The subject of women programmers is boring

I've been challenged to do a session at a very large conference around women in programming. Which leads to two reactions from me 1) wow, what an honour! and 2) sigh.

The problem with these sessions is that you're preaching to the choir. Those who turn up are a) women or b) men who are sympathetic and supportive to the cause. People who are actively discriminating against women or, more commonly, those who don't know their actions are hurting diversity in our industry, are the least likely to receive the message.

This tends to lead to the same types of sessions - yes, our industry under-represents certain segments of society (i.e. women); yes, we all agree this is a problem; yes, everyone in this room is trying their best to do the right things; no, we have no idea how to fix it at the industry-level.

These sessions are boring.

How do you make this subject interesting, relevant, and appeal to the types of people it really should target?

I'm considering all sorts of games with the title, even going so far as to put "Boobs" in it. I very much doubt that will make my final selection. I'm thinking hard about the format, I definitely don't want it to be preachy, I want it to be informative, collaborative, and, preferably, funny. Not too much to ask, right?

In programming, if something is difficult to do right, it's a sign of a smell - the feature being requested might be contrary to the purpose of the product; the application might not have been designed around the business's real requirements; there could be a large amount of tech debt that should have been cleaned up along the way but wasn't; the requirements might be fluffy, changeable, or simply outright wrong.

Does the fact that we can't get these sessions right point to a smell as well?

Are they pitched at the wrong people? Are we saying the wrong things, suggesting the wrong ideas, tackling the wrong problem? Should we even be talking about women in technology?

Or am I just the wrong person to do it? I don't even want to be the spokesperson for women developers. I can only be the spokesperson for me.

Overall I can't help but think we're missing the point again. If I think that events aimed at girls are wrong, then I think that sessions at conferences aimed at highlighting the missing women there is also wrong. But this is a great audience to reach - these are people who want to further their careers, who are likely to be putting in extra hours to improve themselves/their company/the industry. Give a techy a tricky problem to gnaw on and there's no-one happier. And what could be more tricky than the seemingly-unsolvable problem of attracting greater diversity into technical roles?

The answer might lie in shaping the problem such that it is interesting enough, difficult enough and technical enough for us.

Or maybe the answer is simply accepting the fact that you're not going to change those who are part of the problem, but you can change the message you are giving. I know many men are tired of being berated about this issue because they're already doing the best they can. I know many women are bored of hearing about it because they're already here. Maybe it's time to look at the problem differently and suggest an alternative approach.

If only I knew what that was...


  • Trisha Gee

    Trisha is a software engineer, Java Champion and author. Trisha has developed Java applications for finance, manufacturing and non-profit organisations, and she's a lead developer advocate at Gradle.