As commentary on the latest brouhaha in IT over sexism has gotten the notice of the New Yorker, it strikes me how we’re at an interesting point in the IT industry. It has become axiomatic that (high) technology is everywhere these days. It is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and increasingly invisible (both of which are good things in my book). So it seems to me that the adolescent, socially incapable stereotype of the computer nerd can no longer be safely hidden away in the basement. As technology becomes more and more a part of the social fabric, so do those who make that fabric capable. We are no longer the inconspicuous mice protruding in on the reality of the greater world.
As such, it is becoming increasingly important for us to grow out of our adolescence. Many of us have been told that we are “smart” (because we understand and work with technology). We have been told in stories many times that all those popular, socially capable kids who picked on us during our school years will be sorry, not because we are a threat as such, but because we will, through our intellectual pursuits in practical and productive sciences, be the ones making the big bucks. We are Bill Gates. We are Steve Jobs. We are Steve “The Woz” Wozniak, to name a few of the geek-turned-billionaire heroes.
Part of that narrative is that we can be successful without needing to adhere to normal social rules. We don’t have to strive to be popular, friendly, or even socially conversant at all, because we can still be successful without that, and goshdarnit, we are smarter than all of those popular people anyways! “Idiots! Gah!”
So, many tech heads relish that narrative, because it reinforces what we value about ourselves (that we are so much smarter than everyone else), while freeing us from all that troublesome behaving like civilized people in a civilized society–stuff we were never good at anyways, as was pointed out to us painfully while growing up.
And embracing that narrative has mostly worked, for a time. Yes, some of us have to play nice in the highly regulated corporate bubbles we work in, but in as much as we can isolate ourselves from all that, we do. And often, the “business” wants to isolate us, too. After all, they don’t want us to embarrass them in front of customers. At least most of us in corporate environments have to learn some basics on how to play nice, or we won’t survive. It may gall us, but we swallow it for practical reasons.
On the other hand, as far as the stereotype goes, the open source community has more factors going against it, especially certain strains of ideology within it. It collects anti-establishment mindsets together and gives them a sense of camaraderie when otherwise most would be loners, socially speaking. The internet has made it possible to more or less live in something like a virtual world (more or less literally depending on the person). These mostly online communities are a major echo chamber where members are safely isolated from the rest of the world. They don’t even have to learn to pretend to play nice in a corporate environment, and so it is no surprise that most of the public snafus about sexism show up at conferences loaded with these types, and not in the more corporate/commercial conferences run by the big companies. Plus, it doesn’t help that they are mostly young, and mostly single.
But as I said before, this bullshit has to stop. It is interesting, some of the comments I got in response to that post. One person said he didn’t see what all the fuss is about–there are laws against sexism in the workplace, as if that settles it, and completely ignoring all the evidence to the contrary that these laws do not in fact settle it. This is a cultural issue. And more to the point, when there is a culture in which anti-establishment bias is a major undercurrent, such laws are largely irrelevant. And this is what we’re seeing here–the IT culture, the IT narrative is perpetuating sexism, in forms that have been driven out of other sector’s work cultures for decades.
I can’t tell you the number of passing comments I’ve heard over the years–and this mostly amongst the corporate and indie consultant IT crowd, the ones who should know better–that insinuate or right out claim that women are just not suited to IT work, that they don’t have the brain for it, that they aren’t smart enough for it. Wow. Just wow. Talk about a throwback. I mean, nobody ever said that about women in other industries either, right? Somehow IT is special, right?
I tell you, guys, as a relatively successful person who has been in IT for a good long while, this is simpleminded, naive, utter hogwash. It is nonsense. It is a heinous lie. It is begging the question to the nth degree. The stupidity of the reasoning is so obvious: 1) There are very few women in IT. 2) Therefore, women are not capable in IT. This is not a rational argument. It is bald-faced, bigoted prejudice. It’s made worse because the actual (usually unsaid) reasoning for guys who think along these lines is the reverse: 1) Women are not as smart as men. 2) Therefore, women don’t belong in IT, and oh look, they aren’t much. (Thus confirming my prejudice.)
It never crosses such neanderthals’ minds that maybe there are other factors at play here. Because the other things at play are social factors, which are, as a rule, foreign and incomprehensible to them. When society portrays IT professionals as 1) mostly male and 2) mostly socially inept, how is that an attractive role for women to aspire to? Especially when the women who are in IT are also typically portrayed as unattractive and socially inept as well?
Further, guys in our society can and do have their mediocre to poor looks and lack of social skills fairly easily overlooked. This is far less so for women because of many factors, not the least of which is that, especially in IT, socially inept males are in positions of authority and positioned to do the hiring most of the time. The bar is de facto higher for women because not only do they have to show–more so than their male counterparts–that they are capable (in order to counteract the prejudice mentioned above), they also have to fight against these males’ judging them by their looks, which doesn’t even come into the equation when they are hiring men. Maybe their looks work in their favor, maybe not, but in a supposed meritocracy, it shouldn’t come into the picture at all, and in any case, it is simply unjust.
Of course, these men in IT never experience this, so they can’t relate, and due to their extraordinarily low aptitude for empathy, they outright deny such factors exist and instead blindly assert that women just don’t measure up. As I said–hogwash. And this is just the basic entry level for women. As a rule, they have to 1) go against society’s expectations to aspire to IT jobs, 2) break into it despite the prejudices against them, and 3) struggle harder to receive equal treatment and respect (and all that entails, pay being just one of the factors). “Nah.. they’re not in IT just because they can’t hack it.” Riiiight…
In the (figuratively) smoke-filled rooms of the men’s only club of IT, women are treated as something odd. If they are perceived to not be attractive, they are again perceived to be less intelligent by these men and openly mocked amongst their peers. If the women who break into IT are perceived as attractive, then you get all the adolescent foolishness we have seen perpetrated in the public spats, and more. The women who speak up tell us that this kind of brutish, rutting behavior is not unusual; it is rather the norm.
Maybe the behavior only openly happens away from the regulated corporate environments (i.e., away from where such men cower in fear from legal reprisals and/or the loss of a job), so that’s why we see it more at conferences, mailing lists, anonymous comments on blogs, etc. Yet it remains that there is tons of evidence like this to show that such behavior is not rare, isolated, or unusual. So there’s no reason to doubt it when women say they experience it. It is nothing less than a hostile professional environment–yet another reason women are dissuaded from entering IT and continuing on with it, much less putting themselves out there in public ways to become special targets of these puerile brutes.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of mature men in IT as well, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with. And there are certainly degrees of this. I am not condemning all guys in IT by any means; just the ones whose behavior is reflected in what I am writing about, the ones who cause and perpetuate all this garbage.
Remarkably, even some otherwise enlightened guys I know still insist that it is somehow the women who are at fault, because they dress so provocatively, or whatever. I am loth to touch that with a ten-foot pole, but I’ll dip my toe in. Yes, we guys (especially in our habitual, hypersexualized popular culture) are easily stimulated by the female form. It’s just a physiological fact. No two ways around it. On the other hand, we don’t have to act on that stimulation. We restrain all sorts of biological impulses for the good of civilization, our own good, and the good of those we care about, if for no other higher reasons. We can help it; we can be “the bigger person” in this matter. We need to be the bigger person, in fact.
As another example, many guys will often talk about the need to get more good-looking women into the workplace. And yet when the women show up on the scene, the guys readily make salacious comments behind their backs (again, in the regulated environments, this behavior must be hidden). Some of this is normal and natural, but it is plainly counterproductive to the goal–treating women as sexual objects is no way to make them feel welcome, equal, nor respected, so why should they hang around? Yet another reason for them to not be prevalent in IT that has nothing to do with their intellectual capacity for the job…
Now I don’t think every flippant comment must be loudly condemned. Even for guys who try to be sensitive to this issue, things will slip out; it is hard to work against the culture, but that doesn’t mean the extreme opposite is therefore the way. It doesn’t mean that mindlessly perpetuating an adolescent professional atmosphere is okay; it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to be better. Women don’t need to be treated with kid gloves–they are adults and should be treated that way. The problem is, though, if you don’t have much in the way of social skills, you won’t readily see the subtle cues that women give when they are uncomfortable about these things. And even if you do have social skills, it is a well-known fact that, for men, women are a mystery. So it’s better to be more sensitive on this point than to assume that a little backslapping and jovial winking will make sexual objectification all okay. And given our poor track record in IT, we have extra reason to try to make up ground on this point.
Lastly, as I said in my previous post on sexism in IT, this culture change has to come from the inside. It is ultimately about maturing past puberty. It’s about becoming men and treating women with respect. It is about encouraging others to do likewise. That’s a good first step.
We also have to recognize and admit the problem exists. The idea that ours is an industry of pure meritocracy where women get fair and equal treatment is a fairy tale. Certainly, we do appreciate good work on its merits (however arbitrary and subjective our criteria may be), but it is just sheer ignorance and wishful thinking to pretend that is all you need to succeed and thrive in our industry, even for men, much less for women who face all these other obstacles.
Society is changing. Tech is becoming more ubiquitous. Pretending we live in some kind of social bubble where it is safe (much less morally acceptable) to denigrate women on the basis that they are women is not going to fly. If nothing else, the industry needs more good people, regardless of their private bits. Keeping it nearly all male is just not tenable, nor is it good.
I am no advocate for some kind of formal, enforced affirmative action for women. I am certainly no advocate for more laws and regulations on the matter. On the contrary, I am an advocate for all of us to work towards changing this unacceptable culture in whatever way we can–each of us, as a mature, responsible adult, can make a positive impact. I am an advocate for us to not hide behind corporate regulations as if they suffice to address the problem. I am an advocate for doing what is right, regardless of whether or not there are consequences for you personally if you don’t.
It’s really quite simple: It’s time to grow up. It’s time for us to lose the backwards culture and the stereotype. If you’re truly good at what you do, you have nothing to worry about.
P.S. In commenting on this, one of my female friends who works in IT had this advice to offer: “Bottom line: If you wouldn’t talk that way around your wife, daughters, or own mother, DON’T talk that way with your chick coworkers.” Good, wise, and practical advice. Thanks!