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A primer on sexism in the tech industry

Designer and developer Faruk Ateş, the man behind Modernizr, says that sexism is hurting our industry in more significant ways than most people realise. Here he explains what it's all about and what we can do to address this issue

The topic of sexism and its role in the technology industry has seen a huge resurgence over the past 12 to18 months. Yet despite being discussed and examined with increasing frequency, a lot of the subject remains unclear and under-explained, making it difficult for those who care deeply about our industry to partake in these discussions. This is, in part, because the problems are incredibly complex, nuanced and difficult to explain, making it impossible for any one article to address them sufficiently (lest that article becomes a book). Nevertheless, today we're going to try and see how much of the basics we can clear up.

Overview of terms

Not everyone is always on the same page when it comes to the terms we use in these debates, so let's start there.

  • Feminism: the simple belief that women deserve to have the same social, economical and political rights as men, be treated equally and fairly, and given equal opportunities. Modern (third-wave) feminists make it even simpler: fair and actual equality for all, regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, religion, age, and sexuality.
  • Privilege: Receiving benefits in life, however subtle or invisible they may seem to you, simply for belonging to a group you didn't work hard for to get in. In today's Western society, being male, white and straight gives you three huge privileges over everyone else. More on that in a bit.
  • Positive action: Often incorrectly labelled 'positive discrimination', positive action is a measure imposed (usually by government) to enforce a change in the ratio of certain groups in systems. This act is the acknowledgment of the scientific and historical evidence that natural social progress moves too slowly, requiring overseeing entities to intervene (temporarily) as a way of speeding up this progress – so that we may actually enjoy the improvements in our lifetimes.
  • Discrimination: Prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
  • Prejudice: Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Since positive action is based on both reason and actual experience, the label 'positive discrimination' (and the subsequent cries of "it's still discrimination!") is inaccurate and deceitful.
  • Meritocracy: A culture or society in which power is given to people based on their proven abilities, as opposed to wealth, background, privilege, and so forth.
  • Rape culture: The assessment of how today's society makes light of rape - a physically and emotionally painful, and often traumatic and violent crime - which significantly contributes to the mistreatment of women by making their mistreatment a seemingly accepted practice. Rape jokes and their ilk contribute heavily to this.

What is the problem?

The problem is a culmination of many separate, 'smaller' problems that are endemic in our industry, and society at large. We suffer from women leaving the field citing sexism and "hostile, macho cultures" as primary reasons. The rape culture that, frighteningly, is perpetuated even by the highest level of our judicial system. The systemic dismissal of women complaining about the harassment they experience on an often-daily basis. The excessive vitriol, hatred and harassment sent towards any woman bold and courageous enough to try and tackle the problem. Those may all seem obvious, but just as big a problem is the widely-held belief (primarily among young, straight white men) that we live or work in a meritocracy.

If I'd have to sum it up as one problem, it's that many groups, but women especially, are still discriminated against heavily, while those with privilege don't want to be seen as culpable and even like to argue that these problems don't exist altogether. Women, in particular, suffer from tremendous social and professional challenges and pressures, as well as threats to their physical well-being, as a result of these problems.

We're not a meritocracy?

Those that believe we live or work in a meritocracy will argue, "but I don't care whether someone is male or female, I only care about how good their work is!" This inaccurate belief that their personal perspective is how the industry at large functions is an anecdotal logical fallacy and part of the problem. We should care whether a job applicant or potential conference speaker is male or female, because our industry is heavily skewed towards the male gender, and it makes it less appealing to women from the outset. However long it takes for us to achieve a demographically-representative mix of race and gender, that's how long we should continue to pay attention to these things a little bit, just to make sure we don't let our unconscious biases favour a continuation of white men everywhere. Because, and this is important: letting things just 'happen on their own' by not paying attention to this will only work to produce equality on a timeframe we won't even live long enough for to benefit from.

It is a very understandable argument that we should just 'let people be people' and not focus on their attributes, favouring their abilities instead, but the problem with this, as science and history have shown us over and over again, is that societies, cultures and communities all strongly favour their dominant group (straight white men, in our case) and only glacially permits change to happen. And I really do mean glacially, as in: 400 years by 'natural' means versus 20 years with an active involvement to improve certain ratios.

Socio-cultural etiquette

A subtle but illustrative example of how imbalanced our society behaves is the way in which debate on this topic takes place. A man writing sharp, incisive criticism of sexist patterns, behaviours or attitudes, may well provoke disagreement, but the tone of the disagreement (likely coming from other men) is often respectful and civil. Yet if a woman had written the exact same thing, the level of debate would quickly devolve into personal attacks on the woman, featuring little respect and a lot of vitriol.

For example, when men disagree with other men about things they said or wrote on this subject, the disagreement is typically prefaced with "I really respect you [/your work], but ...”, yet even women who are notably smarter, more eloquent, more successful and more incisive rarely get to enjoy such respectful commentary from the men who disagree with their points.

The tone of our debates - which often get quite heated - is frequently different based on the gender of the author(s). This fact alone reveals a gender-bias that contributes to a culture that disadvantages women and favours men.

Objectification-oriented programming

Society programs us – men and women alike – to measure a woman's worth by her appearance: weight, height, hair, clothing, skin (quality), makeup, breast and waist size, and so forth. This starts with our idolatry of "the ideal woman: thin, tall, beautiful, and of course, large breasts" but is exacerbated by countless ways in which we talk with, to, or about women. Anti-idolatry commentary like "but I prefer small breasts!" doesn't actually help, as it continues to validate the wrongful notion that appearance is what we should judge a woman by.

The list of ways in which society programs us with gender-specific norms (boys like cars and sports, girls like clothes and shopping) is so long, this article couldn't even begin to cover even a fraction of it. There are literally countless tiny influences that we are subjected to every single day, most of them completely subliminally, which frame and steer the way we think about men and women.

Only when we become more aware of and attentive to these influences do we start to realise how incredibly skewed society is. And that, in turn, can help us see how skewed our ideas of tech professionals are: we often picture a big white guy with a beard and poor hygiene as the quintessential 'hacker', despite the fact that hacking skills have absolutely nothing to do with gender, hair, hygiene or weight. But every time we depict a hacker as being that, it sends the message that you have to 'be like that' to be a great hacker, which deters anyone who isn't, cannot be, or does not want to be like that.

Our media culture today is overwhelmingly dominated by movies and TV shows that tell men 'this is what you want' and tell women 'this is what you should be'. You probably haven't picked up on this consciously, yet your brain will have picked up on it subconsciously. But take note next time you look at a tech conference's website: do its promotional photos and videos show many female attendees? Are there many female speakers? If not (and they frequently don't), how do you think that comes across to women? What message might that send to them? Conference organisers themselves are starting to notice the impact and value of them actively reaching out to find more female speakers, resulting in greater satisfaction all around.

True == false equivalence

One common counter-argument against the objectification of women is that 'men are sexualised and objectified, too!' but this is what is known as false equivalence; what matters isn't whether men and women are portrayed in an idealised way, but whose ideals they are portrayed by. Women are portrayed by men's norms and men's fantasy ideals, and men are portrayed by – men's norms and men's fantasy ideals. The incredibly muscular, well-toned man may be appreciated by (some) women, but he is largely a male power fantasy. Women, in our culture, are also depicted under male power fantasies.

Nothing sums up the disconnect better than this excellent comic on False Equivalency by David Willis (see main image above), but I highly recommend checking out these three examinations too: Sexism in Games Bingo, Fallacy of False Equivalence and What Sexually Objectified Male Video Game Characters Look Like.

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That privilege thing

Which brings us back to privilege. You, dear reader, are you male? Then no matter how disenfranchised your specific, personal life might have been, no matter how unfair the world may have treated you, you still enjoyed all the privileged benefits that society gives to the male gender. Society has, from the moment you were born, tried its damned hardest to make sure all your desires were catered to. And if you are also straight and white, you're playing life on the lowest difficulty setting.

You have my sympathy for whatever unfairness you may have experienced – I'm sure we all have some examples of our own – but denying that being male or being white has given you a lot of privileges actually contributes to the problem. Feminists don't want you to apologise, or to feel bad for having privilege, nothing like that; we just want you to acknowledge it, and maybe not try to shout down women when they bring up examples of unfair treatment that they personally experienced.

Women are just not as interested in X

One common argument for low ratios of women in professional sectors is that 'women are just not as interested in X' where in our industry X typically means programming. But this is another fallacy, which we know because in societies where female developers are welcomed and prominently feature among the best, young women are as interested in programming as young men are.

While the phrase 'image is everything' is cliche, it also holds true when it comes to industries, communities and groups, and their perception to outsiders. A group of all men just doesn't seem as welcoming to women, no matter how welcoming they actually are. Some of the women who were interested in participating will be deterred by how they perceive the industry to be, which is partly why event speaker lineups are so important.

Victim-blaming

When all else fails, many men get defensive, and sometimes they disgrace themselves further by blaming the woman for whatever bad things happened to her. In fact, victim-blaming is so common that it can be really depressing doing research on it. I'll spare you the countless cases of rape victims being told by the legal system that they were to blame for some guy not understanding the meaning of the words 'no' or 'stop' or that it is "the fault of the world and society" when a young boy rapes a young girl.

I wrote "when all else fails" but what I really meant was 'when they don't get their way'. That may seem like a snide remark, but for more than a few of these men it rings quite true – however much they may deny it. They're so used to society working in their favour, to getting what they want, that any hint of resistance can serve as a rude wake-up call. To some, that wake-up call is a refreshing moment of enlightenment; to others, it seems to mean decency and civil discourse are no longer options (illustrated nicely in this comic). Our industry suffers from this a lot as well, where – especially in the startup scene – men constantly praise the efforts of other men, even when those efforts are of demonstrably less significance than the efforts of certain women.

Women themselves can fall prey to victim-blaming, too; many who are strong-willed, highly capable and independent, may suggest that other women simply need to present themselves more strongly and fiercely, to discourage men from harassing, assaulting or raping them. While a fierce attitude will help – tremendously, in many cases – the underlying accusation of who's to blame remains, wrongly, in the camp of the victims.

Death by a million paper cuts

All of these issues may seem like little things, and not worth making such a fuss over. They may seem to lead to a 'political correctness gone wild' kind of culture. But therein lies the crux of the matter: our society today is far from politically correct, if by that we mean respectful to all people regardless of their attributes. Even the most militant of us, who fight daily for improvements on these matters, would not want some overly-PC culture as a result.

What we are arguing is that maybe that joke you made, which some people complained about, isn't quite so harmless as you thought it was. And that maybe using the terms 'bitch' and 'rape' in entirely inappropriate contexts – gaming, for example – is only innocent to you because you never have, and never will, face the daily threat of real life, actual rape happening to you.

People sometimes worry that if we take all of these issues so seriously, we'll never be able to make a raunchy joke. But that is a false assumption: the problem with certain jokes is less specifically the joke content, and more about the context in which the joke exists. A rape joke is almost certainly not funny to anyone who's been raped violently, and on the internet, nothing exists in a vacuum. Your comedic timing is inherently without comedic context, and your 'funny remark' will invariably be seen by people out of context, as well as by an audience much larger than you intended it for.

Making a racial joke as a person in power (white, male, and straight are all positions of power in Western society) is indirectly threatening to any people not belonging to your race. However, making a racial joke about the vast majority of people, while you yourself are the extreme minority in the group, has a very different effect. Again, though, on the internet, this is simply impossible – your joke will exist everywhere and anywhere. As will your commentary, and your tone of voice (or vitriol) when debating on issues in public.

And if the death by a thousand paper cuts-aspect of this wasn't readily evident enough for you yet, consider that 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.

Equality and justice for all

The structural inequalities in our society are so complex that they are under constant debate (and scrutiny). Even focusing just on the confines of our industry, we may never attain the idealistic meritocracy we claim to crave. However, I will leave you with a parting quote to inspire you to help make a change and be part of the solution:

"We don't begin by asking what a perfectly just society would look like, but asking what remediable injustices could be seen on the removal of which there would be a reasoned agreement." – Nobel prize-winning Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.

The debate starts by acknowledging the many problems, and hearing one another out over the details of – and proposed solutions for! – these problems that plague our industry, society and culture.

For our industry, many proposed solutions are emerging:

Our industry is quickly becoming one of the biggest and most widely influential ones in the world, but to serve the needs of people everywhere most effectively, we must exhibit great inclusivity within our own ranks. That, perhaps, could be our proudest moment.

Words: Faruk Ateş

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