Social Problems in Computer Science

This morning, I read a blog post about women in computer science which was quite compelling. It reminded me, of course, of another article about women in CS, and I began thinking about about what my own opinion is on the subject. Sexism in CS and similarly technical fields is certainly a problem. But why? And how have I encountered it?

It struck me that I am incredibly lucky to be a student at MIT, where I have never actually encountered blatant sexism. No one has ever groped me, or told me I was incompetent because I was a woman (nor have I ever felt that was the case). I was elected SIPB Chair, but it was not that people thought I was sexy or that I slept with anyone, but that I was the right person for the job. When I ask more experienced hackers technical questions, they don’t try to dumb it down or tell me that I won’t understand – they explain it the same way they would to anyone else. Really, I couldn’t ask for a better environment.

However, it still didn’t feel quite like sexism (or something like it) it was entirely absent. After thinking a while longer, I realized what the problem was:

The tech environment walks a fine line between being elitist and being a meritocracy, and often manages to slip back into elitism.

It’s not so much a problem of sexism as it is a problem of general attitude. Becoming good at dealing with computers takes a lot of hands-on experience. There aren’t any classes that will teach you how to debug NetworkManager or how to reconfigure your X configuration so that gdm doesn’t fail. So those of us who like figuring out the answers to such problems have only a handful of options: 1) learn everything using Google, 2) learn everything by asking an expert, 3) both 1 and 2, or 4) give up. Sometimes, if the problem is specialized enough, 2 and 4 are really the only options. Unfortunately, it is often the case when asking an experienced hacker that they will give a harsh, unhelpful, and/or elitist response. Here’s an example.

Person A: I need to reinstall this computer with Debian, but I don’t have a CD or DVD burner or any flash media. I’m not sure if I have any other options. Could you help me?
Person B: I don’t have time. Just use PXE.
A (thinking): PXE, what’s that? I guess I’ll Google it. Hmm, well, Wikipedia says it’s a way of booting your computer over the network. I guess sort of like a livecd, except over the network? That’s kind of cool. How do I do it? This site seems to give some links. Looks like the Debian link is broken, so I’ll use the Red Hat link and see if I can just change the relevant things. [an hour passes]
A (frustrated): This isn’t working. How am I supposed to install my computer over the internet if I have to install stuff to the computer to begin with? I don’t understand how this works!
B: … what the hell are you doing? You just choose the “netboot” option in your BIOS, like you would choose to boot from CD-ROM or hard drive, etc.

Do you see what Person B did wrong, here? Person A was asking for help, and clearly does not know about netbooting (or they wouldn’t have asked). Person B assumes they know what PXE is and that they know how to use it, or at least that they can figure it out for themselves. Unfortunately, the documentation on PXE is unhelpful and misleading and never mentions needing to change a setting in your BIOS. Person A tried to figure it out themselves using the vague information given to them by Person B, but only managed to waste an hour and become even more confused! Furthermore, when Person A comes back for more help, Person B acts like they are an idiot for being ignorant and confused, and treats them with disdain. It would have been so much nicer, faster, and easier for Person B to simply say in the first place “try using the netboot option in your BIOS to boot into the installer over the internet”.

In my experience, the sort of attitude taken by Person B, either intentionally or unintentionally, is the most formidable obstacle facing new tech-oriented people. In particular, I have noticed that men tend to be better at muscling their way through this “barrier of newbie shame”. Many studies have shown that women tend to be less confident and less assertive than men, and when the environment is such that you have to be assertive and confident in order to get anywhere, it is no wonder that many choose to give up and choose a different path. Being ignorant does not make you dumb, but many people in CS act like it does.

There is no reason why the tech environment should be so elitist. I heartily agree that it must retain a degree of meritocracy: you need to earn your respect as a hacker. However, everyone has to start somewhere; no one is born with awesome hacking abilities, and not everybody is as able to figure out how things work without a few pointers. Wouldn’t it be so much better to have more skilled people in computer science, to fix even more bugs and create even more brilliant pieces of software? I believe that if we could tone down the elitism, such a world would become a reality.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just recognizing what the problem is. Being elitist is not always a conscious or deliberate action (most people are not so much of an ass to say “I won’t be helpful because I am better than you”) – it is usually just the easy way out. Becoming a hacker in an elitist environment makes it all too simple to just assume that that is the correct way of doing things. It is easy to fall into the mindset of “I had to deal with and stand up to that sort of bullshit when I was new, so why shouldn’t everyone else?”. It is easy to find yourself too busy to really help, so you just brush them off with a short, unhelpful answer or tell them to RTFM. It is easy to forget that you were once the confused, ignorant newbie who didn’t have the background that you now do.

In addition, I think that many people become rough and abrasive because they are all too often asked to fix things themselves as opposed to giving advice. Every tech person is all too familiar with friends, relatives, and acquaintances asking them to fix computers or install software, and most tech people I know hate it. It is especially frustrating when people who are nominally technically competent ask you to do things for them. The urge to say “no, go figure it out yourself!” is extremely strong, and it is easy to lump favor-seekers into the same category as advice-seekers. But it is important to make the distinction, and to actually be helpful when someone asks for advice.

So, how can we fix this problem? Recognizing that it is a problem is a first step, but it is not enough. Changing things will not be quick or easy, either. But, there are a few things we can try:

  1. If you are too busy to help, politely say so and apologize that you don’t have the time. Don’t give vague or cryptic answers.
  2. Don’t assume that they have the same background of knowledge that you do, because they probably don’t. Try to explain things at their level. That doesn’t mean “dumb it down”, but “make sure to include relevant pieces of knowledge that you have but they don’t”.
  3. Point them towards documentation which you know is helpful, instead of just throwing terminology around.
  4. Be polite, even if they are asking what seems like a dumb question or asking you to do something for them. You can say “no, that’s not my job” or “no, I don’t have time right now” without being rude and abrasive.

From now on, I will try to point out this phenomenon of elitism to people I know in CS, and encourage them to be more conscientious of their interactions with aspiring hackers. I hope that you will, too! I’d also love to hear any other opinions on this matter. Have you encountered this elitist environment elsewhere? How have you dealt with it?

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