TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of rape, sexual and physical assault.
We know some things about women in tech.The brogrammer culture, with its flamboyant, self-congratulatory misogyny and pretend meritocracy. Its parodic, perpetual adolescence. Its lingo, its fashion, its vices. And yet very little of its true nature is revealed by a hype machine pumping out tabloid spread after tabloid spread in a late and questionably intentioned outrage.
Behind the stark heteronormativity is the predictable streak of rape culture, dangerously paired, as it often is, with a bland homoeroticism. Brogramming presents a bizarre, nightmarish hybrid: a re-imagined geek-as-boy-king that co-opts the jock stereotype in all its brazen physicality, with all its attendant vanilla, American, locker-room male bonding. In brogramming we see a white male hive mind which has tired of its own sexless, fumbling nerd stereotype — itself a cover-up, a type of plausible deniability for a long history of rampant sexual objectification, harassment and assault of women by “nerds.” The brogrammer movement trades a hidden culture of lecherous misogyny for an overt one in an effort to restore a masculinity lost to caricature.
And then there is Lean In, the new brand of white, extreme upper-class tech feminism championed by Sheryl Sandberg and epitomized by Marissa Mayer. It is a self-interested feminism of white privilege, bereft of historical context, bereft of critical thought. It is a feminism removed utterly from the challenges of average women workers in tech, a feminism deliberately pacified for the devouring palate of the status quo.
It is, at last, a feminism the patriarchy can get behind.
“Women’s inspiration,” but inspiration for a lifetime of work given freely to the white male machine, with no certain reward other than soothing the phantom guilt of abandoning a workplace that never gave a fuck about women anyway.
Yes, this is what we know about women in tech, fashioned by a sycophant media and corrupt network of “thought leadership” into memes, scandals and link-bait. The true activists of these issues, much-erased and oft-maligned in the underground, mostly get rape and death threats, harassment, persistent threats to their careers and to their safety. Now, their profiteers enjoy bylines and public accolades. Through outright plagiarism by male “allies” in the limelight of a farcical journalism, the most pressing feminist issues of our time are milked for pageviews by men who are both the only ones the mainstream will listen to and the only ones it will credit. In the reality-distortion field of ever-richer rich white women, they become inspirational posters instead of a movement.
But there is also another conflict — one that is about women undermining feminist discourse and organization within the tech industry in order to preserve their own privilege.
We call this “Fuck You, I Got Mine.” It is made up, primarily, of women with decent tech jobs, with white, cis privilege, who actively and passively work to discredit feminist voices, deny systemic sexism in the industry, confuse the community about empirical gaps in privilege and opportunity, co-sign on the sexist and racist speech acts of influential white men, promote non-threatening conceptions of women in tech, and scapegoat other women for the endemic misogyny in our field.
By aligning with the white male interest, such women stand, ostensively, to gain the trust and support of white men in power, advance their careers, receive positive recognition, present a non-threatening personal image and shield themselves from the ever-present threat of feminist backlash.
It is difficult to talk about how women support the patriarchy in technology. The predominant feminist impulse is to build stronger community with the women who do work in tech. Openly debating “Fuck You I Got Mine,” which is extensively discussed in private spaces, tends to devolve rapidly in public discourse. Little so excites the anti-feminist movement as the opportunity to paint feminism counter to the beliefs, desires and benefit of the mainstream woman — an easier claim in light of feminist critique of the ways women collude in their own oppression. Attempts to discuss the trend of anti-feminist acts by women give an excuse, however flimsy, for women and men in the industry to unite in portraying the feminist community as an angry, irrational mob, decrying its “crazy politics” and creating unsubstantiated, damaging representations of its agenda.
Still, the human shield for entrenched misogyny must be challenged and ultimately dismantled.
The Cost of Admission
“I just prefer to work with men. Most of my friends have always been guys, anyway.”
“The women I’ve worked with have been way worse than men.”
Women in tech have, or so they may believe, much to gain in being perceived as “one of the bros.” Much of the critical networking, decision-making and team bonding important to career growth occurs in male-dominated spaces, cemented by heteronormative male bonding. Gaining access to these spaces — or simply achieving the level of comfort and camaraderie that white men in the industry share as the foundation for their work relationships — may, or may seem to, open up career opportunities. Being “one of the bros” is only possible by presenting a non-threatening persona that is aligned with male privilege and emulates the bonding techniques of straight, masculine men… and often its attendant misogyny (such as participating in casual denigration of women in the workplace).
As part of presenting in a non-threatening manner, attempting to fit it, or reinforcing internalized cultural stereotypes, women will often blame other women for their bad experiences in the workplace, portraying women in positions of power as selfish, domineering, untrustworthy, bitchy, abusive and/or incompetent. This behavior feeds off internalized misogyny, which often pits women against each other as a distraction technique, and sexist perceptions of women in leadership roles that are shared by women and men.
In the end, you have an environment where women are working against each other, for the patriarchy: co-signing on sexist portrayals of women leaders, submerging gender conflict and exploitation in order to gain favor and access to opportunities, and perhaps competing for real or perceived positions provided by tokenism.
Derailment, Gaslighting and Tone Policing
Tone policing is one element of well-documented derailment and role-enforcing strategies in which feminist discourse is pathologized and marginalized as irrational, violent, angry and unreliable. Most feminist discourse in the tech industry is met with a veritable firehose of such strategies ranging from garden variety “you catch more honey with flies!” to blatant and unsubstantiated character assassination of prominent feminists.
Unfortunately, women play a particular dangerous and critical role in discrediting and gaslighting other women and their experiences and speech acts, allowing the industry to persist in a state of denial and providing a highly credible means of deflection from the issues at hand. Women in the community can often be seen berating other women for their “anger”, “negativity,” or “vitriol”, criticizing feminist discourse for alienating men, discouraging or minimizing open discussion of the ugliest issues in the community (such as rape and assault), or painting civil debate as feminist bullying. In tone policing other women, many women are co-signed and supported by influential white men (just check out Dave Winer’s championing of white women defending and indulging his egregious ignorance and obvious, unrepentant sexism) — perhaps hinting at the hidden system of reward offered up to women willing to carry out patriarchy’s bread and butter regulation. In these roles, women themselves act as the first line of defense against feminist dialogue in the industry.
Assault, Harassment and Abuse
Women are regularly harassed, abused, assaulted, molested, stalked and threatened by men in the technology industry. Many of these incidents are never spoken about publicly. The consequences women face for speaking out about these events are often severe and irreversible.
It saddens me that physical and sexual assault, and other forms of gendered violence are so common, and provide such a mesh of shared context for so many women. The acts of providing aid and comfort to our friends, lovers, sisters, family, colleagues and coworkers who have been hurt by men is one I believe every woman knows. This is why it is particularly alarming to see women in tech engage in apologist behavior when one of us shares our experiences of abuse.
Here are some of the horrible things women in tech say and do in response to reports of assault and harassment aimed at other women. I’ve left out links and names of specific incidents because I am more interested in creating awareness than shaming perpetrators, but many of these will sound familiar if you have followed incidents of harassment, abuse and assault in the open source, Ruby, Python and other communities over the past year:
- Publish material assassinating the character of the target, effectively victim-blaming, co-signing on abuse, and participating in the ritual of publicly punishing women who speak out
- Construct the assaulter as an object of pity rather than danger; express equal and/or more concern for the attacker; offer direct support for the assaulter; and other acts that minimize the abuse, the responsibility for it, and the severity of the impact
- Portray assault against women as a minor and rare disruption rather than a common, well-documented and catastrophic endemic
- Cast assault as an interpersonal issue, submerging the systemic forces at work and participating in a subtle form of victim-blaming
- Question the reliability and truth of the account or report (sometimes in non-obvious ways), a way of discrediting and gas-lighting targets rather than supporting them
Defending, normalizing, minimizing and erasing misogynistic attacks of all forms on women is one of the primary ways that patriarchy is enforced through violence and fear. It’s heartbreaking to watch women participating in it.
Underneath blog posts and essays speaking out about sexism and misogyny in the tech industry, you can almost always find a certain variety of commentary from women who work in it. About how they don’t experience sexism in tech, even how being a woman within it is a career advantage as it is easier to stand out and get help (sexist paternalism, white privilege and misogynistic objectification is never mentioned, of course). About how all the other women in tech talking about sexism is making it harder because it makes the men uncomfortable. About how the sexism in tech is overblown, how anyone can succeed in tech if they just work hard enough, how the meritocracy ensures equality. And then, every once in awhile a woman writes a blog post about how sexism in tech is a lie, or minimizing it, or vilifying the feminists, and she enjoys a brief moment of fame in the bro-bubble of internet traffic.
The thing about women who deny sexism in tech, though, is this.
Technology is an objectively homogeneous and sexist industry where the participation and advancement of women is not only stalled but empirically receding, where very few women are in positions of power, where there are regular, public incidents of sexism and assault, where arguments of gender essentialism are common, where most conference speakers are men, and where women are leaving the industry at over double the rate of men.
If you deny sexism in tech, you’re either ignorant or a fucking liar.
Neither is acceptable.
And then there’s the women who never say anything at all about it, ever. They sit in their six-figure jobs with their good health insurance, surrounded by white men. They will probably never be managers or executives, victims of what is less a glass ceiling than a glass jell-O in which the ambitions and advancement of women exist in a suspended animation.
Of everything else mentioned in this post, I have the most empathy for this. I understand the silence. It is career-limiting to speak out. It can be scary, and it is dangerous. Many of you are well-justified in staying away from a discussion and a political, moral and ethical stance that may threaten your economic security, career advancement, health and safety. Ultimately, I prefer silence to the blatant denial.
Still, I can only imagine the power of every woman in the industry saying SOMETHING or doing SOMETHING besides just occupying the space. Imagine that. Maybe you can do a little more than you are now. If so, I hope you will.
But if not, I understand too. You are doing a lot, just by being here in all this fucking bullshit.
In order to correctly discuss the ways women in technology align with the patriarchy, we must acknowledge two co-existing facts.
- Women resort to many strategies to protect and defend themselves from the patriarchy and to achieve security, opportunity, upward mobility and a fulfilling life within its constraints. This is one way that the patriarchy secures the collusion of the people it oppresses, and it is necessary to its continuance. While it may not be useful at this juncture to weigh the moral and ethical complications of this behavior in certain groups, it is negligent to ignore it.
- The tech industry, just as it is shaped by sexism, is shaped by white supremacy and a system of racism and privilege that provides white women access to career opportunities, career security and career growth not shared by women of color. The white privilege that benefits many white women in tech plays a huge role in allowing them to occupy a position denying gender oppression, supporting the patriarchy, and undermining feminist activism. It is no coincidence that the majority of women engaging in the behavior mentioned in this post are white women. We must not erase the truth and consequences of intersectional oppression and racism in constructing and moderating this behavior.
The way women themselves participate in, defend and promote the sexism and entrenched gender inequality in the tech industry is the cause of much sadness, anger and despair — especially among the women who are dedicating much of their time, lives and money to speaking out, raising awareness, building community with women, promoting women, helping them succeed. Making things better both for women in tech today and the women who will follow us.
And yeah, it is hard to talk about.
But ultimately, the level of damage done by the “fuck you I got mine” attitude of many women in our industry — the active sabotaging, erasure, derailment and discrediting of women and feminist organization in order to advance their careers a tiny notch, get blog traffic, get co-signed by the male establishment, and ensure their ultimate comfort — is incalculable.
And so we talk we must.