Katie Miller is giving a talk about FP outreach and diversity at next month's Erlang User Conference. She sent a questionnaire to the Lambda Ladies mailing list about our experiences, and I thought I'd share my responses here.
What led you to pursue functional programming?
Curiosity. I was in grad school, working towards a masters in computer science. And I was particularly interested in programming languages, though I was only familiar with imperative and OO languages at that point. I saw a course on functional programming, so I signed up. Best CS decision I ever made.
What sort of perception did you have of functional programming before you learnt more about it? Was this a barrier? If so, how did you overcome this?
All I knew at the time was that it was some sort of paradigm completely different from imperative and OO. That's it really. This was before FP started becoming popular; so, long before Clojure or Scala were invented, and long before C++ considered adding lambdas/closures to the language. Even within the FP community, Haskell was still considered the new kid on the block (despite having been around for quite some time).
What were the challenges for becoming part of the FP community?
The main challenge was just in figuring out where the community was and how to take part. As I said, this was long before FP became popular. My first FP language was Haskell, but I'd learned it in that course on functional programming so I didn't really know what the community was like. It was a year or two after taking the class that I decided to start really using Haskell for projects. At the time I was taking part in the Perl community, so I thought I'd go searching for some Haskell mailing lists to join. That's when I found the firehose that is Haskell Cafe.
Why do you think women are underrepresented in FP, more so than in programming generally?
I think there are a number of reasons. One of the big ones is how academic the community is. I don't mean that in the way people usually do. I'm an academic, and I love it here! No, the problem is that this creates a huge selection bias. I only really found FP by stumbling into it, and I only stumbled into it because I had a number of supportive advisors who helped foster my interest in programming languages. By the point I found FP, many women would have already been filtered out. Just getting into and affording college is a huge thing, especially for women of color. Let alone making it through undergrad and then getting into a masters program in CS without a bachelor's in CS. Let alone ending up at a school that can offer good FP classes, and finding those supportive advisors to help you along and guide you in the right direction.
If my story is anything to go by, it takes a lot of privilege (and luck) just to get to the point where you discover FP. After that, then you add on all the issues about maintaining community involvement. Because the community is so academic, this heightens issues of impostor syndrome. (Even men are driven out of FP due to impostor syndrome!) And since FP tends to be sold in a hyper-intellectualized manner, this evokes the "math is hard" brand of anti-intellectualism. While this drives a lot of people away, I think it has a differentially powerful impact on women due to the way we gender the sciences. That is, FP propaganda has a habit of taking the things which cause women to be underrepresented in STEM generally, and then cranking them up to eleven.
Another issue, and one I haven't seen discussed very often, is the fact that many FP communities are also FOSS communities. Women are more underrepresented in FOSS than in other CS communities, so the fact that FP tends to be FOSS means that women will tend to be more underrepresented in FP than other CS communities.
What strategies do you think the community could employ to address this problem and improve the (gender, and other types of) diversity in FP?
Setting up communities which aren't so hyper-intellectualized is a big step. Getting rid of all that propaganda and just treating FP like any other paradigm will do a lot to mitigate the impact of impostor syndrome and "math is hard" anti-intellectualism. It's no panacea, but it's probably the easiest thing we can tackle. Addressing the systemic issues is a lot harder.
Do you think it helps to have a women's group like Lambda Ladies? How has it been helpful for you?
I do think it helps. Over the years I've seen a lot of women come and go (mostly go) on Haskell Cafe. Overall I feel like the Cafe is one of the safer and more welcoming communities, but we've still had our misogynistic flareups. And after each one, I've watched the subsequent evacuation as women no longer feel quite so safe or welcome. By offering a safe space, women's groups are an important form of resistance against this sort of problem. It's a space where you don't always have to be on your guard against harassment. It's a space where you don't have to worry about how you present yourself, don't have to worry that femininity will undermine your credibility, don't have to worry about how asking "stupid" questions will affect the way people think of women as a whole.
Also —we don't really do this on LL, but— women's groups can provide a safe environment for venting about the sorts of problems we encounter online, in the work force, etc. Venting is always a tricky topic, but I think the importance of venting is grossly underrated. Whatever community you're a part of, bad things are going to come up sooner or later. When that happens, having a side community where you can let off steam or discuss why the particular thing is problematic is an important way to deal with the emotional fallout of these bad things. Once you've dealt with it, you can return to the main community; but if you have nowhere to deal with it, then things build up and up until you're just done and you quit the community.
In addition to providing a safe space, women's groups also serve an important role regarding announcements for jobs, conferences, etc. The announcements we get are tailored for women and so include important details like how welcoming they are of women, whether they can offer travel expenses, whether they offer child care, and so on.
For me, LL has been helpful mainly as a place to witness women in FP. Just seeing other women is energizing, and keeps me interested in being out there as part of the general FP community. The bit about announcements has also been helpful.