Leadership on Gender Diversity in Tech is a Never-Ending Game of Whack-A-Mole

Women in tech play whack-a-mole defense over our entire careers. Larry Summers? Whack. Alex St. John? Whack. James Damore? Whack.

The newest mole on the scene is Stuart Reges, Principal Lecturer in the University of Washington’s Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. In his recent post titled Why Women Don't Code, Reges presents a handful of theories to explain the low proportions of women in tech. The foundation of his writing is that women are simply less interested in computing-related work. Crucially, he attributes our diminished interest to innate and unchangeable gender-related qualities, while dismissing the role of societal influence and industry culture on our choices. 

In publishing his views, which are poorly informed and harmful, Reges has presented us with both a problem and an opportunity. 

The Problem

Though there are many flaws in Reges’s reasoning, I don’t want to dwell on all of them here. Kasey Champion, a former student of Reges’s, does a nice job in the second half of this post, pointing out some of them. There is also academic research, including that of UW professor Sapna Cheryn (and many others) that directly contradicts his unsupported conclusions.

The core problem with Reges's thinking is that he has constructed a theory about women in computing without any regard for the voices or experiences of women in computing. 

We are small in number, but to anyone looking to start a genuine dialogue, we are easy to find. Has Reges not heard about Susan Fowler? Did he not follow the national news coverage of Ellen Pao’s lawsuit, or think to pick up her 2017 book, Reset? Of the 4,500 words in his lengthy post, not one is devoted to empathizing with, or even describing, the motivations that women themselves have cited for the choices that Reges frames as inevitable. 

Reges, of course, is not actually ignorant of these women or of the research on this topic. He has simply decided not to believe us. I don’t say this lightly. Reges says it himself. Here’s a telling quote from his recent post, discussing the thoroughly-researched book Brotopia, which he dismisses as “false narrative”. The book was published in February of this year and combines research about, and stories of, women identifying and reckoning with the cultural forces that push us to the margins in tech. Reges responds:

[The author] Chang and I clearly know different people because the women I talk to who are working in Silicon Valley are enjoying their experiences as software engineers. Certainly there are bad actors and companies where the culture is broken, but the vast majority of women work at companies that make significant efforts to provide a supportive work experience. 

His breezy dismissal of the problems pointed out in Brotopia, simply because they don’t align with his personal experience, is the heart of the controversy around his recent writing. It is true that in dismissing us, he arrives at incorrect conclusions. But the bigger problem is simply that he is dismissing us. The public outcry stems from women being asked, yet again, to continue to study and work alongside someone who refuses to acknowledge our experience. 

I don’t think Reges’s dismissiveness of women’s voices is accidental. His recent post acknowledges that he is aware of how inflammatory its contents are. He knew that publishing his views would alienate and anger many women and men in his community. He is sagely transparent in his post about the ways in which he has intentionally doubled down on contrarian viewpoints in the past in order to inflame controversy. There are other ways in which he could have explored his current ideas and engaged in a dialogue, while avoiding the adverse reaction caused by his publication. He published anyway. 

Reges is a mole who wants to be whacked. 

The Opportunity

Just as in the arcade, these moles all look more or less the same and pop up with predictable regularity. Reges’s differentiating feature is that his mole hole is in my own yard. As a Ph.D. alumna of the Allen School (then UW's department of Computer Science & Engineering), his community and my community are the same. My proximity to both Reges (who I have met personally only in passing) and the School’s less inflammatory faculty has afforded a closer-than-usual view of this particular controversy. I am convinced that the Allen School is failing to seize a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership. 

Reges’s recent writing is a focusing lens to help us to clarify the extent to which we live our values. For his part, he has shown us how easily and stubbornly he dismisses the voices and experiences of women. For our part, we have maintained a meaningful and long-standing commitment to diversity in computing through both action and word.

These cannot co-exist. The only way in which the Allen School can continue to claim the mantle of leadership in inclusion in computing is if we lead. Right now. Failing to lead when it’s risky or controversial is failing to lead at all.

When Reges writes things that alienate women, we are angry. But it is when Reges faces no consequences from his community that we start to feel desperately and hopelessly alone. A handful of obnoxious moles is not nearly as toxic as a community that allows the moles to thrive. 

It is the feeling of isolation, reinforced by every new mole who pops up unchecked, that leads us to despair. It is this feeling of alienation, reinforced on a repeating cycle, that yields the depths of anger we see at a post that would, if it were a one-off, be laughed at and forgotten by the next day. It is this perpetual feeling of not belonging, of having to fight just to remain stationary, that leads some of us to eventually opt out of computing. We are worn down by the emotional slog of spending half of our work week whacking at moles when all we wanted to do was build something great with technology.

I realize that calling for leadership and action is easy. Leading through action is much more difficult. To help bridge that gap, here are some ideas of ways in which I think the Allen School’s leadership could lead, starting today. Here are some ways in which you, our leadership, can turn this unfortunate controversy into a moment that highlights the Allen School as a beacon of inclusion and an ally to the women who feel betrayed by your current milquetoast response:

1. Strengthen your existing written response.

I don't think that the department's existing written response helps the people who most personally feel the effects of Reges's words feel heard. Instead of simply saying, “We disagree with the conclusions drawn in the editorial,” say exactly what you disagree with, and why. Give citations. Point to the supporting research. Demonstrate the extent to which the statements Reges is making are unsubstantiated.

You can demonstrate your leadership simply by lifting some of the exhausting burden of debunking this nonsense off of those of us who are now attempting this work on our own. By formally pointing out the flaws in Reges’s conclusions as a School, you can also provide a positive and substantive message on the same platform and with the same level of authority and reach as the one that Reges took advantage of by publishing his views as a faculty member.

2. State in writing that Reges is wrong.

You will certainly catch some flak for doing this, but in return you will actually send a meaningful message of inclusion to all of the women in our community. Stating, "We value inclusion,” is nearly useless because it costs you nothing.  Openly denouncing messages that undermine your ability to maintain that inclusion is more powerful, because doing so demonstrates that you stand behind diversity efforts enough to take at least this small risk. 

3. Ask Reges to help us rebuild our confidence that he is able to contribute in a manner consistent with our values.

This might mean, for example, publishing a statement from him that addresses: 1) That he understands why the women in his community are alienated and angered by his recent writing, and 2) How he will create a classroom environment that is welcoming to all students and their experiences this fall, after this incident.

Such a statement would give us a chance to understand how Reges might hold the views that he does and also contribute effectively to our community. It would give him a chance to restore our lost confidence that he should be trusted with the education of the very people whose experiences he dismisses. I am confident that Reges could write this, but I am not convinced that he would be willing. If not, though, then his recent writing should stand on its own and be taken as evidence that he should not be given stewardship of classrooms this fall.

4. Put him on administrative leave, or explain why you aren't.

Put Reges on the university equivalent of the “desk duty” that police officers get placed on while a field incident is under investigation. I suggest this action not as punitive, but as practical. If you leave the stewardship of your courses in Reges’s hands, what message are you sending to the young women who will enroll in those classes?

If you are unwilling to do this, then instead you might lead by choosing one of the actual incoming freshman women and writing a note to her. In the note, explain the calculus by which you’ve decided that her desire to learn from someone who hears her and believes in her experiences is less important than Reges’s desire to publicize misinformed conclusions under the umbrella of authority that his role at our School offers. Publish this note publicly. The community you’re leading, including me, will want to know what such a crystallized articulation of your values looks like.

5. Fire him.

Though I don’t actually think this is an appropriate reaction to circumstances as they are today, I do think that this controversy runs the risk of escalating into a higher-stakes situation that might well call for leadership at the level of dismissing him. I also think that it's Reges who is most in control of whether and how this might happen. Remember, this mole is looking to be whacked.

The leadership action you can take right now is to make it clear that the Allen School’s tolerance of ideas harmful to members of our community is not limitless. Let us—and Reges—know what your boundaries are. What level of intolerant idea, or what volume of expression of it, is enough to merit dismissal? Pointing out a line would be a comfort to those of us who look at the situation today and are unable to tell whether it’s a line that Reges is skimming or not, or indeed whether such a line exists at all. Reassure us that this isn’t the first step in a slow, downward spiral into toxicity in the name of tolerance.

 

Reges was right when he pointed out that women, for many reasons, will opt out of computing. Let’s take action to make sure that he himself—a faculty member in our own School--is not one of those reasons.