we don’t swim in your toilet
I think a lot of people read Lea Verou’s recent blog post, “On Women In Tech”. In it, she explains her position that women in tech (WiT) groups do more harm than good. Julie Ann Hovrath, a dev at GitHub who also organizes WiT groups, wrote an excellent response that addresses Ms. Verou’s points on the subject perfectly (at least as far as I’m concerned).
There’s something that’s been bugging me from the original post that I wanted to delve into more deeply, though. Ms. Verou is not the first person I’ve heard mention it, but I’ve yet to hear a good response to it. I’m not sure I even know myself what the correct response is. Feel free to chime in below if you think you’ve got one.
Toward the end of her post, Ms. Verou says:
However, I can’t say that I’ve experienced more sexism in tech than outside the industry. Quite the contrary. Engineers (yes, including male ones) are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met. It’s not our industry that has a sexism problem, our society has a sexism problem.
I’ve heard this said a lot of different ways, but all of them can be generally paraphrased as, “What people call sexism in tech is laughable; every other industry is a zillion times worse.” I want to both concede that, and try to explain how I feel that makes WiT groups and the issue of sexism in our industry even more important.
the internet is different
The internet began as, and a remains, a place where anonymity is a completely valid choice. Those of us who work on the internet have probably moved toward using our real names and photos for professional reasons, but Tumblr is still full of kids hiding happily behind pseudonyms, revealing their ideas and interests but not necessarily their identities. As people who work on the internet, we tend to lump ourselves in with other STEM professions, but in the context of the WiT discussion, I think you have to acknowledge that difference. Those other scientists and engineers still operate mostly in person. Like the rest of the world, they may use the internet as a communication tool, but they have long histories of their identities being tied to their work. Not so with those of us who live and work primarily online.
Existing in a place whose default is anonymity creates an expectation that your work and ideas will be all that matters. I think that is probably very attractive to people who identify as women, particularly right now as societies all over the world wrestle with the idea that women are human beings, and the misogynistic backlash seems to be coming to a head. You don’t have to click many links on twitter to find politicians and pundits vilifying women for rape, taking away their reproductive rights, and attacking them for their successes. Even when it comes to light stuff like TV or pop videos, we’re inundated with depictions of women as objects and the idea that a woman’s worth is a measure of her attractiveness. The flipside is that a woman who is not young, thin, white, beautiful, and submissive is worthless. Does being anonymous sound better than being worthless? Fucking A it does.
Admittedly it’s a big jump. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable one, though. The anonymity of the internet offers a way out of that bullshit. The industry that builds the internet promises a world where your looks and social skills don’t matter as long as you can do your job well. This is different than other industries that call themselves meritocratic; we work in a place where the existing infrastructure actually supports the possibility that no one need ever see your face, hear your voice, or know a goddamned thing about you beyond what your code is like.
I’m not saying women enter this industry thinking, “Thank god, a place where I don’t have to be a sex object and can just do my work and collect a paycheck.” What I’m saying is that, ironically, when women first become interested in the field it might seem more accessible than others. Maybe not consciously, but I can’t help but wonder if it might be a factor in the appeal. Would you expect to have more pull requests accepted after whitening your teeth or losing five pounds? Of course not!
but it doesn’t actually work that way
Turns out that, for no reason anyone can explain, once we get out from behind our computers and go to offices or conferences our industry does work exactly like any other in a comparable income tier. Experts are overwhelmingly white and male. Women get further if they’re thin and attractive. Across all genders, melanin is in short fucking supply.
We are both a very young industry and an industry where no bullshit arguments about biological determinants of physical strength or nurturing ability have even the most specious relevance. We’re also an industry that needs to increase its numbers to meet demand. WiT groups exist not because our industry is so much worse off, but because our industry is the perfect place to do much better. We can be a place where only ideas matter, and where backward notions about whose ideas matter get thrown out the window. The sexism in society used as an argument that we should just accept the sexism in technology is the thing that’s backed women into a corner, and that corner is here, and speaking for myself, fucked if I’m not going to fight to hold onto that tiny piece of property.
The thing in Ms. Hovrath’s post that resonated with me most was this:
Over the years I’ve learned that the best way to make sure your experience doesn’t go to waste is to invest it in the people around you. And for me, this is what I see Women in Tech initiatives doing. I see them building communities and support systems around the collective experience of other women in our industry.
Most women in this industry have had to work damn hard to succeed and be taken seriously. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but if you stick around long enough, you notice that some people don’t have to. They are generally not women. It might be aggravating to realize more is expected of you, and will continue to be expected of you, but fuck it. What else are you going to do? Give up? Switch to a different job where as early as your thirties you won’t be attractive enough to get in the door (this fucking happens)? Or still in your twenties and too attractive to be taken seriously in a job your experience qualifies you for? Nope and nope. The most reasonable course of action is to stick it out.
The great thing about the internet is that it doesn’t belong to anybody. This implementation can trace its roots back to the Pentagon, yet it’s now used as a vehicle for indictment of the military-industrial complex and Edward Snowden fanfic. More than perhaps any other industry, women don’t have to be given permission to be here. The internet is ours as much as anyone else’s. And I think at some level that’s recognized and so the natural reaction to the intrusion of played-out manifestations of patriarchy into our anonymous marketplace of ideas is to call bullshit. Calling bullshit is most effective when you’re not the only person yelling.
Sexism is not a natural part of this industry. Of some of the people in it? Fine. But not of the way the industry actually functions. It had to be added. Having been added, like a breast implant that’s exploded and made a toxic mess, it can be removed, and should. The sexism of society isn’t an excuse for us to respect ideas less, or to elevate individuals above contributions. Forcing it into a young industry because it’s so frighteningly popular outside of it drags our industry down, distracts us, and yes, excludes bright minds.
Your neighbors may shit in their pool. They may not even be aware that they’re doing it. They might think shit is just a natural consequence of having a pool. They may hop the fence at night and shit in your pool, oblivious as they are to the difference between shit and not-shit. That doesn’t mean you give up and start shitting in your pool, too. You clean it up (even though it’s not your mess) and you go back to enjoying swimming in a nice sanitary place where poops don’t hit you in the face when you come up from underwater. You invite your friends over, because swimming in a nice clean pool is more fun for everyone, and it’s more fun for you if you’re not swimming alone. As a result, if your friends decide to dig pools in their backyards, they know shit and pools are not irrevocably linked and they work to keep theirs clean. Slowly, you all hope, everyone will see how much nicer that makes swimming.
The rest of the world may still be shitting in their pools, but that doesn’t mean we have to.