Yes, it’s still a problem your story contains no women

Here’s why

Alison Dame-Boyle

Today, San Francisco magazine’s website published a piece on “Silicon Valley’s Geek Chorus,” ostensibly profiling the leaders of the more-mainstream-but-still-tech-journalist movement. Because life is basically an eternal recurrence of the same myopic list articles, all six journalists are men. Five are white. Predictably, there was an online kerfuffle (we tech-adjacent feminists are really good at the internet, although apparently not good enough that anyone notices before they write their list), and editor Ellen Cushing wrote a follow-up explanation.

It was a well-written, thoughtful defense of what went into making the list and avoided the “I’m sorry you’re offended” pratfall. And, to be clear, I don’t think the people at San Francisco are misogynists (or racists; while it wasn’t really highlighted in her follow-up, the pervasive whiteness is as much a problem as the maleness). But the heart of the piece, the main excuse, still misses why people were upset. I’m writing this response not to pile on, but to explain why we shouldn’t have to keep having this discussion. (Edited to add: I’m also not particularly mad. As far ugghh lists go, this one isn’t so bad. But I felt the follow-up explanation showed they were open to learning rather than shutting down, so I’m using this as a jumping-off point.)

“The fact that our list featured all guys is sort of the point, or at least part of it,” Cushing wrote. First — sorry, the mere existence of a list that’s all men with only a line pointing out “like the industry they cover, they’re almost entirely men” does not get to simultaneously exist as a critical commentary on the maleness of Silicon Valley.

More importantly, the problem is that the idea of the tech industry and the journalists who cover it being “almost entirely men,” isn’t true. Both are dominated by men and are inhospitable to so-called outsiders, yes. Both have a long way to go in terms of seeking out voices beyond those of white men. But pieces like this are part of a larger trend in which, to put it lazily, what white dudes are doing is conceived of as ‘the real tech/tech coverage,’ and anything else is an outlier.

It’s not just that white men dominate these spaces, it’s that we center these spaces on what white men are doing.

In the follow-up, Cushing writes that the original list was meant to profile “a very specific breed of tech writer—one who writes entirely or mostly about tech, works at a high-traffic general-interest publication, and writes from a more or less outsider-y perspective.” Leaving aside the many non-white-male journalists who actually could have fit in that category, it’s telling that Cushing says a number of women couldn’t have been considered because they didn’t quite fit those specifications. The specifications they had chosen.

That breed of writer may be an interesting phenomenon, but when you make a list and call these journalists the Valley’s “hall monitor, peanut gallery, and, often, conscience,” you’re doing more than examining a phenomenon; you’re celebrating those profiled. Some of the women Cushing named, for instance, could have satisfied the initial criteria of contributing to a journalism industry acting as “a more accessible, more analysis-driven analog to insider-oriented, gadget-obsessed, scoops-and-specs publications” but fall short of the follow-up’s criteria. Imagine if they had considered people who write primarily about tech and tech policy, or ones with large followings who write for more marginalized target audiences.

“But that’s not what they wanted to write!” you might whine, “Stop censoring them!”

Well, first please go brush up on what censorship means, but yes, that is not exactly what they wanted to write. They should write whatever they’d like and, while I imagine the inspiration for the piece came more from the high visibility of these men within certain circles than it did a totally abstract idea of some new tech journalism phenomenon, they should choose whatever categories about which they’d like to write.

I’m getting at the issue that what white men are doing often gets perceived as what’s important. Were I ever to celebrate some category but the “best” people I could find for that category were primarily a single race and gender (particularly the most privileged ones), I’d look harder but I’d also take another look at my category. I refuse to believe that only white men have the best contributions in any nebulous industry or broad social discussion, and if I keep running into them, maybe the problem is my preconceived notions about what constitutes that industry or is valuable in that discussion.

There are plenty of women and people of color doing similar work to those in the list, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere. Cushing acknowledges that, by leaving out women, San Francisco’s list runs the risk of perpetuating the idea that certain men are the best. (She even quotes a tweet of mine, which was a weird surprise, and actually I’m just writing this response in the hopes of driving more people to her piece and gaining more Twitter followers #yoSEOo.)

But they’re not just perpetuating the (white-)men-rule-all-others-drool stereotype, they’re perpetuating the valuing of certain arbitrarily-defined types of work that tend to be done most visibly by predominantly white men. (Which is where, incidentally, misogyny and racism come in! Even if Pax wouldn’t recognize the literal hatred of women, a systematic and often unconscious devaluing of stereotypically feminine traits is textbook misogyny.)

So yes, we should talk about why they ended up on those six, as Cushing calls for. But that conversation should include how we delineate and assign value to categories as much as it does ‘but there are just SO MANY white men!’

At least the list wasn’t a slideshow.

Edited: My initial piece missed the fact that Alexis Madrigal is Chicano, and for that I’m sincerely sorry. I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of feminists supporting POC over the past six months and in my eagerness not to leave race out of my response when the discussion seemed centered on women, I was indefensibly sloppy. It’s been edited to reflect that mistake, but the thrust of the piece—about these spaces being dominated by white men and us in turn paying too much attention to the spaces dominated by white men—remains.

    Alison Dame-Boyle

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    By day I defend the internet at @EFF, by night I fight the patriarchy. And on weekends I go to thrift stores. Views are my own, and are always correct.

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