On The Evil Of Stereotypes

I attended (one way or another) two events last week that got me thinking

The first was Girl Developers will Save the World - a session that had me a little confused as to whether that referred to me, or actual girls, i.e. those that are not yet legally classed as adults. The second was the Remarkable Women Twitter party the following day.

Firstly, a caveat/disclaimer (as usual) - both events were useful, thought-provoking and overall worthwhile. But the alarming thing to me was the number of times I heard "boys are…" or "women think…" or "girls prefer…". And I know we often make generalisations to stress a point, but I'm becoming extremely wary of statements that group people together along some arbitrary boundaries.

  • "Google+ failed because it's design by men for men" - no, it's because it's not designed for anyone. Its only purpose was to compete with Facebook.
  • "Women are better at communicating and social activities" - what, all of us? I'm better at communicating than every man I've ever met? Than someone like Obama or Steve Jobs or John Stewart?
  • "Women do better with female role models" - where are the statistics? And do men do better with male role models, or do they do better with female role models too because women are so much "better at communicating"?

I'm not saying these statements aren't ever true. I'm not even saying they're not true "most" of the time (although I want to see proof). But any kind of strategy based on gross generalisations had better take into account the fact that these are generalisations, that they are based on Statistics1(and sometimes not even those), and that they frequently correspond nicely to things we'd like to think or we are trained to think.

Humans are great at categorising. It's a survival skill - "yummy", "warm", "safe", "funny coloured = hurty tummy", "things with sharp pointy teethies like to eat me". Without this skill we wouldn't have made it as a species. And marketing people, who have to use psychology to get us to part with our money, understand this. They identify trends and target their shinies to these trends (Yuppie, Baby Boomer, etc). By identifying these groups and aiming at them, they make them real. And since humans are a clan-based society, who (again for evolutionary reasons) need to fit in with their gang, these groups become aspirational. Essex people drive BMWs and wear white stilettos? I don't and I live in Essex, oh no! I'd better get on that right away, otherwise people will see I'm An Imposter.

So when people go around saying "Women are great at communicating", we believe it. Those of us who are a bit sucky at it or maybe don't care about it wonder if we're aliens. Or we believe we're great at it because we should be, and we don't work at improving our skills. Men are terrible at cleaning? Great! I don't have to clean the toilet! Women's minds aren't programmed for engineering because they're more communicaty than logical? Fine, I'll teach physics instead of using it.

If I hear one more person say women don't do well in IT because they prefer more soft-skill-based roles, I'm going to scream. In that case, why are there more women entering accountancy than men? In that case, how do men ever get to manage people, and why does pair programming work so well?

If I hear once more that men put women off these roles because of the macho male environment, I'm going to drag that person through a tour of every office I've worked in - I'm constantly disappointed that my male colleagues enjoy football even less than than the girls I went to school with.

So, using stereotypes to try and address things like gender disparity in IT is not going to work. The men in our industry are not beer-swilling, football-watching, womanising alpha males. So why, when we talk about the missing women in our industry, do we assume they will be pink-obsessed, fashion-conscious, gossipy socialites who only hang around with other women? Do you even know any women like that? This is not Desperate Housewives, this is Real Life.

Really good marketing people don't target people as they are - no-one wants to be considered poor - you're a bargain hunter or great at identifying value. Similarly, if you want women to use your product or work for your company, you don't target to weight-obsessed, soap-opera-watching, child-caring fashionistas. Instead you target how a person wants to be seen. You might say using your product or working for your company makes a person look smart, savvy and awesome. And who doesn't want to be all of those things?

Saying people in IT are sexy and intelligent and earn loads of money and have oodles of job options and can find work globally might be a compelling story for people. Some of those people might even be women. Some of them might even be the other missing minorities

Thinking in stereotypes can be damaging to everyone. Gender stereotypes in both directions are so sweeping they are unhelpful, you can't categorise fully half of the world's population as one thing or another. I hear men doing men a disservice by saying things that aren't even true for themselves, and the same for women. It's something we're trained to do, and something the media loves to do. But it's wrong.

So the next time you find yourself saying "men prefer..." or "women are...", stop and think if this is actually true for all of the men and women you know. And if it's not, just don't say it.

1Lies, damned dies and...


  • 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.

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