Friday, December 04, 2009

Geeks, meritocracy, and gender

My partner, K, really likes this article, "The unspoken truth about managing geeks", by Jeff Ello.

Its central thesis is that in any geek-oriented field or department -- for example, IT -- self-organizes as a pure meritocracy. You're respected if you're competent. Your managerial and social skills or status don't matter. If you're a jerk who gets things done, you're respected. The quality of your work is all that matters.

There was something pinging at the back of my mind that didn't seem quite right about this thesis. Today, I found a post at Geek Feminism that discusses exactly what I don't like about it: "Questioning the merit of meritocracy."

Skud (aka Kirrily Robert) from Geek Feminism quotes Noirin Shirley from

On the surface, [meritocracy is] a completely fair, non-sexist, open concept. Anyone can get in, anyone can progress, as long as they’re good enough.

That’s very, very rarely true. Generally, at best, a meritocracy turns very quickly into a merit-and-confidence/pushiness-ocracy. Good work doesn’t win you influence – good work that’s pushed in others’ faces, or at the very least, good work of which others are regularly reminded – wins you influence. And that’s where women fall down.

Skud notes that "self-confidence is highly gendered." Girls are taught from a very early age to be modest, to be quiet, to be helpful, to do for others. They're taught that bragging and boasting will make them unlikeable; they're taught that telling other people what to do makes them bossy. (Deborah Tannen discusses the verbal patterns in children's play, and the responses of adults and other children, in her book Talking from 9 to 5.) In short, they learn to downplay their abilities and accomplishments -- even, maybe especially, to themselves. Female geeks got this programming, too. I did.

Jeff Ello says "While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right, IT pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is always wrong." I disagree with the first clause: being a jerk who gets things done will usually get you more respect than being a modest, quiet, helpful person who gets things done. Aggressiveness and arrogance are actually alpha qualities in geek society. Think Steve Jobs. Furthermore, these qualities are assumed to correlate with ability. If you can get away with being a jerk, you must be really, really good, right?

As Noirin Shirley says, "Aggressive behaviour, while less common amongst those 'higher up' in any given community, is nonetheless relatively common in the open source community. This can result in women 'failing' before they start, because of lack of knowledge of the true hierarchy, and lack of confidence in their technical abilities." She's specifically discussing the open source community, but it applies to any community of geeks. It's true in science and engineering. It's definitely true in IT.

Jeff Ello, talking about managing geeks, says

Ego, as it plays out in IT, is an essential confidence combined with a not-so-subtle cynicism.


Strong IT groups view correctness as a virtue, and certitude as a delivery method. Meek IT groups, beaten down by inconsistent policies and a lack of structural support, are simply ineffective at driving change and creating efficiencies, getting mowed over by the clients, the management or both at every turn.

I don't think the choice of "meek" as an antonym for "strong" was coincidental. Meekness — modest self-effacement — is ineffective, and doesn't garner respect. If you can't "drive" change, if you "get mowed over" — in short, if you're not pushy enough — you lose in the meritocracy. And women are taught to be meek. In fact, women who try to talk and act more assertively get judged negatively, both by men and by other women (Deborah Tannen gives a good discussion of this).

Skud also notes that gender bias affects how merit is judged, even if everything else is equal. Quoting Shirley at NerdChic again:

The final problem with meritocracy is that even after all the noises of “it’s all about the quality of contributions”, women very often aren’t judged on the same basis as men. […] People listen or pay attention to women, or don’t, based on the fact that they’re female – not based on the merit or otherwise of their contributions.

Skud points to the example of blind auditions. When orchestra auditions were face-to-face, men were chosen much more often. When the musician played behind a screen, so the listener can't see them but can only hear their playing, women have a much greater success rate.

There's also the example of publications. A 2008 study of papers submitted and published to the peer-reviewed journal Behavioral Ecology showed that when the reviewers didn't know the author's identity, papers authored by women were published significantly more often. (There's a good summary at Living the Scientific Life; the study itself may be found here.)

An earlier study, done in 1970, asked department chairs to read CVs and rate the candidates' desireability, indicating what faculty position they would deserve. The CVs were identical except for the names attached. CVs with feminine names attached were considered less desireable, and were offered lower positions. (Study here.)

When gender affects perceived merit, the meritocracy isn't really so pure.

Ello says "IT pros always and without fail, quietly self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart." I think that's true. Unfortunately, the simple fact of being a woman too often means that male geeks think you "make the work harder." So they shun you. That's no meritocracy.


Skud said...

Wow, thanks for taking this and running with it. You've added some great references that I didn't know about. *bookmarks*

Erigami said...

Does Jeff Ello have any proof that geek groups are meritocracies? I know that open source zealots like to pretend that they are, but I haven't seen much evidence for that.

In my experience they're run more like an oligopoly with a handful of people controlling commit rights and direction. External input is rarely solicited and seldom accepted.