I see comments along these lines pretty much every time the issue of gender inequality in tech comes up. A lot of men (and sometimes women) respond to women suggesting that men have to give up their privilege by saying “So you’re saying that in order for women to get ahead, they have to pull men down?! That’s not fair!” The tricky thing about statements like these is that they’re half true. The problem is that people assume that because they are half true, that means they are completely true. Let me explain…
Let’s say that all the jobs in tech are in a room on the second floor of a building. There are a limited number of people that can fit in that room, so only the people who get there the fastest can have the jobs (in the metaphor “fast” subs for “most skilled”).
In order to get to the second floor, there are a set of escalators, one that goes up and one that goes down. The escalator moving up is full of men. There is no room for women on this escalator. Many women see this challenge as insurmountable and go home.
Some deeply committed and resourceful women revert to using the escalator moving down. These women have to haul ass up the escalator just to make any progress. Some of them run so fast up the down escalator that they make it to the room on the second floor before it fills up. Some of them are still walking up, making slow progress, tired, but hoping that with enough diligent walking they’ll make it to the room with the jobs before the room completely fills up. Some of them get so tired of literally fighting an uphill battle, that they stop walking, and eventually land on the bottom floor, exhausted, and go home.
Now, let’s not forget about the men. The men, mostly white men for our example, are also trying to get to the room before it fills up. There’s not enough room for all of them either, so they still want to be fast. The really fast (remember that “fast” means “skilled”) men are running up the up escalator. They truly are working hard and they deserve to get their spot in the room. Some of the men are walking, working pretty hard, but also getting a little extra help simply because they were lucky enough to be on the up escalator. No one is saying that these men aren’t hard workers or that they wouldn’t make it to the second floor on their own; some of them surely would. There are also some men who are just standing on the escalator, simply letting the luck of the draw propel them up. Most of these men won’t make it to the room. Many other men will beat them, and the really fast women will beat them too.
The room finally fills up and the people who made it to the top are looking around, proud of themselves and happy with their position. Some of the men notice that there are fewer women; many don’t care, but some are genuinely concerned. “Why do so few women make it to the second floor?” they ask. Those exceptional women who actually made it try to explain the escalator situation to the men who care.
The women explain that while they are running non-stop to get to the top, the men don’t have to work nearly as hard to get as far. Again, note that they are saying the men don’t *have* to. Some of the men are working really hard, and many of them are working fairly hard, but all of them are certainly also benefitting from the fact that they’re being propelled upward simply because of their gender. The women don’t think this is very fair at all.
At this point, the women suggest that perhaps we turn off both of the escalators. This would make for a more level playing field. The women would have it a little easier and the men would, unfortunately, have it a little harder. The men say “What?! That’s not fair! Why should the women only be able to get ahead by slowing the men down?! That’s misandry!”
The women try to argue that, no, they don’t hate the men, they merely think it’s a little unfair for them to get ahead just because they are men. They are simply suggesting a way to make things fair. This still doesn’t fly. The women at the top, down-trodden, try to think of other solutions.
For deep-seated structural reasons, the down escalator cannot be switched to an up escalator; it’s either off (best case) or moving down (worst case.) Trying to work within the preexisting structure of the building, the women come up with another suggestion: the men can keep their up escalator, but we will build a small elevator for women’s use only. The elevator will go roughly the same speed as the men’s own escalator. And while the elevator will have to be small, taking only a few women at a time, it’s better than nothing.
To this, the men say “What?! That’s not fair! Why do the women get special treatment just for being women?!”
The women respond by explaining that the men already get special treatment because their escalator moves up all of the time.
To which they respond “No! A lot of men walk and run up the escalator! We work really hard to get to the top!”
The women say “Yes, a lot of the men work really hard to get to the top, but that doesn’t mean that they still don’t have an unfair advantage.”
To which they respond “No! The women have an escalator too! If they were really so disadvantaged, why are there women at the top, huh?!”
The women, exasperated, say “Yes, there are a few women at the top. Those women are exceptional. They work really hard. In fact, they have to work twice as hard to get to the top. That’s why we want to install the elevator.”
The men, still not convinced, argue “But look at your escalator! There are way fewer women on it to start, so of course there are fewer women at the top. Duh! That’s called math!”
The women, a little more hostile now, respond “The reason there are so few women on the escalator is that they are tired! They were exhausted from constantly walking up and getting nowhere! So they left. Other women started at the bottom, saw the movement of both escalators and didn’t even bother stepping on! They also went home. Then other women showed up, saw how few women were on the escalator and how hard they were working and gave up too. THAT is why there are so few women on the escalator.”
The men say “See?! The women are quitters! They don’t want to take any risks! If more women were taught to take risks we wouldn’t have this problem!”
The women, really irritated now, say “No! If more men learned to put away their privilege and have empathy for other people we wouldn’t have this problem!”
And of course, the men, defensive, say “Hey, I was just trying to understand the issue and work with you to figure out why this is happening. You don’t have to be so bitchy about it! We’re just trying to help! This is why we don’t like feminists! People like you give them a bad name!”
At this point, the women at the top are physically and mentally exhausted both from running up the escalator and from fighting with the men about the damn escalator. Despite their exhaustion, they pull together and build the small elevator in their off hours. (For the purposes of the thought experiment, let’s say the elevator is powered by a pulley system that requires some effort and lends itself to differing speeds based on skill level). The elevator helps for awhile. More women see this alternative to the down escalator and stay. A few more even make it to the top. The women, still in their office hours, build a few more small pulley-powered elevators. A few more women make it to the top.
Because more women are making it to the top floor, this inevitably means less men make it before them. Seeing this, the men become enraged. “This isn’t fair! This is sexist! If the women have an elevator the men should have an elevator too!”
The women try to explain that the elevator is here to help women because women are at a disadvantage. They explain that the men already have an escalator that moves up.
The men don’t like this as an explanation. “That’s not fair! An eye for an eye doesn’t it make it right! The men should be allowed in the women’s elevators! We let the women have an escalator! You’re discriminating against men!!!”
Unfortunately, as more women are making it to the top via pulley elevator, the men are gathering together and saying, “They didn’t make it here like the rest of us! They had an unfair advantage! Those women shouldn’t be here. They’re not as fast us. They only got here because they’re women.” And a lot of these women will get discouraged and go back down the escalator, or elevator, from whence they came.
And so on and so on until the end of time. Or at least as far as I can tell.
I’m going to stop before I get too far down the rabbit hole of this metaphor (it may already be too late). But you get the idea.
The point here is that women are not asking for a lot. We’re simply asking that everyone start from an equal place and with an equal amount of upward force. If you stop all of the escalators, you’ll end up with only the very fastest people at the top, this will create better solutions for everyone. This will mean that the slower people, men and women alike, wont be getting an unfair advantage, and therefore might not make it to the floor with the jobs. Maybe this will encourage them to walk a little faster.
All that being said, we’re moving into (or may already be in) an era in which there aren’t even enough people in tech to do all the jobs. We’re going to need more people. Rather than waiting at the top for even the slowest of men just to fill the room, we should try to encourage the women to go to the second floor!
Get on the goddamn escalator.
Walk up it.
RUN if you have to!
If worse comes to worse, make yourself a fucking elevator. I’ll help.
Note: I’m on Twitter if you want to continue the discussion!