When I lived in Paris, I taught and tutored English at a technology university. It had the same requirements as other French universities, but the only majors available were computer science related. And because of the location of many tech start-ups, all students had to maintain a certain level of English fluency. That’s where my job came in. My immediate boss went looking for exchange programs from the US, UK and other English-speaking areas of the world. From there he’d recruit as many women as he could for the position of SUSIE, a weird combination of tutor and teacher, responsible for teaching three classes a week on absolutely anything, as long as everyone spoke English the whole time. My roommate and I both did this job – it was easy, and both of us had previous teaching experience. We thought SUSIE stood for something, an acronym of some kind, but we were more interested in planning our epic spring break train trip through three countries than finding out what SUSIE actually stood for. One of my students eventually told me that it stood for nothing. It was just a “generic American girls’ name.” They didn’t call us tutors. They didn’t call us teachers. They called every single English-speaking woman in this position “Susie.” Many of my students, even my repeat ones, didn’t know my real name.
You see, most of the SUSIEs were young, fairly attractive women in their 20s – I’d estimate that about 98% of the SUSIEs were women. And this, my friends, was on purpose. Because most of the students were young college-aged men – I’d estimate about the same, 98%. In the semester I taught there, I remember having four different female students. Four. And I remember my immediate boss confessing that the selection of primarily female tutors was to entice the students to actually attend the English sessions that we taught. I also recall him saying that many of the very few male tutors were listed as female, so that his bosses didn’t ask him any questions about it. He may have been joking, I’m not sure. Either way, these things were said. And when word got around that I was gay, my attendance dropped.
I forget what I was supposed to be teaching, but one of my students told me (out of the blue, with no provocation) that homosexuality was a sin against God and that women belonged in the kitchen. I didn’t care if he was joking, or if he was just saying things to get a rise out of me. I stopped class, made everyone sit in a circle on the floor, and we had a Feminism 101 discussion (not one of the four female students was present in class that day). After talking about the basics of Feminism, I asked, “why do you think there aren’t more women enrolled here?” Most of the men didn’t really know. One said he would love to see more women enrolled here, that he was tired of hanging out with guys all the time. After all, who was he going to date? Another said that the women who were enrolled weren’t quality, and many agreed — they talked about one woman who slept with her project partners. They thought this was a tactic to make the men do more of the work while she skated through. And they all came to the conclusion that more women weren’t enrolled in this technology university because women, as a whole, weren’t interested in technology.
I asked if maybe they thought it had more to do with them discussing a woman’s sexual partners and discounting her ability when she dated anyone else enrolled at the university. Or if maybe it was because they saw the female students as simply someone to date and/or have sex with. Or perhaps there was a problem indicated by a SUSIE’s attendance directly correlating with the perceived likelihood that a student would get in her pants? I asked them to explain why I, or any of the other female SUSIEs, would be working at a technology university if we weren’t interested in technology?
I still could not convince them. At least not all of them. Perhaps one or two left that classroom thinking new thoughts about women in their tech university, but I still considered that class a failure.
Back in the U.S. I was working in a customer-facing IT position. One day my manager, also a woman, pulled me aside. “I have this guy here,” she said. “He stopped in because he saw women working here. And he can’t believe women work with computers and software, he couldn’t believe we hired them.” She paused. “I want you to help him. I don’t know what he wants yet.”
She introduced us – he was an older gentleman. He spent 15 minutes quizzing me. He’d point at me, his eyes narrowed. “Gigabytes,” he’d say. And I’d patiently define the term gigabytes for him. “RAM,” he’d continue. And so I defined that. Finally he was satisfied, “Oooh, you’re good!” he remarked, pleased. I asked him what he needed help with. “Oh no,” he said. “That was all.” He walked out of the store. He’d simply wanted to verify that women knew things about computers via his little verbal quiz.
I asked my manager later why she had done that. She replied that the gentleman needed a lesson not to walk into an establishment and say such dumb stuff about women in technology to women working in technology. I couldn’t argue with that, but I am still not convinced that it made any difference. Nor am I convinced that it’s every woman’s job in the tech industry to prove that she has the right to be there. What that little stunt unequivocally did was waste my time.
Both of these things happened four and five years ago. Our very own Taylor Hatmaker has an incident report that took place just last month. You might have followed the “forced resignation” (what I like to call a firing?) of Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson as people finally caught on to the misogynist tweets he’s been firing off for years. Tweets like “Men have made the world such a safe and comfortable place that women now have the time to bitch about not being considered our equals.” Hatmaker had a brush with what I’ll dub “Feminist Critique As Invitation For Rapey Tweets”:
That certainly isn’t a one-off – remember Adria Richards? At PyCon 2013, she received racist, sexist death threats on Twitter after reporting two developers for inappropriate language and sexist humor that violated the conference code of conduct. Oh, to be a woman on the internet, talking tech – happens all the time.
Which is why it cracks me up that there are people out there who are just now discovering that sexism in the tech industry exists, is a time-suck, is demoralizing, makes no sense and must be dismantled. I feel like this isn’t really a new idea, yet Elissa Shevinsky has just changed her position on the matter. The CEO of Glimpse and occasional contributor for Business Insider went from thinking that the sexism in the tech industry didn’t matter to wanting to take down the brogrammer culture.
The reason: Titstare.
Titstare was a very unfunny joke that made it on to a stage at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Hackathon. According to the New Yorker:
On Sunday, two young men from Australia took the stage to demo their new app at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. They were twenty-eight-year-old Jethro Batts and twenty-four-year-old David Boulton, whose succinct biography on Twitter said, “Staring at your tits.” They were dressed casually—Boulton in a baseball cap, while Batts wore a hoodie, his hair mussed just so. They had some stubble. Their brief presentation took the form of light, cheerful banter: “We’re here to bring you Titstare!” The audience erupted in laughter, as they explained, “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.”
Their timing was well-rehearsed, and they set up another joke: “Why, Dave, why?” asked Batts.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Jethro. It’s science, my good friend. Science. Did you know that looking at breasts is directly linked to a good, healthy heart?” replied Boulton.
The comedy continued. “Dave, I think this is the ‘breast’ hack ever,” said Batts.
Boulton concluded: “It’s the breast, most titillating fun you cans have.”
Did I mention that those two developers are responsible for an Australian website that allows you to send customized, mean/abusive postcards?
And they made this presentation while on stage with the aforementioned Adria Richards?
To TechCrunch’s credit, they responded immediately (same day) with an apology, acknowledging that sexism in the tech industry is a serious problem, and outlining policy changes to ensure they don’t have another Titstare presentation:
Today’s issues resulted from a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear guidelines for these submissions.
Trust us, that changed as soon as we saw what happened at our show. Every presentation is getting a thorough screening from this hackathon onward. Any type of sexism or other discriminatory and/or derogatory speech will not be allowed.
You expect more from us, and we expect more from ourselves. We are sorry.
Which brings me back to Elissa Shevinsky, who hasn’t always thought that sexism in tech was an issue, and who’s been working in and with technology since 2001. You know, originally the idea that someone could go that long in the tech industry without experiencing some crazy, mind-changing sexism seemed funny to me. As in, how-is-that-even-possible-funny, not ha-ha-funny. But as I continued to read Shevinsky’s essay and reflected on my own experiences, I realized that it’s completely possible to so expertly ignore the evidence in front of you until you’re convinced that no problem exists.
Shevinsky acknowledges that fact: “I experienced sexism all the time, but I overlooked it because I was too busy working.”
Next: What happens when we’re all too busy working?
I think if you’re personally benefitting in some way from the system, you are incentivized to overlook its downsides. Elissa’s comment that “they treated me like a bro” gets to the heart of how it’s possible – if you can drink the scotch and hang with the dudes and they accept you, it incentivizes you to “other” the women who are talking about not being accepted because of sexism – because you consider yourself a counterexample. For my part I certainly noticed rampant gender disparity from the beginning, but as a butch lesbian who has been able to “hang with dudes” and get “treated like a bro” myself for as long as I can remember, I do have some sympathy with the wishful blindness that might result from that kind of “exceptional inclusion.”
I can relate. My experiences changed as my presentation changed – with a lack of confidence being replaced by the occasional douchebag who wouldn’t work with me because they couldn’t tell my gender.
The SUSIE gig was the most sexist workplace I’d ever been a part of (still is! Nothing has beat it yet!), but I kept working there for months after that incident. I’m not sure I even told my immediate boss what happened. I was busy, and it was money. And as for my customer-facing gig, well, stuff like that happened frequently. Like the time a male technician had to repeat each sentence I said after I said it to convince someone I was working with that I knew what I was doing. I kid you not, sentence for sentence, the client stared at me like I was speaking martian and then looked to my male colleague to repeat THE EXACT SENTENCE I said, with identical words. “You realize,” he said to my client after about a minute of this, “that she’s a technician and I am not. Right?” This is an experience a few of us tech-nerds have in common – our very own Bren, who works in the video game industry, recounts her experience with what I’ll dub Selective, Gender-Induced Word Distortion:
I’ve had those moments where I’ve a great idea in a meeting, share that idea out loud only to be ignored, then have the dude sitting next to me say the EXACT SAME THING and be applauded for his brilliance.
But what could I do? This was an opinion brought to me by clients and customers, or by students. How could I dismantle this system while I had to still fulfill my job description? When I actually liked teaching, or troubleshooting software and wanted to be where I was? When all I could do was prove that I belonged there doing my job well enough (spoiler alert: with certain people, it is never good enough to prove you belong there) or lecture my students with questionable results? Protesting, quitting – those are actions that I certainly could have taken, but I’m unsure how they would have helped. They may have simply removed one more woman from tech, creating more of the gender disparity that is still an issue today. I still don’t have the answer about what I should have done differently, had I allowed myself to truly recognize in my gut what was going on.
I actually didn’t let myself recognize it until I started working for Autostraddle — it was through the team that runs this website that I saw what a feminism failure my other workplaces had been. I loved being able to say things and actually be taken seriously. I loved being able to have ideas that didn’t need to get repeated by a guy to be heard. My aha moment about working in the tech-o-sphere happened when I was shown what is basically the utopia of work environments.
I asked a few women in the tech industry to describe their aha moments – that moment where they realized that working in the tech industry was harder for them than it was for men. I got a range of responses. Some people, like Cee, said that they never needed an aha moment. That, unlike Shevinsky, they’d always realized exactly what kind of position they were in:
It’s an ongoing thing. I never needed an aha moment because I always knew I had to prove myself everywhere I went. Defcon was just full of a lot of idiotic boys and there was a lot of cock wagging, so that’s really it. But you know, even before I got into computers I was into drum & bass music and DJing and I had to prove the SHIT out of myself there too, so maybe I was used to it.
Dybwad had an aha moment, but it might not be the one you expect:
For me personally my own big “aha” moments have been less about how sexism played a role in shaping my career and more about how it has played a role in making work/life balance more challenging. I’ve worked with many many examples of high-level male executives in the industry who have stay-at-home wives to take care of the kids and the laundry and the grocery shopping who get to drop in for soccer games on weekends and otherwise are afforded the time to focus fire even more on career. It’s not like I want that model for my own life, but it does strike me that I am extremely unlikely to even run into that choice vs. the average male.
Our own SJ Sindu, a programmer and maker of websites since Windows 3.1, did have an aha moment relating to how sexism played a role in shaping her career:
A few years ago I worked for this company where I was the only female employee. We were geographically dispersed, and teams would travel together to the client. I was the only female on my team, and the client didn’t have any female employees either. While I recognized this in my head, I had no real problem with it. I was one of the guys. I drank with them, ate with them, talked sports with them, talked girls with them. It was great, and they were careful not to say anything misogynist toward me. But one night we drank into the wee hours of the morning. My boss, drunk to high heaven, looked at me, and told me that to keep being good at my job, I had to “keep being sexy.” If ever I had an aha moment, that was it.
The biggest problem I see with the tech world is that it’s made and marketed itself as the playground for teenage boys who don’t want to grow up. The dress code is casual, employee interaction is relaxed and some tech companies even cater to adults as if they’re grown children (laundry facilities onsite, napping areas, etc.). Professionalization, including cultural and gender sensitivity, is seen as a killjoy. I don’t know how to change that perception, but to me it’s the root cause of the tech industry digging its heels and refusing to progress.
In fact, that’s exactly what’s going on right now – PyCon’s 2013 Code of Conduct for instance? Even putting that Code of Conduct in place resulted in pushback from the community, who believed that instituting such regulation would morph the conference into “NoFunPyCon.” The problem is, some of those elements of a relaxed atmosphere are great – casual dress code, the ability to write “cool beans” in your presentations. Heck, who doesn’t want a napping area at work? I submit that none of us don’t want that. The trick going forward is to separate the fun parts of technology culture from the not-so-fun parts that are misogynistic and terrible.
I think TechCrunch did and will continue to do a really good job – when people like the CEOs of TechCrunch put their foot down about misogynistic joke presentations and make real policy changes, they actually do change the landscape of the tech industry and we get closer to figuring out how to have a laid-back culture that’s inclusive. Though Shevinsky speaks in her essay about making the environment more hospitable for women, I’d argue that making visible changes to the way women are treated in the tech-o-sphere makes the working environment more hospitable for everyone, regardless of gender identity.
Think about it. Saying things twice: definitely a waste of time, for the client and for me and for the person who had to repeat everything I said. Quizzing someone who could actually be fixing some software: wow, that’s a giant waste of time. Hour-long discussion instead of the real lesson plan: huge f*cking waste of time. Anything called Titstare presented or existing anywhere: probably the biggest waste of time and resources ever, especially since it pulled attention from apps and technology that were actually useful, functioning things. Consider what may have come out of refocusing all this energy on we spent on Titstare instead on SuperFunKidTime, a hack presented at Disrupt by a nine-year-old-girl. It’s a web-tool for arranging playdates, invented and co-programmed by Alexandra Jordan. She talks a bit about getting kids out from in front of video games and into the social sphere, a real problem that she can solve. For all of kid-kind, she says. That’s an app that helps everyone who is a kid or parents a kid. Making sure Alexandra Jordan has the tools she needs to continue programming in an environment that takes her seriously as she grows up means that she, and young women like her, will solve problems that everyone has. That’s not something just for women.
Discounting half of the planet based on gender in any field will limit the amount ideas and executions possible. It could halve our progress, make things take twice as long – with half as many brains being hired, trained and taken seriously, we may not be recognizing solutions that would otherwise be discovered and implemented. With women being discounted, we may not even be aware of a problem that needs solving. Much like the Titstare guys weren’t aware of their pending embarrassment – getting a new, female perspective on their joke may have brought to light their misogyny problem, and they may have instead focused their energies on hacking a solution to that.
Women leaving the tech, science, and engineering industries also costs us all money. As published by the MIT Technology Review:
The attrition of women from jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a decades-old problem. Analyses such as the 1999 Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT have consistently found that female scientists have lower salaries, smaller lab spaces, and less access to mentors and professional networks than their male counterparts, which puts them at a disadvantage in the race for grants, publications, patents, tenure, and promotions. Adding children to the picture makes it even harder for women to compete. The result is a system that all but forces women out of science careers.
The problem may be old, but it can no longer be ignored. An estimated 3,000 PhD-trained women opt out of the scientific workforce every year. At that rate, attrition isn’t just a feminist issue: it costs the United States more than a billion dollars a year and threatens our economic competitiveness.
Dybwad also has a few resources to aid in proving that keeping women marginalized in the tech industry hurts everyone:
Richard Branson wrote a good piece on this I read recently – if studies show that 70% of household purchasing decisions are being made by women, what kind of business sense does it make to keep trying to sell all of these advices and services designed and engineered primarily by men? Without getting too far down the road of trying to essentialize about the way women think, the greater fact is that a broad diversity of thought, experience, and perspective is what makes great products and builds great companies. There’s all kinds of evidence to support this – the economy is in a very challenging place and competition in the tech industry is extremely fierce, and the best way to achieve breakthrough innovation and success is through fostering as much diversity as possible and avoiding the very kind of insular, homogenous brogrammer culture that pervades the startup world.
So I would take Shevinsky’s argument even further than she does: disrupting the sexist brogrammer culture doesn’t just help women in the tech industry. It helps everyone, in and out of the tech industry. It looks like the time is now for a larger discussion about brogrammer culture and its need for major overhaul. But how? How do we even begin to do this? This article posted by Rikki Endsley on the USENIX blog seems to have a few good ideas, because as evidenced by my university experience, this attitude starts well before university. Endsley details the saga of her brilliant daughter getting harassed by the boys in her high school programming class (a class where she was the only young woman):
Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC ’12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous
menboys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.
Stopping harassment in high school computer science and programming classes is probably a good place to start (actually, halting harassment high school is pretty much a wonderful idea?).
Though that article is wonderful/also rage inducing, Cee Webster thinks that Endsley should consider doing more than writing an email:
I read that, and my initial response was YES fuck that. But then I thought about it for a minute. And I thought that mother needs to do more than just write an email. I’m not sure if she did, but she needs to go in and talk to [that] teacher and also give her daughter the tools to fight back.
Dybwad had thoughts on solving these issues going forward as well, at a post-school, post-university level:
A few insightful people have already said this so I’m just borrowing from them, but more men in positions of leadership need to be proactive about mentoring women. I’ve experienced the great power of mentorship in my own career and have been fortunate enough to have some very excellent and mindful mentors of different genders, but because of the current gender striation in the industry we shouldn’t be expecting just the women at the top to be “giving back” and shouldering the burden of lifting up a disproportionate number of female early-career employees – more C- and VP-level men should avoid shying away from crossing the gender line for mentorship purposes.
Structurally another thing that would really benefit everyone, but women in particular, is more flexible working conditions, working hours, and working locations. Even in the supposed age of the telecommuter we’re still very fixated on this idea of a 9-5 “have your butt in a seat” definition of what work is supposed to be, and it doesn’t really match up with the needs of modern business and the challenges we face both economically and societally. We need to shift to a model where we’re measuring actual output and real effectiveness vs. punching time cards and watching clocks and psychologically docking women credibility points for leaving the office early to take the kids to band practice or working from home with a sick child.
It’s time for a larger conversation on solutions, as well as problems. Titstare pointed out the problem if you hadn’t noticed it before. So what’s next? Let’s talk about it.