Diversity and the need for mentors

This isn’t the follow-up to my last post that I was promising. It’s still coming but needs more time to stew in my brain. Though this does follow-up on some of the ideas and concerns I mentioned.

After my post I decided to start following the WoMoz mailing list. It’s actually been quite interesting and I was grateful to find the women there are tolerant, and even agree with some of my less than “feminist” views on the issue.

The group is actually having a difficult time finding first projects as really the issue of gender is a slippery one. It’s based on a generalization and I know many of you agree that generalization can be the first step to failure. However, I think that if you don’t start somewhere you never get started. Gender (in the traditional binary sense, which doesn’t reflect my views on the subject, btw) is really easy to measure. If there is a very high representation of one gender over the other I agree it’s worth exploring, though I remain skeptical on whether it requires action just for the sake of making the numbers match.

That all said, one of the main goals the group has undertaken has started to resonate with me. It’s the idea that to attract more women you need more women. At first I was skeptical. If we believe that women and men are equal then shouldn’t women be able to use a male role model? Well, personally I believe that men and women are equal, but we’re not the same. If nothing else would have convinced me, the experience of pregnancy and motherhood has certainly shown me that our basic make-up (read: hormones) really does affect our personalities and how we experience life.

One way I prefer to experience life is with a little bit of caution. I’d prefer to do things right, and I’d much rather have someone walk me through something than try and fail several times over on my own. Once I know how to do something, or I at least understand the principles behind it, I’m pretty fearless and will explore, alter and experiment on my own. It’s that first time though. I think the best way to explain it is that I want to make sure my information is correct that first time. I don’t want to start, and go on, doing something the wrong way if better information is out there.

This quirk of mine explains partially why I’ve never been very domestic. My grandmother doesn’t like teaching, she likes showing. Instead of teaching me how to do something hands-on she expected me to pick it up by watching her. That’s just not how I work. And so I was 18 before I did my first load of laundry. I don’t cook, but I do bake – the one thing she did walk me through, as that’s basically what a recipe does. I can read a map like nobody’s business, though. My grandfather taught me how.

The same goes for everything else in my life. I’d much rather learn something with a mentor, who can alert me when I’m starting to go wrong, than to just invest a whole bunch of unknowns to come up with an unknown result. Mozilla is actually quite unfriendly to this learning style, though for good reason. With limited resources, especially in the early years, their best bet was to invest in people who could hit the ground running themselves. It’s much easier to get a response on a specific question about a specific piece of code, it also takes less time away from the already stressed developers working on their own bugs.

How do we solve the problem? Women (and men) need to be more visible with their success stories. Women need to be more visible at all. It’s not just about appearances. It’s about giving potential contributors a face and a story that they can identify with. For better or worse we have our own baggage. Some people who have experienced sexism in their lives will see a male-centric group and assume sexism is at play. They shouldn’t be faulted for this, they’re just going by what they know. Also, the sexism isn’t always travelling from the inside out. Sometimes it travels from the outside inwards. I think a woman interested in computers is a lot more likely to be discouraged by her peers outside of her chosen project. Why should we expect her to take the risk if we don’t show her that it will pay off?

One Response to “Diversity and the need for mentors”