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Please Stop Emphasizing Diversity in STEM

America: Land of the free, home of student debt. We love telling people they can do anything, but then we segregate like typical bias human beings. But honestly, if the doors are wide open and we still have a “deficiency” in “diversity” in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, how much of it is actually exclusivity and how much of it is based on misunderstandings of real human beings?

(Note in advance: This article is not meant to attack or belittle anyone, but as this is a social topic, I feel it’s necessary to point this out since some people may get the wrong idea. Also, the title of this article is too much of a blanket statement, but I don’t have a better title at the moment.)

Diversity – That’s code word for justifiable segregation in the name of equality. Tell me, if you have 5 carrots and 2 apples, do you eat 2 of eat to ensure that your diet is “balanced”? What do you do with the rest? Throw it away? The fact is, “segregation” is nothing more than separating out one group from another, and any time you selectively choose something, you segregate. (Pardon the generalities. If you want to argue about definitions, go elsewhere. The human act is what’s important here.) So if you have 10 tall men and 3 short men, trying to select 3 of each for pulling crates off of shelves job means you just excluded several men. Not to say it’s bad one way or another. – It’s meaningless on it’s own. (After all, if we look at capabilities of doing the job, short men can just use ladders or forklifts.) What’s more important is that it ignores the most important factor in modern, free America: Do they want to do it?

At the school I attended, there was a comical ratio of boys over girls. Administration decided to create a Nursing degree to complement their biomedical fields, but we the students suspected it was meant to bring in more girls. In a stroke of irony (and to the dismay of some longing would-be-lover boys), more males signed up. While I can’t speak of the outcome (maybe some decided to change majors), it was a humorous ordeal that only underlined the phrase “male-dominant school”. Perhaps a feminist reading that might think “dominant” meant males suppressing females or males having first choice, but rest assured, that was never the case. The girls there felt very welcome, had many friends, and AFAIK didn’t have to worry about boys stalking them (not to say this isn’t a concern, but the school took appropriate safety measures), oh and better grades than me (just kidding… maybe). But the fact was, academically, most of them were the exception to the rule. It was a STEM school, and that’s just not up the ally for many women. Why? Let’s think… (what else have we got to do, right?)

Perhaps you’ve heard of personality type systems like MBTI. I won’t say they are accurate – but it’s a general picture on how people act. When I was little, the ideal man was portrayed to me as the strong, rough and tough, like John Wayne, or suave and dashing like James Bond, never dorky or dweeby like those Trekkies (like I’d turn out to be). In some senses, these men were projected as role models (indirectly). Fast-forward several years: I’ve met a variety of people and none of them fit into that “ideal male” box. MBTI, on the other hand, has cleared much of the mental fog. That said, MBTI sheds some light on, not “best job” (as many employers sadly hope), but on one’s approach to life – its situations and problems – and what types of things stimulate people’s minds. For example, everyone enjoys problem solving. However, not everyone enjoys solving the same kinds of problems. Two people may enjoy abstract thought, but one may prefer mathematics and the other prefer Cubism. One may prefer diplomacy and resolving social conflicts while another may hate dealing directly with humans but might enjoy formulating solutions to traffic congestion.

Men and women are different. Women are different from other women, and it turns out, along the spectrum of different kinds of women, those who would enjoy STEM are fewer in number than some people wish. For whatever reason, it seems there are a number of people who think that men and women should be about equal (or at least closer than current statistics) in terms of interests. That’s just not the case, and many attempts in this world to even the playing field have backfired or had some other negative consequence. Consider, for example, the scenario I mentioned above: 10 tall men and 3 short ones. If we even out short men and tall men in our selection, we lose a possible 4 extra men. So if we decide to select for some minority group, we may ultimately end up isolating a bunch of people who are the most interested in STEM or other minorities. I recall a court case where the University of Michigan excluded both qualified men and women from its graduate program in order to favor more “black” entries and meet a diversity quota. So much for diversity, right?

The same can happen with age. Some companies target young and some target old. Neither seems to pay any attention to the demographic of qualified individuals who actually want to work in those respective businesses. I’ve read complaints from the younger crowd concerning the targeting of “senior” developers by most companies, but there are also cries from older individuals who discover that businesses (to which they have applied for employment) are targeting prototypical young “white” males.

My point here is that some people making the selection processes (for whatever) are trying to impose their own conceived notions of what their fields should look like in terms of demographics rather than the actual interests, personalities, and mentalities of the people in the field.

Personality certainly isn’t the only factor determining one’s affinity towards a field. (I’ve met people of the same MBTI personality type who would hate each other’s jobs.) But in my experience, it does tend to be a significant one in many cases.

The software development community

I don’t know of any global community more friendly and understanding than this one. Why? Many software developers are sharing, compassionate individuals that love to teach. Their personalities under MBTI vary, though a great many fit under label INTP – at best, a humanitarian personality type that loves to cloister itself in a man cave and work for long hours on projects of complex nature, loves the truth, and loves to share it. (The label INTP is assumed here because of the kind of subculture created, via speech, mannerisms, rules, etc.) That said, most communities of programmers I’ve visited online were friendly, and even some (whom I would consider) arrogant jerks were at least nice enough to share their code (ego boost?). Not to say there aren’t nasty places online, but programmers all around tend to be rather straightforward folks. (Mind you, they are usually very blunt, but this is based on matter-of-factness and usually isn’t intended to be rude.)

As open as the programming community is, it seems many people find this lack of “diversity” disappointing. I read recently the State of Rust Survey, which revealed that 81.6% of respondants using Rust said they were not part of an “underrepresented demographic in technology”. The other options were things like “disabled”, “women”, “lesbian”, “person of color”, etc. Below the data, the writer commented,

Rust strives to be a warm, welcoming and inclusive community. The survey shows that, despite that spirit, we have a ways to go in terms of diversity.

I believe the reasoning behind this statement is misguided (though admittedly, he may have something else in mind). Given the listed categories, it’s unlikely that many of those types find any interest in programming, much less Rust. And even if they did, their choices of education might be different, meaning they would never encounter Rust in the first place! Consider, for example, disabled people. “Disability” covers a broad range of people, including people with loss of eyesight, touch, or other things that might inhibit their ability to program. Health may be a primary concern, and sitting arched at a desk to punch in ASCII characters all day is, to my understanding, generally not a good doctor’s recommendation. Don’t expect that demographic to go up. Then there’s trans-gender people, who are already a small fraction of the population. Supposing that the same fraction of trans people (within the total of all trans people) were interested in programming as some fraction in the primary demographic, that fraction would still be tiny. I could go through the other demographics in the chart and nit-pick, but you get the idea. The fact is, Rust just isn’t on the priority list. Who knows – maybe with regards to the female stats, women just don’t enjoy programming in the Rust paradigm! How would the devs fix that?! Not to mention, according to the RedMonk, Rust’s popularity by ranking (ala GitHub and StackExchange) is only a few spots into the top 50, at #46.

While I’m sure the Rust team understands all this (they aren’t stupid), I’m aware they want to avoid misunderstanding their own community as they have in the past. (That need to understand the community is the very reason they created the survey.) And maybe they are doing a lousy job – I can’t say. I can only say that the most avid newbie to Rust I ever met was a female router programmer whom I could (but won’t) describe as fitting into a number of other minorities.

I appreciate that the community wants to be welcoming. When I encounter programmers online, the last thing I think about are things like their gender, health, appearance, etc. Their experience shows through in the wisdom they write, but even though this hints at age, it doesn’t really. What usually stands out more in the poor English skills many bring. No one seems to mind one iota (as we don’t use iotas) unless it’s impossible to read, but it hints at the diverse set of nationalities in the field of programming, resulting in devs whose first language is neither English nor is their childhood education in English. In general, the welcoming nature of programming communities hasn’t been a problem. When it is, the overwhelming majority of cases (that I’ve encountered) tend to be more antagonistic towards newbies or nonconformists than they are towards minorities in STEM.

Is the Lack of Diversity a Problem?

Every experience is different, so don’t think I’m pretending that somehow everyone encounters an open door in America. Certainly some people will have the door of opportunity slammed on them because they don’t fit the cookie-cutter (or because they do fit the cookie-cutter), and please don’t think I’m suggesting belittling their situations.

My entire point of this article is simply this: If you’ve done everything you can to be warm and welcoming, and the people in your community are complying, and yet you still see shallow “diversity”, don’t mistake this as being somehow a bad thing or you failing at being an open, friendly community. It’s not your fault. The demographic you get is most likely from the people who wanted to come. And the fact that the people who are there are the people who want to be there is what matters.

I believe the bottlenecks in STEM begin at the high-school level, where familial, peer, and other social influences stunt interest long before these people would ever reach your forums. This is particularly the case with many … (get ready for a mouthful)… Americans of African descent. Their culture is one that emphasizes an entirely different set of values, and many grow up pursuing athletics. It would seem STEM is rarely on the radar for them.

If and when that peeked interest in STEM ever occurs, it may prove “too expensive” or “too troublesome” to switch degrees/jobs/careers. Supposing you want to promote STEM, instead of limiting your “diversification efforts” to “community outreach”, perhaps you should also consider providing scholarships to people changing majors to STEM.

Some Advice

Putting a label on people is the first act of discrimination. There’s nothing wrong with discrimination. It means to “separate out”, “to recognize as different”, etc. It’s morally meaningless. However, it gives people ammunition. Any label gives people ammunition. Use a language without cuss words, and people won’t be able to vent their frustration so succinctly, so the invention of cuss words is inevitable. Call someone “old”, and you’ll eventually have the “non-old” making fun of the “old”. Call someone “pinkish”, and you’ll have the “non-pinkish” making fun of the “pinkish”. On that note, if you don’t want people to mock each other, limit the number of things they can be mocked about.

A number of forums, for instance, limit the information about people to just a couple of things: username and post count, with maybe an avatar. This is the ideal setup. It reduces attack surface by limiting people to the only necessary variable for communication: some name by which people can address each other. It takes people’s focus off of what kind of person they are talking to and enables them to think more about what the person is saying.

Some would argue that people are more friendly when their attack surface is exposed: When I know your real name, your face, and your age, supposedly I’ll act more friendly. That’s not true. Trolls and haters don’t care. The fact is, average people feel nervous sharing their true feelings and opinions when they know they are being watched, leaving the world suppressed. Many voices would not be heard. Many conversations might be made more awkward since people would think about their social status or standing in relation to the person to whom they are speaking. When people don’t know you’re name, it allows you to speak more freely. Yes, it does allow for abuse, but at the same time, it makes it just as easy to brush off that abuse and forget about it. Try brushing off a persistent hater who knows your name and decides to paint an ugly picture of you to potential employers. I bet you’ll wish you had anonymity back. Do the world a favor: Next time you create a BBS, limit the public user info to username and post count. When you want a stat to watch, try looking at “user retention” instead of “user diversity”. The former will tell you if you’re actually doing a good job.

Alittle long for .02. Is it .03 maybe?


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