On Sexism in Tech

I’m not ever going to try to pretend that I’ve got any “disenfranchised” cred. In all the ways that show, I’m a paradigm example of the ruling class. But even I can see that Antirez’s recent post on sexism in tech is just amateurish and sad. Shanley’s response almost seems a bit mean in how easily she tears into his non-arguments; it’s like watching a kitten tossed to a hungry pit bull. I didn’t want to keep reading, but I couldn’t look away. Bravo.

Here are a few uncontroversial facts that men in tech ought to keep in mind:

  1. Most men in tech claim that they are not sexist, and they believe that they are telling the truth. They honestly think that they treat women equally, that they don’t see gender in the workplace, that they judge everyone based on their abilities, etc.
  2. Research has shown that humans are capable of being sexist without noticing.
  3. There are many many more men in the tech industry than women.
  4. Women do better in school than men, even in STEM majors, and graduate in higher percentages than men.

When faced with a mountain of evidence that I’m not capable of seeing something, saying “I don’t see it” is really not so compelling. In fact, faced with that evidence, a reasonable person would probably stop and think, “Maybe I shouldn’t base my decisions on what I can and cannot notice. Maybe I ought to be a bit more careful, or even take active steps to correct the demonstrable bias.”

I don’t know. I’m just a white american man who had the benefit of lots of free education, and basically fell into a dream job. Yeah, I had to sell some drugs to make ends meet in college, and some vacuum cleaners during the dot-com slump. I’ve answered phones in tech support.

But pretty much, it’s been an easy ride. I’ve never had someone think I’m not good at computers because of my gender. I gotta think that just HAS to suck. I realize that most sexism is not on purpose. But that’s the problem. The explicit chauvinism is easily corrected. It’s the subtle subconscious mistakes that do the real lasting damage.

That’s why we talk about women in tech. That’s why we try to get more women to speak at conferences about the work they’re doing. That’s why we blog about it, and have events about it. Because there clearly is a bias. It’s one that isn’t readily apparent otherwise. And the way you correct biases isn’t by pretending they don’t exist.

A very valid question is, “Why should we care?” Maybe that’s what Antirez was trying, in a rather clumsy way, to get at. What’s wrong with tech being composed almost entirely of men? After all, we should be a meritocracy; what’s in your underwear shouldn’t matter, right?

The reason we should care is that rational grownups don’t just shrug their shoulders when their biases cause hardships for other people. Rational grownups try to see the world as it is (including themselves), and don’t make up excuses for facts. We should care because a diversity of opinions benefits all of us, and our industry, and we’re subconsciously filtering people based on criteria that we claim does not matter.

But mostly, we should care because there are humans being treated like shit, and we are part of the problem.