A Crying Shame

I must start this article with a confession I feel embarrassed to make: until quite recently, this issue existed solely in my peripheral vision; I acknowledged its existence, but only as an unfortunate happenstance. While the internet oscillated back and forth on the sinusoidal curve representing the collective outrage of armchair activists everywhere, I deftly scrolled past the occasional article attempting to address the topic in my news feed penned by writers calling for a change I saw no urgent need for. Until quite recently, sexism existed almost completely outside my realm of focus.

I started writing this article after spending a long Saturday volunteering at an inner-city FIRST Lego League tournament. As my long-time coach and mentor put it, “it’s important to give back to a program that has given you so much.” Indeed it is, and so I volunteered as a technical judge. Tasked with judging the various facets of structural design, programming, strategy, and attempting to gauge the level of understanding of basic engineering principles for those teams to which such a question was applicable, my panel was given fifteen short minutes for each of the twelve or so teams within our judging group: ten to review the aforementioned areas, and five to educate and provide constructive feedback.

Of the roughly twelve teams we interviewed throughout the day, approximately three out of four consisted solely of boys, almost all of which had at least eight team members; relatively small all-girl teams constituted the remaining percentage, and we neither judged nor came across any co-ed teams. Loud, obnoxious, and unfocused, these groups of adolescent males often proved insufferable. And while this sweeping generalization did not fit every all-boy team — four delightfully intelligent young boys made up our first team of the day, for example — the pattern repeated consistently enough to spawn a feeling of dread in the backs of our minds when we looked out the window and saw eight or more boys literally bouncing off the walls. This pattern contrasts sharply with our experience judging all-girl teams: very intelligent, calm, collected, articulate, enthusiastic, succinct, and interested, these traits made those small groups of generally less than five girls not only a true delight to work with in technical judging, but across the research project, presentation, and teamwork areas as well, as I came to find out in speaking with the other judges. By the end of the day the three all-girl teams not only occupied the top three spots in the technical bracket, but in every other aspect too. And rightly so; those traits served them well.

On that Saturday night after a long day spent at the tournament and a long car ride home alternating between sleep and forced wakefulness as my head slipped out of its carefully positioned spot and bounced off the cold glass of the car window, I started writing this piece as nothing more than an interesting observation. At the time, I did not intend for this article to become anything more than my tired musings. Then I read Asher Wolf’s article Dear Hacker Community - We Need To Talk. in a rare resurgence of free time; then I changed my mind.

Since that late night spent poorly transcribing my thoughts, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about this idea, formulating my thoughts on this unbelievably stupid value system that has an unjustifiable tendency to place men over women. I find the pervasiveness of this fallacious belief in the tech community — in the hacker community, as Asher Wolf put it in her aforementioned piece — especially disturbing. In a space where factors such as race, age, and nationality are disproportionally unimportant as compared to the skill set those within it posses, it seems particularly asinine to me that as a society we nevertheless continue to promote men entering this field over women, and foster a community promising the chance of a terrible experience to the few women that persevere, with Asher Wolf’s experience as a prime example of this unfortunate possibility.

To bring this back to the FLL tournament I volunteered at a number of weeks ago, if a girl of twelve or thirteen acts as or more mature than a boy of fifteen, and that girl possess comparable or even better technical skills than that older boy, how can we possibly justify a stigma dictating that the boy should receive encouragement and more better opportunities to pursue a technical career than the girl, who may even find herself discourage from walking down a similar path? How can any such argument stand against the obviously disproportionate display of potential on behalf of the younger girl as compared to the older boy, or between two children of opposite genders and of the same age for that matter? Therein lies the question we as a community need to answer. We must answer this question before anything else and upon coming to a conclusion lead by example, an example for the rest of the world to follow. As thought leaders and the creators of the technologies that will grow to shape the future, we are uniquely positioned to propel those brilliant young minds, both male and female, from the FIRST Lego League tournament I attended weeks ago on a level playing field, providing each with an equal opportunity to achieve greatness. We have a responsibility to condemn the experience of those like Asher Wolf, and a duty to ensure that it never happens again, for doing anything else would be naught but a crying shame.