Monday, November 13, 2006

Gender

Free software is written and maintained almost universally by men. Women do contribute, but it is undeniable that there are far more men than women. Since it is largely a labour of love, where people spend their free time and contribute without renumeration, the fact that there are more men than women who participate is puzzling at least. Is it due to hardwiring or social conditioning? Or both?

I started reading a fascinating book by Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. He doesn't cater to stereotypes, but discusses the hard wired differences between men and women, especially boys and girls. Some of the details are very surprising. One day old girls will look at a persons face, while the boys are looking at the mobile that is moving around. This is due to the difference between girl's eyes and boys. Girls have more receptors and nerve connections for colour and texture, while boys have more receptors and nerve connections for contrasts and movements. Boys often have trouble in classroom settings simply because they can't hear as well as girls. A girl's brain develops connections between the parts that deal with feelings and the parts of the brain that deal with conscious thought, where a boys brain doesn't develop those connections. My wife says that boys don't connect fear and pain, hence do crazy things that sometimes hurt them, while girls tend not to. This is possibly due to the way our brains are wired. Left/right brain function, speech vs. spatial, are typical of male brains, where female brains distribute these functions more evenly. Some of these characteristics are seen in other mammals and primates. All this changes the way boys and girls play, interact and learn. Could it possibly affect the way we spend our free time?

There is a school in a neighboring town that has grade 7 classes separated by sex. The teachers then use methods that are best for the sex they are teaching. Everyone is impressed how well the children are doing, and the idea is spreading to different schools.

The idea is that all children can do well at math, for example. It may be a matter of teaching girls and boys differently, since they learn differently.

Harvard University president Lawrence Summers created a big fuss when he suggested that the lack of women in some branches of science may be due to innate differences between the sexes. The University of BC did an interesting study where two groups of women were subjected to a very difficult math exam. One group was shown a newspaper article describing scientific research that suggested that the different math capabilities of men and women were due to genetic differences. The other group was shown a similar article where the suggestion was made that the differences were due to environmental factors. The articles were fabricated. The two groups then did the test, and the ones who received the suggestion that genetics played a factor did substantially worse than the other group. This suggests that if women are told that they are not capable, they will do measurably worse when tested. I don't think that is surprising, since we are all open to suggestion. But interestingly when the disadvantage was said to be genetic and out of our control, the results were worse. Social expectations definitely have a role.

Maybe what happens is a toxic mixture of influences. When a young girl is taught math in a way that doesn't play to her strengths, she may decide that she is bad at math. This will be confirmed to her every time the subject comes up. A young boy may have trouble reading, and decide that reading is a girl thing, because reading isn't taught in a way that plays to his strengths. Neither of them gain enjoyment from what is hard for them to do. So is the girl going to chose a career in something that requires extensive mathematic abilities? Probably not.

Free software as a primarily male domain has certain characteristics. The discussions are rather rough and tumble affairs. Some flame wars resemble quite closely male elk during rutting season where the two run full speed into each other butting heads until one backs down. And if a woman shows up, well, male elk during rutting season still holds as illustration. It may be because the free software communities have matured, the participants have matured, that we are now seeing women take their place in our communities. It is no longer simply a bunch of like minded guys writing code. There are people making a living, supporting families and companies. Maturity has told us that we need different perspectives to reach the next level. We recognize that we need different skills in addition to the hard core code monkeys. We have learned to tone down to allow others to contribute their skills where needed.

I hope that is the case. People with the skills and desire to contribute to this exercise are rare.


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