tail hangers who want in on a piece of the action, even though they may not have half the passion or ability. It's hard to view feminist complaining about this issue in any other way--they see what men are up to and they want a piece of the pie. Nothing is stopping a determined woman--any woman--from opening an account on Sourceforge and starting up her own Software project or from starting an article on Wikipedia.

One of the complaints that gets bandied about from feminist quarters is this nebulous concept of "harassment"--that women who try to do so are routinely harassed. In many instances, I suspect they are confusing standards and normal "turf wars" with harassment. Wikipedia has certain rules and guidelines that must be adhered to in order for it to be what it is. If you fail to abide by these rules, yes you will be warned and your edits removed if you do not address the issues.

Turf wars are a bit more tricky. If you invade or otherwise get involved in a project or article that is already quite advanced, it's quite common to be harshly criticized for your work. The men (we know already that it's mostly men) who work on these things invest in them a lot personal passion and the fact that they don't want some newbie to step in and change the direction of a project is a sign of this passion. So in some ways, it is a very positive thing.

Speaking personally, I know that I too am very particular this way and also that I don't have much of a stomach for the type of turf wars I was just discussing. The solution in my case was simple: I work solo on all my free software and I only work on Wikipedia articles that few others are interested in yet I have expertise in.

There is one final issue I have not yet touched on and that is the idea that women have been socialized to be less interested in things like math and science. This is possible, but it may also be something that is inborn--this was almost taken for granted less than 50 years ago. It's hard to come to an objective determination in the matter especially since feminists will try to undermine any evidence that suggests it is as the whole debacle with former Harvard president Lawrence Summers shows.

On the other hand, girls now lead boys in just about every school subject and I believe that includes math and science. Also, as I already pointed out, editing Wikipedia requires little technical ability.

Attempts to redress the balance through "affirmative action" programs are damaging to both men and women.  Damaging to men because they no longer compete on a level field.  Damaging to women because the abilities of any woman who "makes it" are now suspect.

One of the reasons levelled by feminists for the lack of females in this or that field is the "lack of role models."  This, unfortunately, does not fly: if you look back through history, there have been always plenty of notable women doing just about everything, from pirates to mathematicians to composers, even if they have been in the minority.  Think of the courage and determination it required for these people to get to where they were given the reigning social prejudices and strictures of the time.  If modern women cannot emulate these matriarchs, despite these barriers having been knocked down, despite a plethora of affirmative action programs such as grants, scholarships and mentorship programs available only to women, perhaps the problem is not with society at all but rather the modern human female.

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