Women in computing

Hanna Wallach blogged about women in computing a few days ago. Considering she's pretty involved in Debian Women and gave a talk about that subject at the last FOSDEM, the hint in there to read a HOWTO about the subject is probably well-reasoned, so I read it.

Most of the suggestions being made in that HOWTO are things that, I think, I'm already (either consciously or subconsciously) abiding by; but it was an interesting read none the less. There's one thing I'm not entirely sure I agree with, however, and it reminded me of a little story that, I think, I haven't told anyone about yet.

In 2001, when I first joined Debian, I wasn't really involved in the project yet. I had sent in a bug report or two (under my then-current email address of wouter.verhelst@advalvas.be, which I have since abandoned), and I had mailed with Adrian Bridgett, who was the Linux Gazette maintainer at that time, about newer editions of that digital magazine that had come out since his last upload. In short, IIRC, he had no time to properly maintain that package anymore (which is understandable), and asked me whether I wanted to take over. Being someone who was looking for something to do in Open Source for a while already, I was too eager to say "yes". So I applied to become a maintainer. As a result, I was officially sanctioned to be a developer before I was part of the community. In hindsight, I don't think this was a good thing.

Anyway, it meant that when I joined the debian-private mailinglist, and later on also the debian-devel mailinglist, there were a lot of names that didn't mean anything to me. Most of them were, actually; the fact that the name of Wichert Akkerman, who was DPL at that time, didn't mean anything to me until that time when I met Peter van Eynde to get my key signed should give you an idea of how little people I knew. So I learned as I got along. I had to. I learned about lot of people by lurking on some mailinglists and reading their posts.

One of the people I got to know that way was Amaya Rodrigo. Since there wasn't any area in the project that had her and me involved in quite some depth, there wasn't any specific reason for me to get to know her; but I read her posts on the two above-mentioned mailinglists, and in that way, I had gotten some idea of her personality.

Now the name "Amaya", which is a Spanish name without any obvious international equivalent (such as would be the case for "Maria"/"Mary"), didn't bear any gender connotation that I could spot; hence, I (incorrectly, subciounsciously) assumed she was a male geek. In fact, it wasn't until about a year ago that I found out. The weird thing is that, in the time between February 2001 (when I became Debian Developer) and February 2004 (when I found out about Amaya being a female geek) I had this idea of Amaya being somehow different. Not that I felt she was not as intelligent as other people, or that I had the idea of her being very young, or some other thought that I would consider a negative one; but there was something, somewhere, that made me not entirely understand her personality. It wasn't to a degree that it intrigued me; but when I found out about her being a women, the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to raise: The HOWTO says, at one point,

If you are unwilling to accept that women's lack of interest in computing is genetically predetermined (and I hope you aren't willing to accept it)

which seems to suggest that the author would dismiss even the possibility that genetics could have anything to do with it (unless I misunderstand Val here). Now I'm not saying that genetics absolutely and surely have to be part of the story, but I won't dismiss it as easily either. Surely if people can somehow spot a behavioural difference between men and women as I did when reading Amaya's posts, there must be something? And why couldn't that something be a difference in genes?

Then again, all this is based on just one occurrence. It could be that there's something else in Amaya's personality that made me wonder, and that it just happened to fit with some incorrect stereotype I have about women, or that I was more eager than is good for me to connect the uncertain ideas I had about her to her being a woman. But somehow, I don't think this is the case.