Sunday, December 03, 2006

Hackstar 2.0 : not just white males?

(Disclosure: I am a young minority female hacker who's actively working towards running a startup as a future career. I'm trying very hard not to be biased as I write this, and am trying to exclude my personal experiences as much as possible, but ultimately that view's going to leak through in some way no matter how much I try.)

I don't usually go for the "rah rah rah gender" stuff, but this was interesting. I came across this snippet today while I was in the middle of researching for my DED paper (on technologies for distributed communication). Is the new era of collaborative technology on the internet repeating the same old cycle of empowerment based on some gender or cultural bias or difference?

It is no accident that the example innovators here [both old-school radio technology and the new web 2.0 startup rush] are all educated white boys (not girls) from middle-class or better backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about the possibilities of new technologies, but it is important to see that new media don’t allow “anyone” to make software and content.

It's interesting to note that this statement would appear to be backed up by, for instance, the population distribution of Y Combinator founders. Data's sketchy and anecdotal here with insanely small sample sizes, but still - in what is currently four rounds of funding for multiple companies, each with multiple founders, we still see lots of young... white... males. This isn't to say that I think the hackers there shouldn't have been; all the folks I know (8 Oliners and counting!) who have founded startups with these people are fantastic engineers, very, very good hackers, and great people. If I was the one betting on bright young startups, I wouldn't hesitate before giving these people lots and lots and lots of money.

However. Again, anecdotal evidence and n=1, but if Miks (a phenomenal engineer and roboticist - would that I had half her skill) gets this reception in a room full of startup geeks, what does it mean? (Statistically speaking, nothing.) When looking at hackstars, the question isn't "why these people?" They're at the top because they're good at what they do. The question is "why not these other ones?"

Is there something dissuading females and minorities from pursuing web startups (and in a broader picture, empowerment via the technology of the internet)? In this day and age, we'd like to think that it's not that we think these folks are less competent hackers, it's just that they don't... stand... out as much. (Why?) And the few of them who do are taken as relative rarities, exceptions who prove the rule. "Your position in the technical meritocracy is correlated with such an unusual identifier that I'm going to call attention to it in my identification of you."

I was going to write something here about my own experiences, but realized that was what I was trying to avoid. Instead, I'll list some possible boilerplate reasons for this phenomena.

  • Females and minorities just aren't good at "this kind of stuff." This is the horribly politically incorrect viewpoint, and not a whole lot of folks will have it (or at least admit to it).
  • They're not interested. Are they interested but can't find a way in? Are they disinterested because the world's set such high barriers and anti-expectations against them doing this that the activation energy becomes sufficiently high enough to dissuade folks that otherwise would have gone for it?
  • This is an extension of the current math/science/tech imbalance. Fewer females and minorities (for instance) learning to code as a kid means there's fewer ready in their late teens to take the "next step" towards hackstardom.
  • They tend not to pursue areas that they don't think they can change the world with. In a field dominated by people unlike you, making changes is tough. Also, how much good will web startup companies actually do? Maybe they're contributing in more productive areas than making shiny webpages. On the other hand, the internet is a tremendous tool with the potential to provide information access to lots of people who didn't have it before, and knowledge is power - couldn't this very easily be used to change the world, if you had the right goals at the outset?
  • We've got too small a sample size and it's too early to tell. The small sample size appears to be indicative of a potential imbalance, though.
Now, I don't think we should go out and riot "ZOMG discouraging underrepresented groups MUST COMPENSATE!" because that's an overcorrection that ultimately causes bitterness-causing oscillations in the system by setting up a double standard, even if it does some good. (See: affirmative action.) But what is the solution? Is there even a problem in the 'net startup domain? We're seeing the rise of so many female and minority owned startups in this day and age... or is this due again to disproportionate press coverage of such startups?

My thoughts have turned into incoherence and I should get back to that paper, so I'd like to throw this open for discussion. I'd especially like to hear the thoughts of those folks who have already gone the startup route on this. Do you think this is something we should be looking at, or is the playing field already as even as it gets and there's no need for worry?


Mikell said...

Wow, thank you for the kind words. I was surprised to see myself blogged!

Anyway, I don't think the playing field is at all level yet. No one will actively DENY people the ability to enter fields -- but the subconcious denial is still there, and is much harder to legislate against.

I look at the Hyde Park kids that the Olin team works with for FIRST. They are all amazing kids. They picked up power tools, basic design, and even things like wiring and pneumatics in no time, but none of them knows how to code. Even trying to teach them basic code is hard because they aren't that familiar with computers outside of email, chat, and music. This is pretty standard among most high schoolers, I think (unfortunately), but the ability to have leisure time to "hack" on a computer and to spend enough time on a computer to figure out why typing here and compiling makes this happen over here ... those are still missing. Without "expendable" materials (like a computer your parents don't mind if you crash after a bad program, or an old toaster you can blow up while you try to take it apart), which usually come paired with a relatively middle-class lifestyle, even inspiring in them an interest in it -- as the Olin team has managed to do -- they don't have many ways outside of the scheduled team time to really follow it and experiment. And it sadly so happens that low-income kids like this in the US are often black and Hispanic (as the HP kids are), so this combination is not a good one for a more diverse field of hackers. And the answer is not "give everyone a laptop." You're still dealing with these kids' need to have part-time jobs, to babysit younger siblings, parents who don't care (we had to call some students' parents to ask if they could come to FIRST meetings), etc. There are so many cultural factors at play -- just throwing money at it doesn't help, although that seems to be the way most organizations deal with it.

As for women-hackers... I have too many theories on that to fit into this text field. :)

L33tminion said...

Females and minorities just aren't good at "this kind of stuff." This is the horribly politically incorrect viewpoint, and not a whole lot of folks will have it

Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people still do have this view. The Just World Hypothesis is sneaky and persistent; it lurks behind many such rationalizations. (Actually, I think that underlies the second and fourth items in your list as well.)

Matt said...

If you are looking for some inspiration, look to meebo. Two of the three cofounders are women. I just read an interesting article about them but I can't seem to find it.

Mel said...

Thanks for the responses so far, everyone.

Just wanted to say that I'm swamped right now but really want to write a (somewhat more thought-out) response to your great replies to my not-quite-so-well-thought-out post.

Miks, I do agree with your point - the digital divide is a problem, and increased amounts of "digital stuff" isn't sufficient to fix the divide. More after I figure out how to pass classes this term...

David Klempner said...

The view like #1 that seems most tenable to me is, rather than 'Females and minorities just aren't good at "this kind of stuff."' but rather "it is less common for females to be good at this kind of stuff".

For example, there might be some sort of way the mind might be different (perhaps even "broken") which would make someone a better engineer; I'm talking about a fairly discrete difference. *That* difference might be more common in men than in women. (And, in particular, I'm talking about something distinct from intelligence/brainpower, but rather a difference in thinking akin to, say, autism)

What that would imply, though, would be fewer female engineers without any difference in skill at all. And, most likely, a difference nowhere near what we actually observe.

On the other hand, there's Occam's Razor: the difference we see is completely explainable by our dysfunctional society; the aforementioned difference in thinking might not be correlated with gender at all.

Of course, I operate under the assumption that there isn't any significant difference at all; that's just the strongest contrary position of whose falsity I'm not convinced.

I'd say that we should all just grok the obvious here and then get up and get back to more productive hacking, but the majority doesn't seem to do so. That seems to be the case with too many issues...

Drew said...

And the answer is not "give everyone a laptop." You're still dealing with these kids' need to have part-time jobs, to babysit younger siblings, parents who don't care (we had to call some students' parents to ask if they could come to FIRST meetings), etc. There are so many cultural factors at play -- just throwing money at it doesn't help, although that seems to be the way most organizations deal with it.

Whoa, are you implying that giving out laptops don't necessarily solve educational problems? Heresy.

pdf23ds said...

I pretty much agree with mikell about the reasons that engineering attracts mainly middle class people.

On the gender difference, I have two things to say that offer some tentative support for the theory of biological differences. First, sexual dimorphism is obvious and substantial on the physical level. Thus, the default position should be that there are probably differences in the brain as well. The brain is subject to natural selection as much as the rest of the body. Whatever selection pressures made being shorter and softer adaptive for women probably applied to psychology too.

Second, read Gene Expression.

None of this is to say that I don't allow that structural social effects have any influence on this. In fact, I would expect social effects (especially the expectation of women to be the primary child rearers and housekeepers) to account for 30-80% of of the imbalance. But, shameful and unfortunate as I think the current imbalance is, I don't think we're ever going to get very close to numerical equality, even in a perfect society.