3 min read

(More) women in tech

Is linguistic relativity a crock?
(More) women in tech
Is linguistic relativity a crock?

Show Notes

Hey folks, welcome to The Imposters Club. It's the podcast for misfits in tech. And I'm your host, Teddy Kim. I had a weird experience last week. A listener asked me why I use feminine pronouns like she and her to refer to generic techies. After all, most techies are dudes. If the trades are to be believed women hold only 20% of the jobs in tech. So why refer to generic techies as she? Haven't you ever heard of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis? My daughter would say, "obviously". It's actually not obvious at all. For those of you out there who have managed to go through life unscathed by pointy-headed concepts like linguistic relativity. Allow me to explain in brief, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that our view of the world is determined by our thought processes. Since our thought processes are limited by our language, it follows that our language constrains how we think about the world. Lots of people think linguistic relativity is a crock generally, and many people have criticized the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis specifically. And yet, I think there's something to it.

Let me tell you a story. Back in the 90s, I went to law school. On my first day, I was struck by something very peculiar. All of my law school professors would use feminine pronouns to refer to generic lawyers. In other words, they always used “she and her” to refer to non-specific lawyers. As in "a lawyer must have indicated the trust a client puts in her". In 1995, this was a very unusual practice outside of law school, and yet it was consistently applied by the entire law school staff. All of my professors from the 30 something female civil procedure professor to the 70-year-old male evidence professor, used “she and her” to refer to generic lawyers. Over the course of my first year in law school, I noticed that I had picked up this practice and by the time I graduated, it no longer seems strange or unusual to refer to generic lawyers as she. So what happened here?

Well, not surprisingly, my law professors understood the profound power of language, they understood that the language we use can perpetuate norms or obliterate them. For those who doubt, consider this. When I entered Law School in 1995, the percentage of first-year female law students was 44.6%. By the time I graduated in 1997, the percentage of female first-year law students was 46%. 20 years later, in 2017, the percentage of female first-year law students was 51%. And today, the overall percentage of female lawyers is 60%.

Now, let's take a look at Tech. In 1984, 37% of computer science majors were women. Wow. Well, in 2014, only 18% of women majored in computer science. Today, women hold only 20% of jobs in tech. And by all accounts, the rate of female participation in tech is declining. Well, I'm a dude, or so I've been told, why should I care about the under-representation of women in tech? Is this whole podcast, just some sort of elaborate virtue signaling? I must confess, I don't care about virtue, I care about winning. If you're at all serious about winning, why would you accept a situation where 50% of the planet isn't even in your talent pool? That makes no sense. And are we really in a position to artificially constrict the tech talent pool? Remember, with a male-dominated staffing model, at least 50% of tech projects fail.

Hey, tech bros, maybe you actually suck at your job! Well, as I Oscar Gamble once said, they don't think it'd be like it'd be, but it does. And that brings me to a troubling question. Where are the grown-ups in tech? Why are tech's putative thought leaders still hemming and hawing? Why are we having worthless debates about nothing burgers like the James D'amour memo? Are you kidding me right now? Dude, we are in competition with other industries for the best people. Not the best male people, the best people. And from where I'm sitting, we're getting our asses kicked. So less jaw-jacking more ass-kicking.

If some law school nerds who can get on the same page about the language we can too. If the legal profession can fundamentally reshape itself in two decades, we can too. Adapting inclusive language isn't a panacea, but it's a good start. What do we have to lose? What do we have to lose?

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