Essays on Technology and Culture

Popping The Geeky Masculinity Bubble

At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference, two teams of hackers introduced and presented sexist—to say the least—app ideas. TechCrunch was quick to deliver the typical non-apology apology that has become standard in the business. Their acceptance of blame only extended to admitting they didn’t scrutinize the apps properly before the conference. You can’t tell me that someone saw the name “TitStare” and didn’t think something was amiss. I doubt they assumed it was a birdwatching tool. “Circle Shake” had a more innocuous name, but its content was far from it.

Whenever sexist behavior pops up at a technology event, or whenever another woman in the technology world speaks up about the sexist bullshit she’s endured at conferences and elsewhere, the reaction is always the same. There’s a sheepish apology and promise to deal with the issue that never is fulfilled. Elsewhere, anonymous crusaders hiding behind screen names will take up arms and attack… the people who raised the troubling issue in the first place. Unlike cockroaches, who typically scatter when the light has been cast upon them, the particularly insidious breed of sexist that lives in the technology community only sees a sign to attack further.

And in the same breath, we often wonder why women are so underrepresented in technology.

Never mind that women are often shunted from birth into
“traditionally female” pursuits, and often discouraged from exploring technology. Even the lucky few women who are able to escape the societal conditioning that technology isn’t for them have to put up with institutionalized sexism from both the Old Boys Club and Young Boys Club that is the tech community at large. [1] When you have a luminary like Dave Winer claiming “[T]here’s something about programming that makes many women not want to do it. Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient.” something is amiss.

There’s certain aspects of the type of people the tech world attracts that help make sexism so pervasive. First, there’s the societal bubble of technology as a primarily male pursuit. With few female voices, technology becomes an echo chamber of men. This becomes deadly when combined with the geek tendency to overgeneralize. [2] Geeky people think in terms of systems and tend to become dogmatic, fining variation difficult to handle to various degrees. (This is a problem I’ve struggled with, too.) So, when a geeky guy who has surrounded himself with fellow geeky guys suddenly sees someone who isn’t like him penetrate his bubble of geekery and masculinity, how does he react? All too often, with fear and hatred.

Even in their bubble, geeky males can still take on the victim mentality, even when there are real victims who are being victimized by the same community and tools that can be used for constructive purposes. This victimization manifests itself in awful places like the Men’s Rights Movement, which leads a lot of the harassment of women who dare speak up about sexism online.

I wish I had an answer on how to fix this. Whenever an event like the TechCrunch debacle happens, or when someone like Melody Hensley dares to just be female in a male dominated space, plenty of decent people step up to make noise and shout down the assholes from their public perch. It’s the private attacks and harassment that make things troublesome, and that the allies of the harassed get more people listening to them than the people they support makes it even worse. These are symptoms, not causes, however. Though there’s more vocal defenders and allies then there were in the past, their support seems to only embolden the forces of sexism. All I think we can do is hope for a tipping point, and to continue to force the discussion about sexism in technology—and elsewhere. Expect a long, drawn out battle.

  1. Very specifically, it’s an Old and Young White Boys Club, but I’m only taking on one aspect at a time, lest this post become too long to expect anyone to read it.  ↩

  2. If I haven’t secured a batch of angry emails by this point, I will now.  ↩