This is a Man’s World? Sexism and Technology

I’ve been trying to write a post about women and technology for months but I always shied away from it. I was worried about approaching a topic which provokes so much debate and such strong feelings (and often aggression) without knowing enough to be able to protect and defend myself against potential backlash. Maybe that was cowardly.

I will not, I’m sure, say anything revolutionary here, but I feel it’s my duty as somebody who works (albeit not directly) in the technology sector, to weigh in on this issue.

Personally, I’m a feminist, because feminism is the belief that everyone should be treated with equal respect regardless of gender. On that basis, I would question anyone who is not a feminist. This said, I think many people associate feminism with pedantry and men-hating, or feel it’s outdated because equality has already been achieved and they do not personally experience a problem in their own life. Many people do not see the concept of feminism as the advocacy of equality. Ultimately the use of or definition of the word is not paramount, so long as, at root, everybody believes and acts upon the belief that we are all equal. This is, sadly, not the case.

It is true to say that here in Britain, here in London, there might perhaps seem less need for militant feminism than in other areas of the world. Sexism still prevails against both genders but, by and large, the effect it has is to hamper free choice, rather than to prevent it completely. The trouble is that, if you stop taking your antibiotics when you start to feel better, the infection comes back with double the force and, when it comes to gender bias, many areas of our society are still sick.

I approach this topic as somebody who didn’t originally consider herself a feminist. Most of my friends, male and female, were brought up to believe in equality and, as a girl, I never felt limited by my gender or that I could not achieve the same as or more than my male counterparts. The top three students across the board in my year at school were all girls throughout my school career. I went to a good University and got a degree, and I prioritised my career when I graduated without a thought to how later having a family might affect this, and without thinking that any hiring manager might think that it would.

I went straight into a recruitment company setting up a vertical in software development – and my perspective about women in the workplace began to change. When you don’t see problems in your own work or social environment it can be easy to dismiss allegations of gender inequality, but they’re worth spending some serious time thinking about. In technology there is still a serious problem.

This is nothing new, I’m sure, to anybody who works in technology, but some basic stats for those who don’t… Behind the commonly spoken of ‘White Brogrammer’ culture are surveys to quantify the lack of females in Tech. In May, Google published a report showing that 70% of their Global workforce was male, with other leading technology companies including Facebook publishing similar results. Transparency is important, and Google’s decision to launch a multimillion pound program to attract women is a commitment to desiring to address the imbalance, but it might be difficult when the root cause of the problem is still debated. The Guardian commented that, though commonly the low number of women in technology is attributed to the fact that fewer women take Science and Technology subjects at school, in actuality many women begin a career in programming and then leave, suggesting that there is also an issue with the cultural reception of them.

As a recruiter it becomes pretty obvious that women are a minority – I’ve spoken to a handful in 18 months (I’ll speak to 10-20 people a day). Female coders are known in the recruitment industry to be highly “placeable”, with tech companies struggling to address their diversity issues crying out for women’s CVs. I’ve had clients tell me off the record they’ll pay me a higher rate if I can find them a girl. I sometimes think that this positive discrimination is actually a desecration of feminism – treating men as less desirable candidates than women because they are male. Ideally you would not need to bias, of course, towards a gender. I wonder if this kind of positive bias is ever right? In any case, it is a problem caused by an attempt to fix an original problem.

But it does not do much good to hire women if their experience in your company is then negative and discouraging. One female developer (we’ll call her Charlotte) who I met with told me that she once tried an experiment on github, where she submitted a question under the name ‘Charlotte’ and then at a later point the same question under the name ‘Charlie’. The feedback she received from the tech community when they assumed she was a boy was supportive, constructive, and assumed a good level of competence, whereas some of the feedback she received when she posted as ’Charlotte’ was patronising or condescending. With minimal delving online you can find a huge number of accounts by women within the global tech community being made to feel deficient, unwelcome, or objectified by their male (and sometimes  even other female) counterparts – a few interesting ones are here, here and here.

I want to conclude this commentary but I’m not sure there’s a conclusion. This isn’t a problem with an easy solution or a clear end point. The stories of female coders often comment on the many respectful and fantastic male colleagues they have had, and in focussing on the problem perhaps I’ve neglected to point that out until now, but it should be said.

The issue is that until a woman can attend a tech conference and not stick out like a sore thumb, until a woman can start a job as a programmer and not even dream that she might have to face limiting beliefs from her co-workers (male and female), then we should continue to have these conversations openly and not push them to the back of our minds.

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