Let’s organize a 10K footrace. At the end of the footrace — for, say, the last kilometer — we’re going to do whatever we can to encourage the people who are wearing blue jerseys and t-shirts and athletic clothing. There will be people standing by the sidelines to hand out bottles of refreshing sports drinks, and others jumping up and down and shouting slogans like “Dressed in blue! We love you!” whenever they see a blue-garbed contestant.
Why all the commotion over the people in blue? Well, that’s an attempt to offset what we’re going to do to them for the first nine-tenths of the race. You see, they’re going to be dealing with some seriously unfair shit: Instead of cheerleaders, the blue-wearing racers will have to deal with people jeering at them, shouting insults and telling them they don’t belong in this race. Some will be armed with Nerf guns or water balloons, which they’ll be hurling at the racers in blue in an attempt to slow them down or make them drop out of the race altogether.
And it’s not just the spectators; before the race begins, we’ll distribute secret notes to the racers wearing other colors, encouraging them to jostle their blue-garbed peers and even try to trip them up. Of course, many of our runners will abide by a sense of fair play regardless, but there will undoubtedly be those who take advantage of the biased environment we’re creating.
If a huge percentage of the racers in blue drop out before they ever reach the last kilometer… would you say that “not enough people in blue want to win races”?
Obviously, this footrace is a parallel for something else. According to a recent TechCrunch post by Michael Arrington, we should “stop blaming the men” in Silicon Valley, because they’re not responsible for the fact that “not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.”
I don’t want to be too harsh on Arrington or on TechCrunch, because as he points out, TC is doing what they can to fight the problem. Their CEO is a woman, as are 2 of their 4 senior editors, and they do their damnedest to cover, and promote, female representation and accomplishments in Silicon Valley. This particular article by Arrington may be missing the point, but Arrington and TechCrunch are, generally speaking, more part of the solution than part of the problem.
But in looking at “women starting companies” in the high-tech industry, Mr. Arrington is looking only at the last tenth of the race and ignoring everything that was done to them in the previous nine kilometers. He’s ignoring:
- The pervasive use of women’s bodies as sexual objects at trade shows…
- …and ad nauseam in supposedly-professional talks and presentations at conferences…
- …and in advertisements in trade journals.
- And it ignores the way women in IT are constantly, and ruthlessly, judged on their appearance: A profile on a female geek or coder in a tech blog will immediately start garnering comments on whether or not she’s “hawt”, while geek women who simply include a photo or two on their personal website will find them hotlinked from all over the web and subjected to insulting commentary.
- Plus the ongoing “there are no girls on the Internet” concept, a joke so tired that TV Tropes lists it as a Discredited Trope, putting it in the same category as “It’s quiet… too quiet”, “Eek, a mouse!”, “It was all just a dream” and “Girls have cooties”. The one place it doesn’t seem discredited is on tech-oriented social networking sites and forums, where people act like “OMG, a girl on teh intartubes!” is something interesting or witty to say.
All of that sends a constant message to women in IT that they are Other, they are Alien, a freakish aberration of some sort. And being constantly told “You don’t belong here. Get out,” is annoying… But it’s nothing compared to the active hostility that women also face. From female usernames in chat rooms being subjected to 25 times as many malicious messages (including outright threats) to the rape-and-death threats that silenced Kathy Sierra, women in tech are targeted by a level of viciousness and hostility that goes way beyond the locker-room “humor” of the bullshit in the list above.
And this sort of crap isn’t just the province of lone whackjobs who don’t represent the community. It’s also fostered by major names in tech and FOSS. Consider Perl’s Randal Schwartz hiring scantily-clad women to spice up his OSCON party, then defending it as a money-making move when called on it (see the comments thread — be warned, there is some truly bad behavior on display). Or how about David Heinemeier Hansson’s response to the CouchDB “pr0n star” talk controversy?
Michael Arrington says we should “stop blaming the men” for the low number of women in the tech sector. And maybe he’s thinking of men like himself, or like Martin Fowler and Piers Cawley and others who try very hard to make the tech sector a place where women can feel welcome. (A special shout-out goes to Matt Gunderloy, who resigned his position in a group called Rails Activists, partly because of DHH’s response to the CouchDB talk. His resignation letter is no longer available, so I have to link to someone else’s commentary on it.)
But the people who are putting soft-core porn into their presentations? Funny, they just happen to be men. And the ones who poke fun at “girls on the Internet”, and analyze whether a given woman in tech is “hot or not” and whether they’d “do” her? Gosh, they’re men too! (Okay, really, they’re boys. But that’s a distinction for another time and another blog post.)
And the ones sending the death threats? They’re cowards who work behind a veil of anonymity, so I can’t be 100% positive, but I’m willing to bet that they’re not female.
And all of them need to be blamed. We need to blame them, shame them, and make it clear that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. High-tech is a profession, not a fraternity house. Trying to keep women out isn’t professional; it’s juvenile. And making excuses for the sexist Neanderthals in the industry, or overlooking their antics (as Arrington’s article, sadly, does), isn’t helping us improve the situation.