Do Not Try to Tell Me Sexism in Tech is Exaggerated

Wednesday, April 08, 2015 9:00 AM

According to a report by the law firm Fenwick and West, women occupy a slim 11 per cent of executive positions in Silicon Valley.

According to a report by the law firm Fenwick and West, women occupy a slim 11 per cent of executive positions in Silicon Valley.

However people want to spin it, and whomever they want to blame, the fact remains: gender discrimination in the tech industry is here, it's horrible, and it's truly a labyrinth to try and correct.

One of media’s most prominent and captivating conversations right now revolves around sexism in the tech industry. Most notably, the attention that Ellen Pao’s (interim CEO at web giant Reddit) case against her former employer Kleiner Perkins - whom she sued for various accounts of gender discrimination - has garnered. Following the sector’s rapid growth in wealth and influence over the past decade, diversity in tech has suddenly become one of progressive activists’ chief concerns. It seems like everyone has a really strong opinion about the issue - either it’s a very real presence that needs to be dealt with immediately, it’s workplace-fostered by the over-analyzation of micro-aggressions, or it doesn’t exist at all. However people want to spin it, and whomever they want to blame, the fact remains: gender discrimination in the tech industry is here, it’s horrible, and it’s truly a labyrinth to try and correct.

Judging by the endless scroll of anonymous internet commentators who post on virtually every tech-sexism related article, a hate-filled patriarchal mindset is alive and well - and members would love nothing more than for the tech industry to revert back to a 1950s era, gender-based system where women are silent homemakers and men are the rulers of all things. It’s (almost) humorously ironic that comments such as: “Toughen up or GTFO. Expect an easy ride in the most cut-throat competitive sector? Bad luck, buttercup,” “Rarely have I met a female who could excel at anything more than routine tasks in the field,” and, “Any employer who still hires women deserves to be sued,” are being posted under articles touting the over-dramatization of sexism and representation. The humour of this irony is lost, however, when you realize that the people who are posting these comments are implementing these morals into their very own, very real workplaces.

To give a very condensed highlight reel of some of what’s been going on this past year alone:

  • April 2014 - RadiumOne’s chief executive, Gurbaksh Chahal, accepts a plea bargain on battery and domestic violence charges. He is fired, but the board initially wanted to keep him.
  • May 2014 - Snapchat’s chief executive Evan Spiegel has e-mails leaked between him and his fraternity brothers discussing acts such as urinating on women, using cocaine, engaging in sexual activity with intoxicated “sororisluts”, and shooting lasers at “fat chicks”.
  • July 2014 - Former marketing VP Whitney Wolfe sues Tinder for sexual harassment and discrimination. Allegations included CEO Sean Rad and CMO Justin Mateen removing her title as co-founder because of her gender, and public insults from Mateen including calling her a whore at a company party.
  • February 2015 - Chia Hong sues Anil Wilson, director of finance and infrastructure tools at Facebook - as well as a number of other unnamed male employees. Wilson is accused of routinely discriminating against Hong, asking her to serve drinks to male employees and telling her she should stay at home and watch her kids (there’s such a thing as too much Mad Men, Wilson).
  • March 2015 - Tina Huang files a class action suit against her former employer Twitter in San Francisco. Huang says she was overlooked for promotion because of her gender, and then ultimately fired when she complained.
  • March 2015 - Google executive Eric Schmidt causes a social media storm by continually interrupting and talking over co-panelist Megan Smith (the US's Chief Technologist and Schmidt's former colleague) at a SXSW conference on gender diversity in the technology industry - the irony never ends!

Even with the amount of women coming forward with allegations, they’re still often portrayed as being the bad guy, or more appropriately, the bitch. The onus is usually placed on the accuser to legitimize her case, rather than on the accused to amend things. These suits cast a harsh light on the lack of top female executives in the technology industry. According to a report by the law firm Fenwick and West, women occupy a slim 11 per cent of executive positions in Silicon Valley. This total lack of representation is further mirrored at popular tech conferences where a published ‘Code of Conduct’ has become necessary, reminding attendees to be respectful and accommodating to women.

The sheer number of allegations and instances that have come to light make it hard for anyone to rebut that a huge imbalance of gender-based power has been being swept under the rug in tech for a long time. Now that women are taking appropriate legal action - and getting long overdue media attention for it - will they be pushed further out of tech, or serve as a catalyst for much needed change?

The reasons given for this gender disparity vary depending on who you talk to. Is schooling to blame? The job market? The office environment? What seems to be the most logical explanation is to go to the root of the problem, where disparity originates: college classrooms.

According to an article written by TechGirlz’s founder Tracey Welson-Rossman, “girls think computer careers are boring, the media portrays techies as nerds and geeks, schools offer few programming or tech classes, and parents do not fully understand all the choices that tech offers for careers”. Though the first case of major gender misrepresentation is seen in the classroom, it is then normalized from there on: this male-dominated culture carries through classrooms to hiring practices and office politics (in the US women currently earn only 18 percent of computer science degrees, which lines up almost exactly with their representation in the US tech workforce). Founders of startups, for example, are nearly all men – this is a problem when they statistically hire exclusively through their personal networks. Alongside this, women who do enter the industry are getting pushed out, for as a culture we reward females for modesty and penalize them for what might be seen as “aggressive” behaviour. This push towards getting girls into the tech industry, then, will most definitely not succeed unless cultural changes are also implemented. The Harvard Business Review said it best: “40 years of social science have taught us that such biases will be perpetuated unless they’re intentionally interrupted”.

Of course, there’s a bunch of backlash to the recommendation of becoming more culturally aware of our actions and words. The most sigh-worthy is where we all become ‘too conscious’ and suddenly everyone is a racist-sexist-hillbilly, everything we say is taken the wrong way, and everyone lives in constant fear of being called out. To this, I say: grow up. Small changes make a huge difference. At Google, for instance, a number of conference rooms, which have traditionally been named after scientists, were renamed after women scientists to balance out gender representation.

It’s clear that change needs to be addressed and advocated for on all levels of the tech industry. Without more girls pursuing computer science related interests, we can’t hope to increase their representation in the workforce. Additionally, we can’t hope to keep women in the workforce if female tech culture doesn’t change dramatically (which leads into millions of other gender equality issues and - a labyrinth indeed). What shouldn’t be overlooked are the advancements that are already happening - a crucial movement gaining more traction everyday. Look to the Ada Initiative, Women & Tech, Girl Develop It, and supermodel Karlie Kloss for big time change makers who are making progress happen. When addressing the issue of sexism in tech at a recent conference for women in Silicon Valley, the perpetually on-point Hillary Clinton - in the tech-equality quote of the century - said this:

We can literally count on one hand the number of women who have actually been able to come here and turn their dreams into billion-dollar businesses. We’re going backward in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward.

Bridget VanWart

Bridget VanWart

Bridget VanWart is Div1's newest addition, joining the team after graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of New Brunswick. When she's not serving as Div1's client liaison and administrative assistant, she can be found Instagramming pretty things she stumbles upon around the city.

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