This is Not The Last Thing You’ll Ever Need to Read About Sexism in Tech. Not Even Close.

Kelly Ellis
Oct 2, 2014 · 6 min read

Edit: Shortly before publishing this response, the title of the Matter post was changed from “This is The Last Thing You’ll Ever Need to Read About Sexism in Tech.”

Around 9 pm last night I was in the common room here at Medium, debugging some new code and chatting with colleagues over Chinese take-out, when my coworker Tess let out a defeated sigh, and showed me her phone.

“Did you see this?”

My eyes landed on the familiar Matter logo, and beneath it I saw a new story: “This is The Last Thing You’ll Ever Need to Read About Sexism in Tech.” I immediately understood why Tess was annoyed.

“The last thing? How can it be the last thing?”

“A mere sixteen-minute read!”

If only I had known years ago that a sixteen-minute read could solve the problem of sexism in tech and negate the need for further discussion or education about the topic, I could have saved myself, and many other women, a whole lot of time and frustration!

I wish it were true. I could send it to the former Senior Staff Engineer at Google who regularly talked over me in meetings like I wasn’t even there, and he would never do that to any women again! I could Tweet it at the many men who’ve regurgitated my ideas as their own over the years, and they would instantly give me the credit I deserved! I could have interview candidates read it before speaking with them, and they wouldn’t automatically assume I’m in recruiting or HR! I could email it to my extremely sexist former CTO, and he’d cease making comments crass enough to make young women seriously question whether they are in the right field of work. And these are just my own, small-scale, daily problems that I’ve dealt with over the years. Imagine if it were required reading in CS curricula across the land! What if all of Silicon Valley’s investors read it? Imagine what if it had the ultimate power: to cure bias?

The implication was that there will come a point (perhaps in the near future!) when we can declare tech’s women problem “solved,” wrap it up in a neat little bow, and then the computer geeks can just focus on what they do best—code—and cease worrying about things like equality.

Anyway, perhaps I was being unfair. The title irked me, but it was just a title. Given this bold claim, it must have some pretty amazing content, right?

Well, actually…yeah! The vast majority of this piece was pretty spot on. In particular, I appreciated the careful, supported repudiation of the oft-repeated claim that women merely self-select out of tech due to inherent lack of interest. It’s a well-researched primer, which makes it all the more disappointing that the title doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of it, and there are a few statements that, in my opinion, undermine and distract from the overall message.

There was one paragraph, early in the piece, that made me want to slowly pluck out every last one of my eyelashes. It begins:

Many women technologists insist they’ve never experienced any firsthand discrimination, that they’ve never met a brogrammer IRL, that they’ve never been held back by their gender.

Huh? Nearly every single woman I know in technology with whom I’ve discussed this topic has at least one story about sexism to share, and the vast majority of them have many. At Google I was part of a supportive, helpful, and informative mailing list for women engineers where gender issues like discrimination were discussed on a near daily-basis as they occurred.

But Friedman makes it sound like most women in tech don’t think there’s any problem at all! WHAT?! Where did they attend college and who employs them? Because we should all be flocking to those Universities and companies en masse. I’m just not buying this claim. There may technically be “many,” but they are in the minority.

The other thing that bothered me is the unspoken implication that, if many women don’t see a problem, there must be something wrong with those of us who do. Those ubiquitous slights and micro-aggressions are all in our heads, perhaps. Or if they’re not, we’re certainly odd ducks to want to speak out about it. To me, this statement seriously undermined the many women I know who’ve spent years of their lives speaking and advocating for these issues. And you know what? Women engineers who say “I’ve never experienced sexism” frustrate me too; such statements minimize the real experiences that many have had. Moreover, they’re the first opinions the sexists like to repeat: “see, one of your own agrees with us that there isn’t anything to make a big deal about!”

Friedman continues:

And perhaps more tellingly, many women say that even if they have experienced sexism, they don’t really want to talk about it because they don’t want to be singled out for being women. They’d prefer to be recognized for their skills and ideas.

I’d love it if I was never singled out as “other” or “different” for being a woman — but the truth is, I already am. That’s the reality. When you’re in a conference surrounded by a sea of men, have to sit through a presentation that includes imagery and language that objectifies women, and then head over to the schwag table to pick up your men’s XXL t-shirt, it’s hard NOT to feel singled out. When men consistently talk over you but those same men don’t seem to be talking over each other, it’s hard NOT to feel singled out.

And then, we’re presented with a false choice: women must choose between speaking up about sexism, and being recognized for their skills and ideas. I’ve got surprising news for Friedman: I discuss feminist issues, including bias and discrimination, pretty often and pretty publicly. Most of my colleagues are aware of, and supportive of, this vocal tendency. I’ve had some great discussions about gender issues with many of them, too! And know what else? Just about every day that I come to work I feel recognized for my skills and ideas. This has been true for at least the last five years of my career, if not more.

In the next paragraph, we’re told:

women in tech are, on some level, as sick of this conversation as the rest of us.

I’m not sick of this conversation. And I think it’s a false characterization to say that women in tech are, as a whole (okay yeah, I just pulled a “not all tech women!”). Some may be sick of talking about it, but you know what I’m sick of? Living it. I’m sick of Titstare apps, guys who claim that efforts to promote more women in tech are reverse-sexism, and the false perception that tech is a meritocracy. I’m sick of guys who claim that advocating for more women means lowering the bar (thanks for the implication that women are inherently just worse at computers). I’m sick of people acting surprised when I tell them what I do for a living. I’m sick of conference t-shirts only available men’s sizes and apps used by women but designed entirely by men. (Seriously Apple, leaving out period tracking from an app that’s specifically for tracking personal health data? How do you miss something that affects literally half of your users for forty years of our lives?)

I honestly don’t get the point of this paragraph. We hear there’s a disconnect, but we don’t really explore that any further. Instead, when we do read on, this stands in contrast with later assertions that this stuff is important to talk about, and that ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. But at that point in reading it I stopped, privately bitched to a colleague or two, and began drafting this response. When I went back to finish reading, I was surprised that my assumptions about what to expect in the rest of the piece were totally wrong.

Anyway, those are my two gripes with this post: the title, and a handful of statements towards the beginning. I hope others get past the title and intro, into the meat. They probably will, if they aren’t angry tech feminists like me. ☺

I am grateful to Friedman for researching and writing this, and to Matter for publishing it. Despite my concerns, it’s a great primer on the various issues women face in tech, particularly for people who aren’t informed about them and want to learn more—and it’s well-researched to boot (we nerd types do love data!).

So let’s make this data a starting point for discussion, not the end of it.

    Kelly Ellis

    Written by

    staff engineer at MailChimp