Thursday, March 6, 2014

In Defence of Microsoft

Ok, so the next post was going to be on why PostgreSQL is really great.  But this is going to be a different and unusual post for this blog.

Most of my friends know that I do not revel in trying new Microsoft products and in fact avoid most of them when I can.  I don't find them pleasant to work with for the things I like to do and I tend to work with them only grudgingly.  True, I have written and published papers (even through Microsoft!) on Linux-Windows interoperability.  True I used to work for Microsoft.  But to me their products are relatively irrelevant.  Additionally I tend to shy away from politics on this blog because technical issues and politics require different sorts of discourse.

Yet last week a controversy erupted that shows the limits of these limitations.  Microsoft released an ad that was widely attacked for suggesting that Microsoft products are good for planning weddings.  As much as it pains me, I find myself having to defend the software giant here.

Sometimes technology is political, and sometimes it is important to stand up for another side of the issue than makes the press.

This is a contribution to what I hope will be a general industry-wide (and better-yet society-wide) conversation on gender and the economy, particularly in the technology fields.  All of what you find here is my own opinion and although I am male I grew up around the issue as you will see.  I don't expect that I speak for many.  The views here are contrarian and may be controversial (probably should be, since controversy may inspire thought).

The Ad

 I decided not to directly link to the attacks on the ad first, figuring that those who have not seen it may want to see it with fresh eyes rather than after reading the attacks.  The ad is currently found on Youtube and so I linked there.  I searched on Microsoft's site and couldn't find it.  I don't know if they removed it due to the controversy.

The ad portrays a young woman who talks about why she picked a Windows all in one tablet over a mac, and the reasons had to do with the way in which the tablet made her social life easier while planning her wedding.  Perfectly good and valid reasons for choosing one product over another.  In no way is anyone portrayed as trivializing the use of technology or as incapable.  It's a decent ad targetted at a certain subset of the population.  I don't see anything wrong with it per se.

I am not saying that women are well enough represented in the ad campaign.  If that was the argument I might say 'sure, there's a valid point there' but that isn't the argument.   The only thing to see here is that Microsoft, in putting together a perfectly legitimate advertisement, managed to offend a bunch of people.

The Response

 The two primary articles attacking this ad were published in Slate and Think Progress.  The arguments basically have three components and are more similar than they are different.

Both responses accuse Microsoft of trivializing how women use technology for wedding planning and for things related to pregnancy.  They accuse Microsoft of playing into stereotypes, and of thus sending a message that women are less capable than men in the use of technology.

 A Personal Detour

Ordinarily I'd just figure this is an issue for women to sort out and leave it at that.   Unfortunately, that is a little harder to do working in open source software development.  The concerns is basically that there aren't enough women in tech, and I work in a corner of tech where women are nearly absenct.  While on average in the software development industry, men outnumber women 2:1, in open source software, the ratio is closer to 50:1.

Personally I wonder why we are so obsessed with the fact that women are making certain career and lifestyle choices differently than men.  While the reason isn't hard to find (see below), I do think that such obsession ultimately robs women in particular of agency, that idea that they and they alone are best prepared to make the decisions that involve navigation of one's life.  Why do we think there aren't enough women in a given industry?  What would be enough?  Why?  To some extent I think this obsession delegitimizes both the decisions of those women who choose to go into software and those who don't, and I have heard more than one woman complain about being asked about this issue frequently.

The obsession doesn't help anybody.  Women may be as capable of programming computers as men are (and given the dominance of women in the early years of programming it seems hard to argue the contrary with any force of history behind such an argument).

Personally too, the first person who ever showed me a computer for work was my grandmother.  It was a large machine, probably as big as my dining room table, with a small crt screen and a punchcard reader.  What did my grandmother use it for?  She wrote nuclear physics simulations.  Was she typical of her generation?  No.  She worked with nobel-prize-wining physicists and was quite renowned in her field.  Such people are never typical of any group.  She was also the first person I knew who complained about efforts to bring more women into STEM fields because she found it undermined her credibility.

But is everyone able to program a computer?  No.  Nor, perhaps beyond a very basic level, is that a skill everyone needs to know.

What's this Argument About, Anyway?

I don't think the argument is only about women in software development.  Running through both criticisms of the ad is an effort to trivialize getting married and having kids.

This seems like a really weird thing to trivialize since most people get far more happiness out of family contact than they do out of slaving away in a cubical, working so that someone else gets to make some extra profit, and yet there are certain segments of feminism which repetitively seek to trivialize these things.  (For those who jump to offence, please calm down and note that feminism is not an organized movement and in fact has tremendous diversity in view on this subject.)

And yet the reasons why there is an effort to trivialize these things is not hard to find.  The US economy bears two fundamental characteristics that shape this debate in very deep ways.  The first is that the economy is based on the notion that women and men are not merely equal but interchangeable in all ways, and hence interchangeability becomes synonymous with equality.  The second is that the US economy is employer-centric, and thus the employer's needs are what are most important, not the needs of the family.  For these reasons, getting married and having kids (especially) has negative career consequences.  These consequences are worse the younger one is, and since women cannot delay having children as long as men can, they ultimately suffer disproportionate costs of gender neutral policies.

From this viewpoint it is easy to conclude that if only women didn't get married and have kids, inequality would be a thing of the past, but this isn't really a solution.  Rather it is a case where an apparent solution on an individual level papers over and conceals a larger problem.

Another aspect of the problem is the extent to which our society has a rather distorted view of the tech industry.  Technology firm founders are idolized well beyond the proportions of their contributions.  Working in technology is a glamorous job.  But it is also portrayed popularly as the industry of lone geniuses, and startup cultures have personal demands that are truly taxing (Marissa Mayer once bragged about 130 hour work weeks that she used to put in at Google), all for uncertain gains in what amounts to an institutionalized form of gambling with your time.

What?  Women don't want to be founders of tech startups as things stand right now?  Seems like they have more sense than men....

A Few Reasons the Attacks on Microsoft Here Are Wrong

The attacks on Microsoft for this ad are wrong for more reasons than I can count.  There is, after all, nothing wrong with the ad.  It portrays a perfectly legitimate reason that someone might choose one product over another, namely that it makes an important aspect of one's life a bit easier, and the ultimate judge of what is important really should be left to the individual, the family, and the local community.  Here are, however, my top few reasons why I find the attacks on the ad misplaced.

  1. Not everyone is or should be a "techie."  People have different views on software and different priorities in life, and that is ok.  There's nothing wrong with deciding not to get married in the US (there would be in much of the rest of the world, where you are expected to retire with your kids but that is a different story).  But conversely there is nothing wrong with treating your wedding as important.
  2. Technology exists to solve human problems, not the other way around.  The argument in the response carries with it a strong subtext that women should be solving technical problems, not using technology to solve human problems, but this misunderstands the proper place of technology in life.  This is, truth be told, a very common mistake and it is the primary cause of software project failures I have seen.  It is also a major part of the idolization of the tech industry and the perpetual promise to totally change our lives (which never seems quite as great when it happens).  Planning a wedding is a human problem and using technology for that is a fascinating use case, IMHO.
  3. Human Relationships are Anything but Trivial.  Getting married and having kids is fundamentally about human relationships.  Employers come and go. We don't really expect them to stand by their employees when it is not profitable to do so.  Having people in your life you can count on is more important to having security in life than are having employers interested in your work.

Towards a More Just and Inclusive Economy

Standing up and defending Microsoft is to some extent an important first step in starting a conversation.  It can't be the end though.  The fact is that the critics of Microsoft want something (I hope!) that I want too, namely for women to enter the industry of software development on their own terms.  This has to be the topic of a larger conversation, and one which does not loose sight of the individual or the systemic problems of the economy in this regard.

It seems hard to imagine that the systemic injustices of the current system (including an aggregate wage gap, though this may be statistically insignificant in the computer sciences) can be done away with in any way other than reducing the dependence on large employers or doing away with the myth of interchangeability (these two things are closely tied, since the idea of interchangeability is important to the development of large corporate organizations).  Perhaps a return to an economic system where men and women worked together as joint principles in household businesses would be a good model.  That has very little traction in the US today however.

In the end though I think it should be more obvious than it apparently is that you can't force someone to enter into an industry on his or her own terms.  The efforts to solve the problem of a gender gap in terms of culture and institutions are likely to fail as long as women look at the tech industry (and in particular the most glamorous parts of it) and don't want to put in the time and effort, or make the sacrifices involved.

But still, even in a more just economy, there are going to be people for whom a computer is primarily a social tool, a way to coordinate with friends and co-workers, to communicate and to plan, and I have trouble seeing the difference between planning an event of deep personal significance and planning as a middle manager for a company, except that the former ought to be a lot more rewarding,

I remain relatively optimistic though that small household businesses based on open source consulting alone have the potential to provide an opportunity to balance flexibly and productively the demands of family and work in such a way that everyone gets pretty much everything they want.  I think (and hope) that as open source software becomes more mature as an industry that this will be the way things will go.

But whatever we do, we must recognize that people decide on how to go about participating in the economy based on their own needs and desires, and that none of us have perfect knowledge.  The most important thing we can stop doing is delegitimizing life choices we might decide are not for us.  I the goal is to help women enter industries like software development on their own terms, I think the best thing we can do is just get out of their way.

As a man, I don't know what young women want out of the industry as they consider it as a career or business path.  To be honest, it is better that I don't.  The new generations of programmers, male and female, should enter the industry on their own terms, with their own aspirations and hopes, their own determination to do things their own ways, and their own dreams.   And there is nobody that should tell them how to think or address these.  Not me.  Not the marketeers at Microsoft.  Not the authors at Slate and Think Progress.  That's the change that will make the industry more inclusive.


  1. Chris,
    Very good points. I agree with you fully that people need to choose professions on their own terms and not based on some vague notion of what is the proper quota of gender x and y in z industry and that we have to stop devaluating other choices. As much as we'd like to think we think alike and have the same needs, we don't.

    For example I've known many women who choose one job that pays lower over another because they value the flexibility of time over the higher pay that forces you to work 100 hour weeks and travel away from family. If you aggregate this, it will make it look as women are getting paid lower for same work (not to say they aren't, but you do have to look at the whys before screaming gender discrimination).

    Now as to " While on average in the software development industry, men outnumber women 2:1, in open source software, the ratio is closer to 50:1"

    I personally think that is all an illusion. The fact is there are fewer IT roles in open source that count. So if you look at private sector, you'll find documenters, project managers, dedicated QA people etc in IT which are all kind of lumped into those numbers and many of these roles are filled by women. To a large extent these things are luxuries in Open Source until an open source project gets big (and if you have a QA person in OS sadly you probably aren't even counting them in your roster since programmers are the hot shots you consider).

    Then we look at other industries like robotics and I think there are a darn lot of women in that or at least when I went to MIT it felt like there were a lot of women interested in that part of IT that married psychology with automation.

    1. Hi; Thanks for your thoughts. That is an interesting perspective. I totally agree with you regarding the question of a pay gap, but I would add that one might argue (and in fact I would argue) that the gender-neutral criteria that help lead to such a gap are in fact part of the problem. If we want a more just economy we can't settle for simply saying "if you work like a man you will get paid like a man" (my sense is that a large portion of the pay gap is in fact this sort of thing). This is why we have to be willing to revisit the question of whether interchangeability is really equivalent to equality. Interchangeability, when coupled with a view that the male is the normal gender, results in inequality and I think that's where we are today in the US.

      Regarding the gender ratios, that's an interesting point, one I had not really considered well enough. I wish I could say that I knew that the statistics took this into account. I don't. More unknowns to add to the equation.

      Again, great thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post, Chris.

    I'm with Regina. Her anecdotal evidence is well supported by studies which indicate that the gender pay gap does not imply unfair discrimination, even outside of tech (as your link also hints at): The “Equal-Pay-Day” Myth, Why Women Make Less Than Men, or if you prefer a video overview: The gender wage gap is a myth.

    I'm not too concerned with a more "just economy" since the free market provides lovely dynamics for optimizing value regardless of gender, race, sexuality, etc.

    What's most concerning to me is when the free market is violated in favor of state coercion based upon perceptions of statistical social injustice such as the gender wage gap. The use of force is what makes these false beliefs so insidious.

    btw, alternet closed comments before I could respond in our thread on Tainter last month. Thanks for sharing and engaging on that.

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