posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 28th May 2012 19:25 UTC
IconThis topic comes up quite a lot on technology websites, but I generally try to steer clear from it as much as possible, since I'm not the one to talk about it (you know, with me being a man and all that), however, I feel it might be a good idea to just get my opinion out there and be done with it. The topic of women in IT is a hot-button issue, so let me just go out guns blazing: assuming women need special treatment, help, protection, and affirmative action is just as insulting and degrading as outright claiming women have no place in IT - maybe even more so.

This time around, it's an article by Jason Knott for CEPro which dives into the topic. It's a bit of a complicated article, but it revolves around something called the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program, which aims to increase the number of government IT-related contracts awarded to small businesses owned by women.

The article details how the program is not achieving its intended goal because it stipulates that at least two of these WOSBs need to apply for a contract for this program's funds to come into play. The cold and harsh truth? There are simply too few WOSBs; it's rare even two WOSBs apply for a contract, let alone more. As such, a new Senate bill is being drafted (S. 2172) to address this shortcoming.

This all sounds like a noble program, right? Who could possible advocate against laws and regulations to promote women-owned businesses getting contracts over men-owned businesses?

Well, I do.

Affirmative action like this is based on two false premises. First, the insipid one, the one that actually infuriates me to no end: affirmative action assumes that (in this case) women are less capable than men, and that they need special help, incentives, money, and regulations to achieve parity with their male counterparts. In other words, these laws actually advocate the very same idea they are trying to combat; namely, that women are less capable than men.

"I got that contract because I'm a woman" is no less sexist and troublesome than "I did not get that contract because I'm a woman". Underlying both statements is the fact that the person in question is being treated differently because she's a woman. In the first example, she did not get the contract because she was the best possible option; she got it because she was a woman. In the second example, she didn't lose the contract because she wasn't good enough; she lost it because she was a woman.

People should be judged on their merits; their skills, qualifications, character, work ethic, track record, the work they produce, and so on. Laws should not force people to choose one person over the other based on gender. Doing so - even if the outcome for the person in question is positive - is still sexist, and only serves to strengthen the notion that women can't get by on their own.

The second false premise is a severe misunderstanding of human nature. Affirmative action relies on the assumption that you can use laws to change people, that you can change how people think through a top-down process. This, however, rarely - if ever - works. You can't impose democracy on a people top-down. You can't use laws to stop people from sharing. You can't DMCA people from installing their own software on their computers. You can't use laws to overcome thousands of years of gender roles.

Create an environment in which people have the room to change, by making sure that laws establish a baseline of equality for everyone, and ensure that this baseline is upheld and respected. If you try to force people to change, you'll only create resentment, which in turn will only strengthen the very behaviour you were trying to change. People don't like to be forced.

Someone may actually simply prefer a particular male-owned business (he or she may not even have thought about the business being male-owned in the first place), but now he or she is forced/enticed to choose a female-owned business. The outcome? Resentment. A male-owned business may be doing a perfectly fine job, delivering a fantastic product at a reasonable price, and may be the best candidate to be awarded a contract, solely based on merit. However, in comes a law that causes the contract to be awarded to a female-owned business, even though that business delivers an inferior product at higher costs. The outcome? Resentment.

What about the other way around? Would you be happy if you knew that your job or that contract was only given to you because of your gender? That you were chosen not because you were better or more qualified than others, but simply because of your gender? What kind of effect would that have on your self-esteem? How would that knowledge affect the relationship between you and your employer?

Is all this fair? How does this help promote gender equality?

I happen to believe that women are more than capable enough to fight their own battles. They don't need us men standing up for them and protecting them, thumping our chests, congratulating each other on how non-sexist we are. Doing so only fosters the idea that women need men to do so - which is decidedly nonsense. It's insulting, and it's degrading.

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