As bad as anything else

2013 07 10

My Male-Centric View of the World

I was coming back from a week at Heroku's offices last month (I have started working there in March), when I managed to get stuck in the Philadelphia airport for over ten hours for missing a connection by roughly five minutes. I ended up meeting with Marc K. Hébert, a fellow at Code For America and PhD who is a UX/Ethnographic researcher.

Given how long we had, we discussed all kinds of things from our respective occupations, and the topic eventually came to the lack of diversity in programming communities and many related workplaces. There's an obvious imbalance in the male/female ratio, and I frankly have no good solution I can think of. I'm not that smart. So I decided to ask Marc about it.

He mentioned education, and the general experience felt while in school. He offered other good explanations (for what could be told during a meal). At some point the topic switched to the glass ceiling — how women are unequally represented in higher corporate ranks — and I brought in an argument I had heard of and thought made sense.

The argument, dubbed the glass cellar roughly goes as follows. Men represent the extremes of the scales: high paying, but also low-wage and/or very dangerous occupations, being garbage men, soldiers, coal miners, and so on. There are even nice evolutionary explanations behind it, where men's reproduction depended on riskier bets to raise polygamous scales to reproduce a lot, for example.

Whether this argument is valid or not is not the question though. Marc shut me up real cleanly with one simple sentence: "You seem to be dismissing prostitution as a job."

This hit me like a brick, and proved me wrong in the best way possible, the one where you realize you've been wrong and blind in a much bigger way than expected. The argument I brought forth, the glass cellar, was made from a perception of the world that implicitly discarded the oldest job in the world, practiced in pretty much every culture, one that is generally dangerous and judged to be at the bottom of the scale, and is traditionally practiced by women. It was an argument made from a male-centric perspective, constructed thinking about men's conditions first, made to make men feel better. It felt so reasonable at the time though!

This, I believe, was a prime example of the kind of thought that, while not intentional, shows a lack of care or behaviour that will hurt the community more than anything else. It's probably not going to hurt an entire group of people by itself. But it's also the kind of oversight that will rear its ugly head in all other kinds of situations, and will have a compounding effect when an entire community does it over and over again, without each individual necessarily realizing they're doing it.

I don't mean this to be a "aha, here's an overly simple solution that surely will fix everything!" kind of post. This discussion I had with Marc just made me realize I was probably too quick to consider myself as someone not part of the problem. I have no idea what kind of impact I've had on the issue so far in my life, but it might not be as positive (or neutral) as I liked to believe, and it's worth taking some time to consider. I thought maybe writing it out could have the same effect on others.

I don't know what the next step is, but I hope I'll be taking it more carefully.