A Response To The Responses To My Sexism in Tech Primer
On Wednesday, .net Magazine published my article A Primer on sexism in the tech industry. While I am the author, the time and effort that culminated into this article was hardly just my own. But the words of the article are mine, and so too the responsibility for any errors or mistakes.
Which brings me to the responses to my article. The post that caused a huge amount of discussion is Laura Sanders’ response, A primer on sexism in the tech industry – by an actual girl. The title itself is a good start.
I am sympathetic to the frustration that a woman—any woman—can have when seeing a man—any man—talk about the topic of sexism (or women’s health, etc). It can be incredibly difficult for a man to weigh in on this topic in a way that is both inclusive and productive, and not coming off as condescending. That said, while a woman’s lived experiences inherently weighs more heavily on these matters than a man’s point of view, our respective genders alone and by themselves should not be what makes either of us right or wrong. To discount one opinion against the other purely because of gender is, of course, sexist (ironically in this case).
Laura’s post title set a sensationalist tone for the entire conversation that followed, which I find regrettable—all the more so since she accuses me of being sensationalist in it. More on that in a bit.
My article is, as the title makes clear, a primer on the topic. Meaning, it is an introduction to a subject of study. It makes it clear from the start that it is not a particularly in-depth examination of subtle issues; in fact, its very purpose is to lay some necessary ground work for these in-depth examinations to follow. Necessary, because it’s no good talking about complex subtleties and nuances if the other side of the debate confuses linguistic terms such as privilege, meritocracies, rape culture, discrimination and prejudice.
Which is why I wanted to write this particular article for a publication like .net: so many people in our industry do conflate those terms. A lot. This is proven by various comments to both my and Laura’s articles. And it forces us to explain these terms over and over again, which certainly does not work on a medium like Twitter.
Laura does offer some good criticism in her post. For instance, that I used too many broad strokes in certain assessments. I fully concede this mistake: I wrote “women” or “men” in a number of cases where I should have been explicit—rather than leave it to the interpretation of the reader—that I was talking about certain subsets of people I was referring to. The idea that I, as an individual, could think to speak on behalf of all 3.6 billion women on the planet is so preposterous to me, that it just didn’t occur to me that others—who perhaps don’t know a thing about me—might interpret my words that way, simply because I wasn’t explicit about what I meant. And with a hyper-sensitive (and complex) subject like this, such an oversight is a serious mistake. I also apologize to those who felt I came across as speaking on behalf of women.
That said, there are a couple of things in Laura’s post I have to take issue with:
He makes an awful lot of assumptions about women, which in my case at least, are completely untrue.
If you read my article in anything but a printed edition, you cannot not notice the 30 or so links it is riddled with. These are references. Many of these are the results of comprehensive scientific and sociological studies backing up the points the article makes. These are the accounts of thousands of women reporting their lived experiences in aggregate. These are not “assumptions.”
The fact that the lived experiences of Laura and the women who chimed in in agreement do not contain sexism, does not in any way disprove the many lived experiences of other women who have encountered sexism. However, I can understand why they would feel defensive about it—I have no doubt that any of us would, when we feel that other people are making assumptions about us.
Now, I am so happy that we have a dozen or more women coming out to say they have never experienced serious sexism in their careers, and that they don’t worry about rape threats in their daily lives. Unfortunately, that is not the case for every woman in our industry, or even just the majority of women in our industry (see below).
In fact, if we’re being all anecdotal, I can list at least half a dozen women who have told me in confidence over the past year that they quietly quit their jobs due to the sexist culture at their offices. Read that again: quit their jobs. Due to sexist harassment and culture*. From the amount of stories that women tell me, I find it downright shameful for our industry as a whole that this is a regular occurrence.
But one anecdote does not cancel out another, as both of these lived experiences are real and thus coexist. But in addition, I want to point to the already-referenced scientific evidence that 52% of women leave the STEM industries citing, as one of the primary reasons for leaving, “a hostile, macho culture.”
More importantly, it’s not about being right so much as it is about acknowledging, identifying, and working to fix the problems in our industry. People going around saying “there is no problem with sexism in tech!” based solely on them personally not having experienced or observed it, are actually contributing to the problem. Because it means that rather than discussing solutions on how to address this dramatic and obvious gender imbalance our industry suffers from, we’re forced to first convince these people that this very real problem is, in fact, a real problem. People saying “women are just not interested in tech” when in India (the second-largest population in the world) women achieved 55% of bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science, are similarly drawing conclusions based on personal observation rather than statistical facts. (Aside: this gets us in the more in-depth territory of societal influences steering and dictating our interests)
Laura also claims that my article suggests that these are problems that every woman in tech faces, without citing whatever part of my article supposedly says this. Presumably, she is referring this this section:
our world has a history, spanning thousands of years, of violence as a means to silence and control women. This is simply not the case for men, and never has been. Every woman carries that historical weight with her wherever she goes, whereas very few men even have an understanding of how heavy that weight is.
To which I cite from this excellent response by “Cushman” on Hacker News:
That is simply true, as every African American carries the legacy of chattel slavery anywhere they go. Does this mean every black man is constantly afraid he’ll be beaten up and arrested? Of course not. But ignoring that legacy will leave you profoundly confused on the subject of race relations. […] Does that mean “every woman fears being raped all day every day”? Stop talking like that. You know what it means.
Lastly, Laura wonders what rape culture has to do with sexism, to which I will simply say: a lot.
Overall, I’m disappointed that her post takes my handful of broad strokes, and sensationalizes each and every one of them to an extreme that was never stated nor even suggested in the article. And why? Because she “was enraged” by my attempt to simply offer some light on an incredibly complex subject that many people confuse and/or don’t understand fully, but feel strongly about because they care about our industry. Just like I do.
However, I should point out that I am even more so disappointed in myself, for not having articulated my points well enough that someone like Laura got enraged reading something which, in the end, I only wrote to attempt to help the people in this industry and make things better, rather than tear anyone down.
But “Cushman” (like several others) did capture what the primer was all about, paraphrasing—accurately—on my behalf: “I’m concerned about the gender gap in tech. I think it’s an important thing for us to be talking about.”
Also, to address those who have assumed and accused me of being a “trend whore” who just wanted to write a piece to get my name out: really? Really? Really? (Here are three more articles I could’ve linked to)
I care about our industry, as both a profession and a community. It’s why I try to make it better as best as I can, whether it’s via providing developers with better tools, speaking at conferences, or by discussing a problem that is systemic, though thankfully not so dramatic that we cannot find people who do not suffer the problem.
But again, I will readily admit that I was not specific enough about some of my explanations, and that it was a mistake to do so for such a sensitive topic. I welcome constructive criticism of flaws in my articles, so that I may better help address the issues we are all facing together, whether we acknowledge that or not.
The primer builds on and references huge amounts of actual scientific and sociological research, many fantastic (more specific) articles (by women), and is informed indirectly by the numerous women in tech who have given me a much greater understanding of the issues around sexism in society, as well as a greater appreciation for the struggles and disadvantages that many minorities have to work to overcome in their lives.
* And for those who are getting ready to jump in with a “she should’ve just gone to HR!”: any time a member of a minority brings up a concern of such nature, our human resources and legal systems have a tendency to fail them. Take the case of Ellen Pao, or the Kixeye fiasco. Or just look at a very recent example.
Update: Be sure to read Kathy Sierra’s comment to Laura’s post, as well.