Wednesday, September 14, 2016

In Hot Water

On LinkedIn the other day, Katy Sherman, Director of Software Engineering at Premier Inc., published an article titled: "Why We Don't Need More Women in IT." The basic points of the article were simple: Based on Ms. Sherman's own experiences, the IT industry isn't as hostile to women as it's often portrayed, women's career advancement isn't as constrained as many people think and (in keeping with the title of the piece) there isn't a need to have more girls and young women gear their education towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and Information Technology.

Yesterday, Musician, Full-Stack Developer and Testing Evangelist Rachel Smyth published a rebuttal article, titled: "Why we don't need more Lobsters in IT." The long piece starts out with Ms. Smyth relating a metaphor her mother had told her when she was a child.

When I was little, my mom told me that "women are like lobsters." Which was pretty confusing since a) she said it in Spanish and my Spanish isn't that great and b) it's a pretty random metaphor. She went on to explain: lobsters in a pot claw at each other so no individual can climb over them to get out of the pot, as a result, they all stay at the same level. And boil to death.
I'm familiar with the lobster metaphor, although when I first heard it as a child, it was about crabs in a box destined for a seafood restaurant. I've heard it a number of times over the years, and the basic jist always the same. "[Insert group here] are like a group of [insert clawed crustaceans here] in [insert dangerous situation here]. Whenever one of them attempts to escape [dangerous situation] the others prevent it from doing so, and they all go to their doom. How, and why, the other crustaceans prevent anyone from escaping varies - anything from simply being too concerned with their own fates to work together to snipping off limbs with the express intent that if they can't escape, no one else will, either.

It strikes me as one of those things that one relates to children because a) it's a pretty colorful, and thus memorable, metaphor and b) children are unlikely to know any better. But it's a story that adults carry with them, because it creates a simple and easy to understand villain for failure narratives - "The reason we can't get ahead is that some of us don't want us to get ahead and so work against us."

Ms. Smyth leads with this, opening her essay with: "Based on my experience, the biggest barrier to getting more women in tech isn't men, but lobsters."

I'm going to leave aside the pot, kettle, black aspect of things for a moment, and concentrate on what strikes me as the central flaw in the metaphor - the call to orthodoxy as the key to advancement. Women, Black Americans, poor people and any number of other such groups are all fairly large. Anything approaching a unified consensus of though among all of them is highly unlikely, let alone such a singular understanding of purpose that everyone will always be pulling in the same direction. For any group of people large enough, there will be individuals whose understanding of what is in the best interests of themselves, their community or even the group as a whole will be in opposition to a more generally accepted understanding of the same. This is just the way it is in large demographics.

There may, in fact, be special places in whatever version of hell one subscribes to for members of a group who don't unconditionally support other members of a group. But if that's true, why doesn't it work both ways? As I've grown older, I've realized that where the crustacean metaphor falls down is in that there's rarely one heroic member of the group, who fails in a valiant attempt to escape certain doom. Instead everyone's so busy arguing about who has the one single plan that everyone should be behind that nothing, outside of incessant accusations of blame, is ever accomplished.

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