The empathy problem

Recent conversations on the topic of gender in software have had an unfortunate trend. There seems to be a delusion that mere dialogue about gender bias and related topics is somehow enough to taint the hacker culture. It is, of course, already tainted.

The collective hacker ego is boosted by a belief that what hackers do has the power to change the world. The “change the world with code” meme has been floating around for years, reinforced in recent years by puffed-up recruitment pitches from aspiring business owners and venture capitalists.

Consequently hackers gained a wild overconfidence in their own abilities. To reason about business problems and describe them in code is to change the world! It follows that every real problem must be solvable by hackers. What’s more, anything that is outside the life experience of these legendary giants of intellect is treated with suspicion and disdain.

Conversations about innate ability and gender differences meander, but they always arrive at a variation on the same point. Somebody refutes the subject entirely. So often this actually feels like a desperate plea for the boat not to be rocked. Please stop mentioning unpleasant things. The status quo works for me.

Hacker culture is famously ill-equipped to deal with social problems. When issues stemming from sexism arise, denial is the most common reaction. Emotional literacy is nowhere to be found.

The next big problem that hackers must solve is not one of data analysis or logic. It won’t be solved through inferential statistics or hunting for logical fallacies. It is the lack of empathy endemic in their culture. As long as every difficult conversation is dominated by disbelief, people will continue to be driven away.

Empathy for the Truth-Tellers, a post about what empathy means and to whom it needs to be directed.