2013-01-29 02:32:44

Gender Liberalism: what got us here won't get us there

A frequently promoted strategy for tackling the issue of world hunger is liberalism. Just like any other -ism, it takes an idea to its extreme. And the idea is that you basically just need to make everything in the market equal, and equal opportunities for everybody are the result. So far though, there appear to be major gaps between the ideals and the actual results: people are still starving as you're reading this, on this very planet.

The same principle is frequently promoted as a solution to the problem of gender equality. Basically, if everybody agrees that it's ok to hire women into technical jobs, we will no longer have a huge bias in this job area.

There are many reasons why this doesn't work, and none of them is inherent to our species in any biological aspect.

Education for failure

Education of women is a vast topic and basically starts with a childs first breath. Because that's precisely the moment when we start learning new things, regardless of our gender. Starting from their birth, the child will observe its environment very closely and make observations. Those are not only based on its own family and things people say, but also actions. For example, if all women around the kid never pick up a hammer to build something themselves, and all men do, the kid concludes that hammers are for men. This gets even worse if Daddy keeps taking hammers, or for that matter, keyboards out of Mommys hands and does things for her. Very bad impression, don't do it for the sake of your kids future.

In the life of an average girl, there are more aspects preventing a more informed relationship with technology though. For example, there's all these people telling girls that technology is not meant for them or that they wouldn't be good at it. (Fatal misinformation; various women I know are extremely skilled at building things.) Even worse, the cognitive processes of a woman are set up to expect failure in those situation by people telling them that they are going to fail anyway. And especially when people tell them ”I told you you wouldn't make it!“.

Everybody fails. Girls do, boys do, hermaphrodites do and whoever else you could possibly think of does it too. Failure is normal. Failure gives you an opportunity to analyze what you did and improve it. And improvement is good, after all. This is the message which needs to be carried whenever somebody fails, regardless of the topic and other questions like gender.

No-opportunity learner

There are other ways parents set their girls up to have less of a chance to succeed in technology. A frequently observed pattern is to deprive them of the opportunities to learn. We all know of various cases where a boy was playing Doom 3, World of Warcraft, whatever computer game you can imagine all day on his own computer and would just be left alone. Likewise, I know of many cases where girls were using the family computer (because they never received their own one) to try and write programs or attempt to install server software to try and run their own test server, and were told after two hours to get away from the computer.

”You are spending way too much time in front of that computer! Go play with your friends or take a walk!“

These stories are from girls who actually made it as far as to write a program of their own or run their own web server on localhost. It's hard to imagine how many girls never get there because they don't have enough time in front of the computer to figure it out before they get frustrated. Or because they're not allowed to run their own software on the family computer. Sure, some of this also hits boys, but excessive use of computers by boys is more widely accepted.

Peer Pressure away from what Matters

The time in school is typically spent around a group of other girls who are already frustrated with technology and a group of boys and teachers who throw around the same old phrases which discourage involvement with technology. Such an environment, just like all of the previously mentioned environments, is toxic to any interest in technology.

There's not just the circumstance that no other member of the peer groups will want to be involved in having fun with technology. Additionally, any involvement will be punished verbally (”What, you're playing with computers? Eww!“). And even boys who appreciate some involvement with technology frequently choose words which are more of an insult than a compliment (”You're doing this quite well for a woman“).

If you ever worked in different types of environments, you might have noticed the effect yourself. If you're surrounded by unmotivated people and people who aren't very skilled at what they're doing, they are slowing you down too, and you will never get as much done as you usually would. Even worse, you will learn a lot less over the years, because the typical tasks are scaled down for the size of the average mind in the team. So if you're the most intelligent person on the job, you're not very likely to grow (except perhaps in leadership skills).

On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who are better than you at something, you will learn a whole lot from them, and your productivity and learning curve will appear to be boundless. You will start to feel like you've never seen the world so clearly.

This is however not the typical environment of a girl in school. Typically, they're surrounded with other girls who don't want to have any contact with technological challenges. So the mind suffers.

And then there's the problem that most boys aren't very well trained in not assuming leadership, and that teachers don't attempt to teach that skill either. So when people work in pairs on a computer or work bench, boys tend to take the keyboard or dremel away from the girls, and generally take a more commanding role in the team. This means that the girls tend to get less to do and just watch the boy fulfill his task. She only gets the tasks the boy assigns to her. And typically, proper judgment isn't applied in those situations.

No Hire!

Life doesn't end with school. Eventually, girls become women and will start looking for a job. And there, part of the problem is that hiring for tech companies is frequently done by members of management who consider themselves technical. In tech startups, it is even done by technicians themselves. Thus, this area, too, is male dominated.

And now women are struck by the same problem foreigners are. Studies have shown that recruiters are significantly more likely to hire people who are more like them, and in case of male recruiters that would be men. Unfortunately, this means that more men will become tech recruiters in the future. And it makes women less likely to find a tech job. This produces gaps in the CV which are filled either by unemployment or non-tech jobs, where women have an easier time getting hired.

Unfortunately, the same recruiters will then hold this against the applicants. If they didn't spend all of their time on tech jobs, it will be assumed that their lives are unsteady, making them less likely to get the tech job. This means that women in technology get less tech experience through jobs on average. Add to that all the prejudice against women for having the capacity to become pregnant, which is another big reason why they don't get jobs. Or the prejudice that women are more prone to depressions — who wouldn't get depressed with such terrible prospects?

No Heavy Administration

And even on the job itself there are problems. If a woman takes a job as a sysadmin, for example, it is not infrequent that her male colleagues are reluctant to assign some of the heavier server-lifting work in the server room, because it's a male-dominated domain and muscles are invovled. So the men alone carry the server into the server room, mount the rack slides, slide it in, hook it up and start the installation (unless automated away, which is happening way too rarely, but that's another point).

So in many companies, only the menial tasks of clicking up 1000 similar users or making coffee are left to the women. And the effects are devastating: I've seen women with a diploma in computer science and a CCNA certificate working for an ISP who were making coffee and carrying files from office to office. Because only men were entering the server room. Ever. This of course means that even though these women are on the job, they are refused the privilege to gather experience.

This has even wider effects when it comes to upgrade training courses. Women who fell into the trap to be kept away from the real experience may be perceived by management and human resources as not yet having achieved their full in-house learning potential. So they might not win the fight over the few free seats in that network management course, because a male colleague already has a lot of experience and is perceived as the superstar who's just the right network administrator.

Of course, none of the points mentioned above apply necessarily to all women. Some of them get more lucky and end up in a really great company where they can do good stuff and gather a lot of experience. I am happy for every one where this is the case. The purpose of this article is to point to these effects and to outline their consequences.

What can we do better in hiring then?

Even though women are inherently as capable as men, the effects mentioned above have serious consequences. They mean that, unlike with a man, you cannot generally expect a woman interested in technology to have gathered a lot of experience at home and during childhood. There are simply reasons why some of them cannot take advantage of their childhood to gather tech experience. The same is by the way true for men who grew up in extremely conservative families who banned all use of technology from their homes, and the likes. So if in doubt, you should always treat the applicants as such.

It also helps to be more lenient on the CV. Women might have gaps in their tech career, or even not have worked at all for monthes. This might be because someone was looking at their application, just like you, and made some wrong decisions.

Another point is experience. Typically, if someone was working on a job for a longer time, you expect a certain level of experience from them. And you will check if the experience of the applicant matches your expectations. For example, a man who worked as a wind tunnel engineer for 5 years is expected to be able to make a lot of good estimations about aerodynamics, or to make good designs just from his good judgment.

Since however women in tech are frequently left with the menial tasks, this means that a lot of the time they never had the chance to gather as much on-the-job experience as you would expect from a man who has worked the same time on the same job. Be it because she wasn't allowed to operate the wind tunnel, or be it because her colleagues always took away her keyboard when something important happened.

So you cannot trust the regular rules for past experience and career development. Still, you have to find some metric to determine if the applicant is going to be a valuable resource to the company or not. After all, you don't want to just hire anybody. So what can you do to determine if the applicant has what you need?

The question you should ask yourself is a question which should generally be asked more frequently in job interviews. ”Does the applicant have the ability to learn what she needs on the job?“

Most of the time this is a very interesting question which is widely neglected. Most companies are different and run different applications or produce things in a different way. Experience can give you a lot of help in learning the ways of your new job, but it is in no way all you need. All these companies which throw out a list of 50 words the applicant must be familiar with forget that the company will probably have their very own framework built around PostgreSQL or something like that. It is much more important that you determine whether or not the applicant will ever learn to use your framework.

Good tech employees always learn on every job. It should be the biggest and most verified part of the job description. If people don't learn on their job, the job is evidently boring and the person should get a more suited one.

Please note that women quota aren't covered in this text because I have no idea about this topic. Whether or not they are a good idea, I hope that mankind will follow whichever path yields the better result.

Overprotectiveness?

You may have noticed that what is written above is quite controversial. It basically says that women need special treatment, must be nourished and brought on to the jobs, and that you should keep your expectations lower. This typically raises the suspicion that women indeed aren't up to the job and aren't hired for their skills. And when they are hired, they have to wonder if they're really good enough or if they just got the job because of gender questions.

The answer is: if you manage to find an employee who can learn your ways quickly and understands what needs to be changed and how, it is a very good employee, regardless of the gender. But right now we have this gap and all the effects associated with it which pull very forcefully to keep the gap open for as long as possible. In order to bridge over this gap, some special treatment is required for some amount of time until we just truly work together in an environment which is free of prejudices and provides equal opportunities to members of any gender or non-gender.

Right now, we're unfortunately too far from that to just ignore the whole problem and wait for it to go away on its own.

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2012-10-08 15:56:50

The Apple Experiment: Lowering Expectations

After days of struggling with the account creation, I had to realize that I could simply not have an iCloud account. The Windows toolbar, which was my last, best hope for a clean iCloud account, could not create them, only log in to them. So I had to create an Apple ID based on my current Google Apps mail address. After opening Mail, I could then finally create my iCloud address, but the account was tied to my Google Apps mail account.

But at least I could finally start using the iPhone. I connected it to the wireless (I was in a different place now) which worked just as nicely as you would expect. Except the keyboard is a bit quirky because, unlike the Hacker Keyboard on Android, it doesn't come with number keys or symbols without first switching to some different mode. If you have complicated passwords, this can be very time-consuming.

Come to the iTunes store (if you can)

I then went on to install various apps on the phone. The App Store suggested a number of usefull apps from Apple which I should install by all means. In order to do that, though, I first had to sign my Apple ID up with the iTunes store. This procedure involved giving my home address, credit card and phone number and verifying some mail I received in my Gmail (rather than the iCloud account, so I had to go back to my laptop to confirm my account creation).

While the iTunes store asked for a backup mail address, it complained when I entered my Google Apps address because even though this address would be the backup for my iCloud account, it was still associated with the Apple ID, so I had to enter a third, distinct mail address to satisfy the iTunes store.

Unfortunately it took me some time to find my home phone number and by the time I had it ready, the screen lock had kicked in. I unlocked the screen and found that this going into the screen lock had closed the iTunes account creation wizzard and I was staring at the regular start page of the App Store. The advertisement for the useful Apple apps was gone for good, I couldn't find it anymore. So I decided to install an app and was asked to type all the iTunes account details in again.

Luckily, I made it on time this round so I didn't have to repeat the process. Now I was finally able to install the free DB Navigator app I required for my trip to Hamburg the next day. Then I tried to install the SBB app and was asked to come up with 3 security questions and their answers. All of the questions were completely useless and could be figured out easily by anyone with enough knowledge of my life. Like, what was the first rock concert you ever went to? Really?

Then I had to find the SBB app again and tell the App Store one more time to install it. Luckily, it didn't have any further questions and just fulfilled my request.

Big Podcast disappointment

I then found, installed and launched the Podcast app. Since I was going to Hamburg the next day, I would want something to listen to while traveling. The Podcast app contained a slightly sorted list of completely random podcasts, but it appears that the collection was big enough that I could find some interesting ones by searching for a bit. I added them to my list and one of them started playing immediately and rather loudly, which earned me some slightly embarassing stares.

I then set the alarm clock and went to bed, attaching the phone to the charger for the first time since its recent repairs. On the next morning, I was woken up by my esteamed phone at the right time. However, the battery was still at a relatively low rate. It had not been charged over night, again. It seems I will have to send the phone in for repairs another time.

I caught the bus to the station and boarded the train to Hamburg. I made sure to take my Sennheiser phones with me on the train so that I could listen to some of the podcasts I had selected the previous day. When I was looking through the list, all of the episodes were gray. It turned out that the default setting was not to download them ahead of time for you to listen, but to let you do that manually. (At the same time, the default setting would download them only on wifi, not on 3G when you're someplace outside).

Unfortunately, I was in a foreign country (Germany), so I couldn't download the episodes from the train. Also, consdidering how full the 3G network in Zurich is during commuting times, I would expect most people to have difficulties doing that in the first place. I reconfigured the Podcast app and continued my trip without anything to listen to.

So I wonder, will I be able to get along with this phone? I haven't yet found any offline street maps for Germany, like OpenStreetMap (OSMAnd) for Android. Also, will I ever have a phone which works for more than a few days, until the battery is drained and cannot be recharged again?

Read more about this in the next episode…

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2012-10-06 01:40:55

The Apple Experiment: Day One

About a week ago, I received an iPhone 4S with 32GB of storage. I immediately spent another CHF 40.- to get a rubber bumper and a display protection foil for the phone, in order to avoid it being destroyed in an accident or by being transported. A good iPhone user would possess such protectors, so I should have them too. They're ridiculously expensive though: CHF 20.- for the bumpers and CHF 20.- for the display protection foils.

And up for repairs

The charge of the battery was relatively low, about 20%, when I received it, so I plugged the phone in to charge it. While the phone was running on external power then, the battery wouldn't charge. As I carried it around, the power would continue to drain. Eventually, it reached zero, but the phone still wouldn't charge, even after several hours on the charger. So I brought it in to be repaired.

After a week in repairs I received the phone back just today, configured to the Apple ID of an employee of the shop which fixed it. The phone firmware had been reset and I was promised the phone would charge again. I haven't yet had an opportunity to try though.

Initial setup

Now that I had the phone back, I had to reset it and configure it for my own use. The option for resetting the phone could be found easily in the settings menu. Then, I was greeted with the iPhone setup screen. I slid to unlock, selected language and country, then configured the wireless network. I enabled location services and configured the iPhone as new. Then I was asked for an Apple ID.

I didn't have one, so I chose to create a Free Apple ID. The first question I was presented with was the birth date. The date is selected using three adjustment wheels, which is highly unpleasant if you were born at the other end of the month and year, a long time ago. A combined adjustment wheel and number editor would certainly be a relief here.

Then I had to type in my name — no surprises here. However, the name was split up into first and last name, which doesn't work for all cultures. It's a bit surprising that Apple forces this specific name format although they should have gathered quite some experience in dealing with different cultures by now.

Either way, I do have a first and last name, so I entered them. I was then asked whether I want to enter a mail address or create an iCloud account. Trying the full Apple experience, I had to go for the iCloud account. A quick question for the mail address later I received an error message: «Can't Create Apple ID: Your Apple ID could not be created because of a server error.» Clicking «Ok» on this message lead back to the screen which asks if you want to create an Apple ID or use an existing one.

Roadblock iCloud

Left without an option, I went to the Apple web site using Safari on my Mac Mini and was greeted with a very large video of Steve Jobs promoting various products to a kind of music. I couldn't find any other controls on the web site so I patiently watched the video till the end — which wasn't exactly easy, since the buffer kept running out. At some point the video was over and started again.

Hovering the mouse randomly over the browser window I discovered that there was a cross button on the upper left corner of the screen which would only appear when the mouse was hovered over it. Clicking that button loaded the regular Apple web site. However, that site didn't show the slightest sign of Apple ID creation mechanisms.

The apple in the menu bar brought back the video of Steve Jobs, which wasn't particularly helpful. The other menu items (Mac, iTunes, etc.) didn't mention Apple IDs either. In the Apple Store, there was a menu which mentioned «Accounts» and contained a menu point named «Account Home Page». The following page was more centered around orders from the Apple Store (looking at order lists or modifying or canceling orders), but there was a link to a page for changing the mail address of an Apple ID account.

The following page asked me to log into my Apple ID and offered an option to create one. I had finally found it! But the «Create Apple ID» page only allowed to create an ID with an existing, external mail account. No mention of iCloud anywhere.

So I used Google to find the iCloud service, which was apparently located at icloud.com. The web site didn't offer to create an account directly though. It asked you to create the account from the Mac or from an iOS6 device. The alternative was to use some iCloud tool bar on Windows. Since however I didn't have Windows, I couldn't follow that route.

The MacOS way required to open the system settings dialog. In that dialog, there was supposed to be a point called iCloud. I couldn't find that point though and it turned out that MacOS version 10.7.4 was required. I didn't have that version at hand, so I abandoned that road as well.

I may try finding a Windows installation to attempt the third way, but right now it appears that I cannot pursue the road I wanted to take due to a server error. Does that mean that my experiment is already over?

Read more about this in the next episode…

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2012-10-05 18:30:00

The Apple Experiment

In order to know better what I'm talking about, I have started an experiment: I got myself an iPhone.

 

Now that your shock has faded, let me explain. First of all, it is not a new iPhone. I got an iPhone 4S for cheap from someone who just received it back from repairs as a replacement drive. So my phone was either new or refurbished, so as good as new. I still have about a year's worth of warranty left.

The purpose of this experiment is for me to figure out and document what the life of an Apple user is like. So I'm not going to jailbreak my iPhone or use any other methods to make my life easier or to make the iPhone work more like I want it to. I want the full dosis, and I want to try out every detail Apple is throwing at me. And I will try not to resort to my good old Galaxy Nexus for the period of the experiment, even when I want to.

And with that, wish me some luck on my challenge.

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2012-07-31 13:24:57

Every year on the first of August

Switzerland is celebrating the first of August again. For the 721st time in a row, Switzerland is aging one year. And for the fifth time, people received a letter from the conservative party (UDC).

Two years ago, on November 28, 2010, the people of Switzerland decided to adopt the UDC motion for compulsory deportation of «criminal» foreigners, that is, foreigners who violated the criminal law. Since then, the federal government was trying to work out a way to implement this motion into law without violating any human rights and without trampling too much on the rights of foreigners.

Lack of any notion of proportion

This is a very hard problem. UDC wants the motion to be implemented as-is into Swiss law. This is however a clear violation of human rights, because it makes it extremely easy for everyone to kick any foreigner they don't like out of the country by alleging their involvement with a petty crime. The current Swiss law already covers the case where a foreigner commits serious violations of the criminal code. The extent to which the violations are serious has to be determined by a judge on a case-by-case basis. However, the motion would change this. Any crime, even a petty crime, would automatically lead to deportation. If this is put into context with the most recent attempts by the conservative forces all over the world to put anything they don't like into criminal law, the implications are exorbitant.

Think about ACTA. It was an attempt, supported by the Swiss institute of Intellectual Property, to put criminal sanctions on copyright violations. This means if you mess up a quote from a book in your publication, you don't only get to pay damages to the original author, but you also get automatically deported out of Switzerland and back into your home country.

There were similar attempts to put patent violations into criminal law. Note how extremely difficult it is nowadays to avoid running into patent violations when you develop any kind of products. If you implemented a web shop, for example, that would definitely get you deported.

Think about the cybercrime convention. If you use a media player to display DVDs you purchased on your laptop, that's a criminal offence (circumvention of copyright protection) and you will get deported.

Think about the hacker tools legislation. If you're a security researcher or a system administrator and you possess exploit code to do your daily job — definite deportation.

UDC still pushing

UDC however announced that, in their opinion, the Swiss government has been too slow in implementing their motion into law. Thus, they've sent out letters to every household in Switzerland (including the criminal foreigners and everyone else) asking for signatures for a new motion to implement the old motion as it was written down.

This is an even more difficult motion than the last one. A lot of time has to be devoted to making sure the new legislation will be in accordance with the basic human rights and with international treaties Switzerland has signed in the past. It is also very important that this new legislation doesn't lead to mass deportations or a mass exodus of foreigners who bring a lot of money into the country and add a lot of expertise the small, largely rural 7.6 Million people nation of Switzerland just cannot offer all by itself. New laws take their time, and this one is so very precarious that it most definitely shouldn't be rushed.

But more than that, UDC knows that complex legal matters take more than 1.5 years. This suggests that their main intention behind pushing this is to get exactly the legislation they had written down in the original motion, before the council or the parliaments get a shot at merging it with their own ideas and making it «weaker» so it can actually work without the detrimental effects UDC had in mind when drafting it.

As UDC is pushing right now, there can only be 3 outcomes from this law: a mass exodus, mass deportations or mass naturalization. This would give UDC a better argument to discriminate against naturalized citizens with their initiative proposal to give them differently colored passports and take away some of their citizen rights.

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