The Annie Wright Head of Schools, Christian Sullivan, who clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of equality in an unequal world. Source: The News Tribune

Sincerely, the tech industry

What to say to your all-girls high school when it starts using tech industry tactics

Me in the middle, senior year of high school

In the world of Silicon Valley, I have a rather unique background: I graduated from an all girls high school. Attending Annie Wright was an incredible opportunity that gave me the foundation for where I am today. What I never thought I’d be doing is writing an article showing intense parallels between my alma mater and the tech industry’s penchant for highly problematic practices, culture, and outcomes. But here we are.

Some context

One of the challenges of working in the tech industry is that it’s still very dominated by white men, not just in terms of the ratio of men to women, but in the way stories are told and expectations are set. Startup culture has a very strong narrative espousing the values of being (over)confident, aggressive, and going with your gut. I still have some animosity towards Mark Zuckerberg for introducing everyone to the “move fast and break things” philosophy, because it’s been taken as a literal directive by a lot of powerful people in tech (even though it doesn’t work). These decidedly privileged and male perspectives lead people to create products in their own image, which has resulted in online communities that put women in danger, workplaces that are extremely toxic, and a surprising lack of focus on issues affecting industries like healthcare, education, social justice, or the environment.

To some, the argument that an all-girls education is helpful in a male-dominated society seems contradictory; after all, won’t girls need to understand how to interact with the other half of the human race in the real world?

Studies show the opposite effect to be true. Girls school graduates are six times more likely to study math, science, and technology than their counterparts in coed environments, and 12% more likely to have political discussions with friends. Students at all girls schools have higher aspirations, feel more prepared for the real world, hold more leadership positions, and are more comfortable expressing their ideas.

I know all of this to be true, because I benefitted from a high school experience that provided a safe, female-focused space where I could explore and grow. Annie Wright gave me a baseline understanding of my own worth and intelligence outside of male expectations, which I draw on when my instincts seem antithetical to the dominant viewpoints I run up against every day as a product designer in San Francisco.

Like tech, education continues to be a male-dominated space. Even though more women are attending college than ever before, the institutional structures, academic leadership, curriculum, and educational philosophies are still highly male and euro-centric. This means that before women even get to the tech industry, they’ve already been taught to undervalue themselves.

So when Annie Wright recently announced that it was creating a boys upper school, I was already on alert. When they announced it would be on the same campus as the girls, my alert turned red. When they announced that both genders would live in the same dormitory space and activities like art and theater would be mixed, I felt crushed.

And when it started to be clear that the school was using the same logic and justifications I’ve heard time and again from tech leaders about the “diversity problem” in tech, I got angry.

When literally every co-ed institution in the country is providing a male-centric learning environment, Annie Wright did not “have a duty” to the already very privileged male students it is trying to attract. These students will do just fine with or without an Annie Wright education, but their presence will very quickly diminish the value of Annie Wright for its female students.

When literally every co-ed institution in the country is providing a male-centric learning environment, Annie Wright did not have a duty to the already very privileged male students it is trying to attract.

Because here’s the thing: we aren’t dealing with hypothetical concerns, and we’re not overreacting. Using real-world examples from the tech industry, I’ll now show how the actions and language being used by Annie Wright decision-makers will lead to (and are already creating) negative outcomes for its female students.

Annie Wright, use the tech industry as your canary and get out before something sacred dies.

What Annie Wright can learn from tech’s mistakes

Ready? Here you go —

1. Stop reinforcing gender stereotypes

Example in tech: While there are a lot of reasons for the waning number of female engineers in the tech industry, one component was the way personal computers were marketed in the 1980s. Tech companies heavily advertised personal computers as a tool for boys and men, which led to a strong narrative that computers are for boys. Male students entering computer science programs in the 1980s suddenly had a huge leg up on female students who hadn’t had the opportunity to own a computer yet, leading to a higher churn of women pursuing programming. (If you’re interested, here’s an visual narrative of a similar trajectory in gaming.) When women do make their way into tech, they have to constantly battle the assumption that they don’t belong.

Narratives are powerful, and biased narratives are utterly destructive to marginalized groups.

For Annie Wright: Leadership can’t say they’re creating an equal but separate school but then offer architecture opportunities only to boys. They can’t say that boys will not read Jane Eyre like the girls but will rather be presented with “graphic novels and other literary novels that encourage boys to read more” and claim that this move isn’t full of blatant examples of institutionalized sexism.

In materials advertising the boys school, Annie Wright keeps referencing “opportunities for intersection [with the girls], including arts and social events” and “the best of both worlds with single-gender academics on a mixed gender campus”. Want to guess what’s not referenced in the materials about the girls schools? Any mention of co-ed opportunities. The admissions brochure for the boys school has a giant call out to “co-ed opportunities” that is conspicuously missing from the girls school counterpart. There’s literally a photo of girls in prom dresses in the boys brochure — You can’t make this up.

The school seems to already be realizing that having boys on campus isn’t a benefit for the girls school, and is even a liability, with no mention of boys dorms in such close proximity to the girls.

And for goodness sake, if you’re going to say “young men” to reference the boys, don’t diminish female student identity by referring to them as “girls” in the same sentence.

Your bias is showing.

2. Don’t downplay the future consequences of this decision: when men see things of value in women’s spaces, it will eventually become a male space

Example in tech: Before computers were a device, the word “computer” was a job title given to female mathematicians. When digital computers were invented, women were the first computer programmers. And in 1984, 37% of programmers were female. And yet, today, women on average only hold between 10% and 20% of technical positions at major tech companies, and programming is overwhelmingly seen as a male profession. This is deeply troubling in that tech provides jobs that most people would consider good: there are learning opportunities, good compensation and benefits, and safe work environments. It is problematic when quality jobs aren’t accessible to marginalized groups. More ironically, from a company perspective, having women in top leadership positions consistently creates higher financial returns for companies. So why aren’t there more women in tech?

There is a strong historical track record of dominant culture coopting things of value popularized or invented by marginalized groups of people. Jobs and intellectual pursuits are often not seen as valuable until they become male dominated. More troubling than any of this is seeing marginalized groups left behind when this transition happens.

For Annie Wright: Annie Wright keeps claiming it has a “duty to offer to boys the world-class education that our Upper School girls already have” without considering the historical context or the plethora of data that exposes the consequences of this move for the girls school. Now that Annie Wright has become a successful IB institution with a great academic track record, the boys feel entitled to this space even at the expense of the girls. The constant justifications that “Annie Wright has not been an all-girls’ school since the early 1970’s” (in reference to the co-ed lower and middle schools) just proves that all of this is a slow slide into a co-ed future. As we know, this doesn’t end well for girls.

3. Don’t confuse being well intentioned with actual results

Reality of black employees at Google: 2% of overall workforce, 1% of tech workforce

Example in tech: The road to exclusivity and paternalistic culture is often paved with well intentioned people. Google plays a lot of lip service to diversity, but black employees still only make up 1% of their tech workforce. Twitter releases diversity reports, but continues to pass on diverse candidates because of problematic and homogenous thinking. Facebook talks a lot about how much it values diversity, but internal conversations center around the problematic notion of “lowering the bar” as a blocker.

The thing is, these superficial diversity “initiatives” are actually making things worse. Companies shouldn’t get any brownie points for talking about how much they value diversity. Just like they wouldn’t accept good intentions that lead to bad business outcomes in their day-to-day work, they shouldn’t celebrate diversity goals until there are measurable, significant results.

For Annie Wright: Annie Wright leadership seems confused about the basic concept of inclusivity. The school has explained that “the natural step is now to educate high-school aged boys” and justifies the decision by saying that it aligns with goals to make the school more “inclusive”. The only place I could find a reference to actual diversity goals was in the strategic plan, but while they’ve made the boys school a reality at neck-breaking speed, I still haven’t seen any movement towards diversity outcomes. This is the equivalent of a tech company releasing a diversity report, patting themselves on the back, and then using that against anyone who tries to point out that there haven’t been actual results.

The picture of diversity and inclusion, left to right: Head of Schools, Director of Upper School (for girls), Chair of the Board of Trustees, Residential Life Director (head of dorms), and Director of Upper School (for boys).

It’s not enough to say you are committed to the all-girls experience and it’s irresponsible to rush into this decision without careful preparation. Some questions I have:

  • What tools and changes are being implemented to make sure Annie Wright is inclusive specifically to students across racial, economic, and gender lines? How is this being evaluated and tracked?
  • What tools is the school using to track and address outcomes like graduates in STEM fields, test scores, classes, sense of safety, leadership outcomes, and a student’s ability to be critical of their privilege and environment? How is this tracked across racial, economic, and gender lines?
  • How are resources being allocated? How is that being tracked and evaluated in terms of its impact on the girls school?
  • What is the school doing to make sure staff have an understanding of systemic privilege and oppression, unconscious bias, and their role in ensuring equitable outcomes in a society that it inherently inequitable?
  • How can the school create an all girls environment when facilities will be shared, dorms will be in the same space, and many classes and activities will be coed? What is the precedent for this working at other single gender institutions?
  • What’s the plan for housing male and female teenagers in the same building?
  • Why weren’t all of these questions answered before the decision was made to open a boys school on the same campus as the girls school?

If leaders at the school understood systemic privilege and valued real diversity, there would be no boys school on campus. Instead, all this energy being allocated to the boys would be directed towards creating a more diverse and inclusive female student body and staff.

The school has a knee jerk reaction to critiques about their devotion to diversity and inclusion, but can’t back it up with specific numbers, programs, results, or language that reflect a basic understanding of dominant norms and a better path forward.

4. Stop responding to concerns about women’s spaces by talking about men’s needs.

Example in tech: Whenever someone brings up diversity hiring in tech, there’s always that person in the room who jumps in to complain about how “easy” people with subdominant identities have it in today’s world. Look, everyone wants to hire women! Extra bonus points if you’re a woman of color!

Yet women only hold 25% of IT jobs in the United States (down from 36% in 1991), and a dismal 5% of top leadership positions. Of that 25%, the majority of these roles are held by white women, with asian (5%), black (3%), and latina (1%) women trailing far behind. Women leave the tech industry at a rate twice as high as men. And since it’s not because of a pipeline problem, all signs point to a combination of dominant norms, lack of intention and focus on diversity, and company culture.

For Annie Wright: The school has continually referenced “the education of high school aged-boys…as the single most important issue at AWS” and “a way to provide a more inclusive approach”. Staff have publicly shown that they do not understand how dominant culture operates or the importance of female space by mansplaining that this decision is important for “the families of our boys…[who] want what the girls are getting”, as if the silly female alumnae had just mistaken the reasons for the school’s decisions.

I’ve seen multiple instances of school leadership confusing systemic privilege with individual hardship as they rush to justify the decision with anecdotal stories about individual boys, all while reassuring everyone about their commitment to all girls education (but, you know, without an actual plan or any data in place to support that).

When I say I’m concerned about the erosion of values in the girls school, it is not appropriate to respond by telling me about the boys’ needs. It’s not a relevant part of the discussion, and should not have been factored into this decision.

The boys will be just fine. I should know. I work with their future selves every day.

5. Don’t talk down to women or assume they’re just overreacting to the situation

Example in tech: It’s common for people to hand-wave away the entrenched existence of sexism, even as they say sexist things like “there’s something about programming that makes many women not want to do it”. Women who speak up about these issues are often subjected to tone policing (here’s a cool primer on this concept if it’s new to you), and microaggressions are everyday occurrences.

A lot of these are hard to see on the surface, but take the form of dismissing people who call out sexism and failing to compensate for implicit bias. These actions have a significant negative impact on how inclusive a company is and the ability for people from marginalized groups to thrive. It’s sometimes described as death by “a thousand tiny paper cuts”.

For Annie Wright: Alumnae are not happy at all (someone even started an entire podcast to dig into this!), because we understand the bigger implications and consequences at play. We aren’t being silly. Or oversensitive. We didn’t just misunderstand the core reason for opening this school. We don’t need you to explain the very complex nature of the decision, because we’ve already done our homework. We understand the situation and still have valid concerns with how it’s playing out.

The general response to alumnae critiques has been first to assume we’re confused, and then to either gaslight, ignore, condescend, or patronize our responses.

Recently, a couple of alumnae requested and were granted 20 minutes to talk to the Board of Trustees about alumnae concerns with the boys school (this was after being denied access multiple times and sending this letter). Sara is an attorney with three kids, who is both an alumna and worked in the school dorms for two years. She’s attended events at the school in at least 18 of the past 22 years and has a history of talking with Christian Sullivan, the Head of Schools. Erin was a Teach for America corps member, is a National Board Certified teacher, and is in her tenth year as an educator. She and her husband were even married in the chapel at Annie Wright and now have two kids. Both Sara and Erin have been incredibly professional in their interactions with the school in regards to concerns about the boys school. This was the email they received outlining the “rules” of their board presentation:

Many alumnae, myself included, are shocked at the tone and implications of this email. Coming from a school that is supposed to empower girls and respect women, the amount of tone policing and general disrespect for two professional women, both of whom graduated from the school, is distressing. (Again, if you’re confused about what tone policing is and why it’s problematic, here’s a nifty little illustrated primer.)

If you want to see the transcript of their presentation to the board, knock yourself out. It’s logical, fair, and in line with the school’s mission and values. It outlines the types of issues the school should have dealt with before even seriously considering a boys school. As of right now, the school hasn’t answered any of the alumnae questions or addressed the six action items that were recommended in the meeting.

Then there’s the censorship. When links about the boys school were posted on the Annie Wright Facebook page, many alumnae, hearing about it for the first time, left comments expressing sadness, concern, and confusion. I compiled some examples, which you can see here — but unfortunately, I can’t link to the live comments because the school is systematically deleting them. Many alumnae have also reported being blocked by the school. Not surprisingly, alumnae found this move odd and offensive, and are interpreting it as a pretty clear signal that the school is not open to discussion.

Annie Wright staff member who seems confused about the value of all girls educational spaces, replying to concerns on Facebook.

There seems to be a general implication that any critique or expression of anxiety and concern for the girls — who should be the school’s utmost priority — is somehow a malicious attack or an affront to basic decency.

You want to show that you respect women and have the basic competency needed to run an all-girls institution? Don’t assume women are being oversensitive or illogical because they disagree with your actions, especially when they back it up with facts.

Remember, when men use expressions of anger they gain credibility, while women using the same language lose it. Check your privilege and start giving our concerns a proportional response.

And that leads us to…

6. Don’t use threats and intimidation. Period.

Example in tech: It’s not uncommon for companies to protect sexual harassers because they are “high performers”. There are countless stories of harassment and intimidation, like Julie Ann Horvath; Horvath left Github in 2014 after being sexually harassed and then subjected to intimidation tactics in order to keep her quiet.

All too often, women speaking up about women’s issues are harassed, dismissed, and intimidated in a way that isn’t proportional to their actions. Anita Sarkeesian, the founder of the website Feminist Frequency, posts commentary on the portrayal of women in popular culture. In 2013 she started a series called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” where she very clearly lays out patterns of problematic depictions of women in video games. You can view any of her videos and see that she’s very even keeled, logical, factual, and articulate. And yet this series resulted in years of horrifying harassment, bomb threats at public appearances, and death threats.

For Annie Wright: The school has had an escalating aggressive response towards alumnae trying to discuss, react to, or understand the current situation. An attempt two months ago to see past Board minutes (a request in line with the NAIS transparency guidelines for Boards) was met with a hostile response that cc:ed the school’s attorney, and has so far failed to produce any minutes.

I won’t say what the rumor is, but you’d better believe they don’t want someone actually looking into it.

Another alumna, after mentioning a credible rumor in a closed Facebook group comment thread, was sent an email demanding she delete it by Christian Sullivan. Setting aside the fact that the Head of Schools has someone feeding him information about a private space created by women to discuss and bond over the current situation, he has no right to demand someone take down a comment made in a private group and reference defamation.

Mary Ann, with her third notice from the school’s attorney banning her from the property

And while all of that should be enough, I want to highlight the fact that I’ve so far only included instances that I have in print. This doesn’t include the fact that the school served four of the more vocal alumnae with restraining orders banning them from school property after they visited recently, and then ran a rather remarkable piece of gaslighting to justify the intimidation (you can listen to the alumnae’s account, here). This includes Mary Ann, pictured, who is both a graduate of the high school and served on the faculty for a number of years. Another one of the banned alumnae just got approved to volunteer with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization (have you seen the requirements for that?). These are not people who are in any way a threat to the girls at Annie Wright, or who deserve to be intimidated for expressing their opinions.

Then there’s the treatment of 16 concerned people at a community meeting with Christian Sullivan in January, where they left feeling dismissed and reported a series of problematic interactions. Read the full account here.

Annie Wright leadership can keep trying to ignore or silence its female alumnae, but at the end of the day they have a very large group of dispersed people who have no ulterior motive for their concern and outrage other than upholding a sacred space for young women to learn.

It begs the question: why is an all girls institution fighting against such an incredibly passionate show of support for girls education? If you have to resort to threats, intimidation, and censorship to get what you want, it’s usually an indication that your needs go against the greater good.

It begs the question: why is an all girls institution fighting against such an incredibly passionate show of support for girls education?

So what now?

The fact that my all-girls high school is using the same logic and justifications that tech leadership uses when talking about inclusivity and diversity is alarming. Every data point already tells us that this leads to bad results, and I strongly encourage the school to take a step back and re-evaluate their larger role and responsibility in the context of society as a whole.

Not sure how to do that? I’m glad you asked. Here are a series of action items from alumnae. We look forward to hearing from you.

Dear Annie Wright Schools,
Don’t follow our lead, because we clearly have no idea what we’re doing.
Sincerely, the tech industry

(P.S. If anyone feels so moved, feel free to sign the petition)

Extra reading: