Jump to Navigation

Too few women in tech? Blame sexism.

Too few women in tech? Blame sexism.

Michael Arrington has a tedious post on TechCrunch up about the fact that there aren’t as many women in technology, or — more to the point — in positions of leadership in technology companies or on panels at tech conferences isn’t men’s fault.

But you know what? I think he’s right.

Men aren’t to blame for the lack of representation by women in technology. Nor, clearly, are women to blame. What causes this disparity? One word: Sexism.

“But wait!” you cry. “Surely there must be someone carrying out this sexism.” And indeed, that’s true — many individual men, and some women, often put forth ideas or enact policies that are rooted in sexism.

But sexism is bigger than any one person; it’s a system in which our entire society — certainly the privileged, Western technology community — is enmeshed.

Too often, such systematic discrimination as treated as discrete, individual acts, disconnected from the larger reality. And so Arrington can complain:

Every damn time we have a conference we fret over how we can find women to fill speaking slots.

By attempting to fill a quota, he thinks he can inoculate himself (or his conference) against the charge of sexism. (He then makes the absurd point that, really, women are getting annoyed by being asked to speak at conferences all the time — which tends to undo that inoculation a small bit.)

Men are privileged most directly by sexism, of course, which is why Arrington’s post is so galling. He suggests “we” need women “who go out and start companies” rather than “complain about how there are too few women in tech,” as if justice in the technology community and the larger society is only the job of those who are marginalized, and never the ones who hold power.

Part of this is due to the retreat from full-fledged feminism into what Tim Wise has called “the diversity trap,” in which a commitment only to “different backgrounds” motivates any kind of diversity. He’s writing about racism and affirmative action, but the movement is the same — away from working to end sexism or racism, and toward an anodyne pledge to provide different perspectives. Wise quotes then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, upon signing affirmative action into law in 1974:

Time and experience have shown that laws and edicts of non-discrimination are not enough. Justice demands that each and every citizen consciously adopt and accentuate a commitment to affirmative action, which will make equal opportunity a reality.

Providing opportunity alone won’t work when the playing field is already tilted. Simply inviting speakers from a field from which women have been systematically filtered since birth is too late in the game.

Arrington makes the mind-boggling assertion that women are at an advantage, because there are so few of them that the press wants to write about the ones who “make it.” This is the “talented tenth” turned on its head — that because a few individuals have struggled against overwhelming odds toward success, and that the media naturally wants to cover such extraordinary stories, the institutional oppression that existed to make those stories exceptional in the first place somehow disappears. As the death threats against tech writer Kathy Sierra demonstrated, straight-up sexism still holds sway among large parts of this male-domainted field.

In the sub-field of nonprofit technology, many if not most of the people I look to are women: Beth Kanter, Amy Sample Ward, Michelle Murrain, Alexandra Samuel, Marnie Webb, Allyson Kapin, Deborah Elizabeth Finn, Allison Fine, Debra Askanase, Katrin Verclas, Britt Bravo, Laura Quinn, Mary Joyce, Holly Ross, Jocelyn Harmon, Carie Lewis, Rebecca Leaman, Danielle Brigida, Christine Egger, Heather Mansfield, Shireen Mitchell, Nancy Schwartz, Ruby Sinreich, Susan Tenby, danah boyd, Nancy Scola, Kivi Leroux Miller, Judith Freeman, Jordan Dossett, Roz Lemieux, Wendy Harman, Eve Simon, Alnisa Allgood, Jean Russell, Susan Gordon, Katya Andresen, Maddie Grant, Margaux O’Malley — and that’s just off the top of my head (sorry if I missed anyone).

Yet even in this space, women leaders are repeatedly judged on their appearance. In the nonprofit field as a whole, despite there being more women than men in leadership, they’re still paid less across the board, although the gap is slowly shrinking. In part this may explain the success of women in this field, as any kind of social work is seen as women’s work.

Arrington is feeling put-upon because he’s experiencing women who point out the inequity in representation and leadership as a personal attack on him. It’s not that unusual of a response — it’s the same experience white folks have when people of color talk about racism, straight people have when queers demand equal treatment, and able-bodied individuals have when persons with disabilities expect equal access.

This is how oppression is set up — forcing individuals to compete against one another as individuals and rendering its pervasive influence invisible.

Michael Arrington is right to be outraged. But the outrage should be focused on the sexism that keeps both men and women down.

While it’s women who bear the overwhelming amount of oppression from sexism, it’s a force that inhibits men’s growth as well. Men are expected to take on unbelievable obstacles, toil without complaint and settle for stunted emotional connections to family and friends.

Many successful men, when confronted with evidence of institutionalized sexism, feel that their accomplishments are being degraded, because they had to struggle mightily under such harsh conditions.

What too many men miss is the reality that the system under which they face such inhumane expectations is the same one that limits the potential of women.

Of course, there are individual men and women who help to support such a system. Their actions are rightly be identified and they should be given the support and resources to help to change these actions. But changing individual actions isn’t enough by itself — the system must be confronted as a whole.

The BlogHer, Women Who Tech, She’s Geeky and WebGrrls conferences are one component, as a place for women to strategize and support one another; continually pressing for more visibility for women at tech conferences dominated by men who are simply unaware of women techies is another component.

What would be even more exciting? A conference of male-identified folks interested in supporting women who take on positions of leadership in the tech community. Part of that involves men looking at what gets in the way of them supporting more women in “their” space, and men working through that might not always look pretty to women. But belittling women who point out systematic inequities as Arrington does is a reactionary response to being asked to account for one’s privilege.

This needs to be an effort undertaken by both women and men, not for some vague goal of “diverse voices” but as a way to realize all of our potentials in technology and beyond.

Updates: Allyson Kapin has a great list of specific suggestions to address this issue, and Michael Arrington followed up by saying he knows more needs to be done, but he might delete the post in favor of something “far less painful.” It’s likely that to really address sexism — if that is what he wants to do — he’ll have to face some painful truths, however. Jon Pincus says it much more succinctly: “Yes, it’s hard. Take some responsibility.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that Allyson Kapin, Shireen Mitchell, Jocelyn Harmon and I are proposing a session on just this topic at next year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference: To Diversity and Beyond! Engagement, Accountability and Nonprofits. We hosted a similar discussion earlier this year.

Image credit Flickr user SFist