So over the weekend, Paul Graham unintentionally set off a shitstorm about women in tech. Once again, my Twitter feed was full of people debating whether women could hack it as hackers; whether women hacked at age 13; whether the best hackers even started at 13; what can we do to encourage more girls to hack; why women actively avoid code; blah blah blah.
And then @snipeyhead asked:
@snipeyhead: Do incubators have an obligation to actively seek out female hackers? http://snipe.ly/19XwBwy - what do you think?
@snipeyhead's link goes to Christina Farr's December 30, 2013, article in VentureBeat where she asks several folks in tech the same thing. And the answers are all fairly well considered. I think we all agree that this is a complex problem.
Nothing, of course, is solved in a short VentureBeat article which gives three men and two women a few paragraphs to respond.
A sort of vague-ish consensus appears across most answers to this question - not just in the VentureBeat article, but in tech discussions I've seen on Twitter as well. It follows the same type of pattern we use when solving a tech issue: find the failure point and fix it from there.
Which makes a hell of a lot of sense if you're fixing a program or a piece of hardware. It doesn't make nearly as much sense as we'd like since we're attempting a meatspace issue and I use the cyberpunk term quite deliberately here.
We have a tendency as hackers to live in our heads. We work things through systematically, even when we have our moments of inspiration and intuition. What we do to problem-solve for a living, however, doesn't fully work with messy humans.
I think that John Scalzi nailed the issues perfectly in May of 2012 when he wrote Straight, White, Male: The Lowest Difficult Setting There Is. If you haven't read his piece, please, take a moment now, because I think this metaphor captures the gist of the issue in a way nothing else does.
In short, this issue is larger than just women and it highlights a need to help out a lot of "character classes." I think groups like Girls Who Code are tremendously important, but it's only one piece of the puzzle. We need to encourage people from all groups to code as youngsters.
But we also need to encourage those same groups to pick up hacking in college. Or just out of college. Take a quick look at Ashley Baxter's article, in 24ways this year where she, someone who is not on the lowest difficult setting, someone who sells property insurance, didn't like the software she was giving clients because the vendor had neglected the app for years. It was cumbersome. It was incredibly ugly. It was embarrassing.
So she learned some Ruby on Rails and made her. Own. Damn. Program.
Is she ever going to be a hacker extraordinaire? Maybe not. Probably not as her passion seems to be in running her business. But maybe she's catching the bug and maybe she delve deeper.
I don't think the question should be "Do incubators have an obligation to actively seek out female hackers" - and I don't think the question should be "How do we get more women in tech."
I think we need to stop fooling ourselves that hackers are all of one mindset. Good gods, go look at someone else's code for a minute! You know that person is more than likely solving problems differently from you. Some of those solutions are better than yours. Some make trade-offs you don't agree with. Some only partially solve the issue and brute-force the results.
The more diverse sets of brains we get into hacking, the more ways we'll find to solve problems.
If you start encouraging more people on higher difficulty settings to join the hacking, you'll find them thinking in different ways and you'll find new solutions, some of them quite elegant.
So do incubators have an obligation to actively seek out female hackers?
If they want the best products, I think they are going to have to find ways to seek out more diverse hackers. And I think we're going to have to help that process by encouraging more people to play in our sandbox instead of putting up "Locals Only" signs everywhere.
It's a complex issue. But that's what we do: deal with complex problems. It's past time we do it.