No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it

How French High Theory and Dr. Seuss can help explain Silicon Valley’s Gender Blindspots

I get it, I do.

I was into programming my whole teenage life, including stints in a run-of-the-mill American middle school, a brainy high school in Turkey, and as a computer science undergraduate in college, which I started when I was 16. And, why, yes, I was almost always the the only girl in my “geek” social circles, thanks for asking.

Hence, I was struck with recognition by Nate Silver’s defense to criticisms that his, and other journalism start-ups, are hiring lots of (mostly white) guys and reproducing old power structures. In response to Emily Bell’s article, Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men, where she criticizes Silver for seeking “clubhouse chemistry”, Silver says:

The phrase “clubhouse chemistry” is an allusion to baseball, but the idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.

In a nutshell, I think this paragraph helps explain a reasonable chunk of Silicon Valley’s gender problems. Many tech guys, many young and recently ascendant, think something along these lines: “Wait, we’re not the jocks. We aren't the people who were jerks. We never pushed anyone into a locker and smashed their face. We’re the people who got teased for being brainy, for not being macho, the ones who never got a look from the popular girls (or boys), the ones who were bullied for our interests in science and math, and… what’s wrong with Dungeons & Dragons, anyway?”

In other words, as Silver puts it, “We’re outsiders, basically.”

There are two ways to explain what’s missing in this picture: French social theory and Dr. Seuss.

Let’s start with Pierre Bourdieu since French High Theory is often less subtle and more direct than a great children’s book.

Bourdieu, a renowned French sociologist, proposed that there are many different types of capital. He coined the phrase cultural capital to account for certain ways of being that are valued within a particular social group that go beyond money and connections (economic capital and social capital, respectively). He proposed that these different types of capital are all convertible to each other, in the long run, but at different rates. In other words, money is always money, but your esoteric knowledge in a particular field can be highly valued, or not, depending on a lot of other factors.

Cultural capital refers to tastes, practices and ways of being that are valued within one’s social circle: opera, rather than the latest rap song (or vice versa); slow home cooking as a hobby, rather than Nascar racing (or vice versa); Google Glass or “disconnected” weekends. To what degree these are arbitrary, or a mix of history, privilege and functionality is a longstanding debate I’ll ignore for the moment; but the way they shift through history makes some of the arbitrariness easier to understand. Opera, for example, used to be a poor person’s entertainment.

So far, so good. Yet, as Bourdieu explained, different kinds of cultural capital operate differently in different habitus, or the persistent social structure in which you operate and which shapes your norms (think of your neighborhood or your social circle in high-school, the people whose views you care about and who exert social and peer pressure on you). A particular behavior may be cherished in one habitus and excluded in another. What is high cultural capital in one habitus may be low value in another—and not just by coincidence, but because people actively use these cues to set themselves apart into groups. Exercising cultural capital by definition makes you an insider and an outsider at one and the same time.

Every group, including the excluded and disadvantaged, create cultural capital and behave in ways that simultaneously create a sense of belonging for them in their existing social circle while also potentially denying them entry into another one, often at the expense of economic capital. It’s easy to see that wearing baggy, sagging pants to a job interview, or having large and visible tattoos in a corporate setting, might limit someone’s access. These are some of the markers of belonging used in social groups that are often denied opportunities. By embracing these markers, members of the group create real barriers to acceptance outside their circle even as they deepen their peer relationships. The group chooses to adopt values that are rejected by the society that’s rejecting them. And that’s what happens to “weird nerd” men as well—they create ways of being that allow for internal bonding against a largely exclusionary backdrop.

But life’s not just high school, and there is not one kind of hierarchy. What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.

Most tech people don’t think of it this way, but the fact that most of them wear jeans all the time is just another example of cultural capital, an arbitrary marker that’s valued in their habitus, both to delineate it and to preserve it. Jeans are arbitrary, as arbitrary as ties. As arbitrary as the arcane and technical code people in my social circles would compete with each other to write during my teen years. C programmers trumped Visual Basic programmers, who were then trumped by Assembly programmers. Assembly programmers competed among themselves, and boasted writing directly in Hexadecimal rather than in Assembly language. People used DOS Debug to directly enter programs rather than using a text editor, or deliberately used the more low-level, cumbersome, interrupt 13 rather than interrupt 21 to do disk operations. If it makes no sense to you, it’s not important, because the point wasn’t what sense they made, but how they delineated community. Like most things about human life, they were primarily about community, status and peer interactions. (Though I’ll admit that I cannot fathom voluntarily coding in Visual Basic).

How does that relate to the Silver’s charged defense that his team could not be “bro-y” people? Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege. When they think of male privilege, they are thinking of “macho” jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture. But if brogrammer culture opposes macho culture, it does not follow that brogrammer culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women.

To understand this better, let’s turn to Dr. Suess and the Sneetches. Remember the book? Some Sneetches had stars, and others did not.

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches-
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches-Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts
Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches.
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.

And then comes along Sylvester McMonkey McBean with his new-fangled machinery that adds stars to a belly for $10. A lot of Sneetches without stars get in line to acquire one! The star-bellied Sneetches then get quite upset as their distinction is lost, and end up paying Sylvester McMonkey McBean more $$$ to get their own stars taken off, which then they proclaim as the new “in” thing.

“Good grief!” groaned the ones who had stars at the first.
“We’re still the best Sneetches and they are the worst.
But, now, how in the world will we know,” they all frowned,
“If which kind is what, or the other way round?

You can imagine the rest. Sylvester McMonkey McBean drains both kinds of Sneetches of all their money, adding and taking off stars while both sides try to maintain their status through this distinction. The point isn’t the star, or lack thereof, the point is the distinction it confers. (Distinction, by the way, is the name of Pierre Bourdieu’s book on this topic).

What are the star-bellies in the tech world? I’ve heard an endless number of stories from the women in the field, and anyone willing to listen will be inundated with more. The issues are complex and hard to pin down to a simple few things but I’ll list some of the most obvious ones (without implying that Nate Silver’s outfit suffers from any and all of these—but these are common enough).

Women in tech often:

  • end up representing not just themselves but womanhood in general (the way black people wind up representing all black people, whereas white people can screw up without besmirching their whole race).
  • put up with gendered insults and either pretend to not notice, or take no offense (to be one of the “guys”.)
  • endure sexist jokes and pretend to find them funny, or ignore them.
  • enter social spaces that are constructed around interests that were fostered in earlier, mostly-male environments in which business was also done, and from which women aren’t excluded by decree but resisted through cultural norms.

As I said, some of these can be subtle and not reflect standard macho culture, but still be gendered with significant impact if you consider that these go on year after year, and have cumulative effects in that many women— and men— who don’t fit into the “bunch of weird nerds” culture will leave the field. (On the other hand, some are not so subtle and include outright bullying but that’s not what I’m talking about here).

What is to be done? The first point is not to be so defensive. I don’t know which ones apply to Fivethirtyeight or Vox or the other startups that Emily Bell writes about. But we do know that their hires have been mostly male and mostly white. If there is indeed a workplace skewed in terms of representation, it helps to listen as much as possible.

Of course, the advantage Sneetches had was that the stars were visible and explicit whereas good chunks of the (mostly male) tech culture has inherited a set of distinctions that has helped keep them going in their youth and which they cannot believe is anything but harmless. Lack of critical awareness about the sea in which one swims is a very difficult problem to overcome and requires dropping down defenses to listen, as a first step.

It’ quite true that a lot of these problems are “pipeline” problems. Decades of subtle processes can shape the number of qualified applicants and make it hard to hire people across the spectrum. However, it’s not enough to throw up one’s hands and blame the pipeline because the issue continues to persist at every stage and something can be done at every stage. What’s necessary is to create an environment in which women can speak up, and more importantly, be heard. Not every complaint may be equally valid, and the personal and the structural will be a messy mix, as it always is. Some of the offenders will be well-meaning people with blind spots, others might be malicious bullies. Some accusations may feel unjust while others will feel right on.

Whatever the way forward, it’s not “we’re outsiders, basically” therefore we couldn’t possibly be exclusionary. And diversity in newsroom or in the development team is not just a feel-good, but a functional need as well. Fiascos such as Google Buzz in which they did not realize the extend of the backlash they’d endure by making people’s email contacts visible to each other, or Grantland’s infamous story in which they could not figure out what was offensive about hounding and outing a trans individual (they didn’t have a single one to look over the story) are some recent examples in which diversity among decision makers would have really helped bring much-needed different viewpoints to the table.

Remember how The Sneetches ended? After Sylvester McMonkey McBean starred and unstarred all the Sneetches enough times, they could no longer tell who was who, and which was which. They were all out of patience with the status games, as well as out of money, since Sylvester had it all now. And with that, finally, they made peace. It may not be so easy in the technology or news world, but bringing down defenses is the first good step.

Sneetches, from Dr. Seuss