Essays on Technology and Culture

Technology’s War on Women

The biggest problem in technology isn’t buggy Apple software, government and corporate spying, or the venture capital bubble. It’s the systematic and aggressive disenfranchisement of half of the world’s population from the technology world. It’s the ongoing, increasingly violent and visible war on women in technology. Compared to that, a buggy iOS update is nothing. This is not a new war, but it’s had a few flare-ups in recent months. The most visible, of course, is Gamergate, a systematic harassment of women gamers and game journalists under the ostensible banner of “corruption” in games journalism. The war on women in technology extends far beyond such things, covering the gamut from hacked celebrity nude photos to women quitting–or being forced out of—their jobs by the culture in tech companies.

Why is this such a problem? If you have to ask that question, you may be too far gone already. So much of the promises of technology are egalitarian. The Valley likes to promote itself in the guise of a meritocracy. GitHub, considered the new résumé for coders, described itself as a “United Meritocracy” until sexism and harassment in its workplace was revealed. Meanwhile, startups founded by women get less than 5% of all venture capital funding. In established technology companies, there is a gigantic gender imbalance, and it’s not getting better.

Certainly not with a vocal and obnoxious contingent of powerful men in technology using their influence to shut down women. Just a few days ago, legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick attempted to harass a woman out of her job when she spoke up about the harassment that forced another woman developer off Twitter. Sexual harassment of women is endemic at technology conferences. This sort of behavior is unacceptable in any context, and certainly not in an industry that prides itself on the empty rhetoric of “meritocracy.” Even those few technology organizations that recognize the problem and seek to fix it are accused of racism and bias by clueless white men in technology.

This problem isn’t just something women face. It’s a problem experienced by gays and lesbians, by trans and genderqueer individuals, and by minorities in technology. It needs to end. Many men, too many men, don’t see this as their problem. This is the fundamental issue behind the infamous #NotAllMen hashtag. When you say “Not All Men,” what you mean is “I’m not contributing to the problem, therefore it is not a problem.” As long as it is men who are disenfranchising women, men sending rape threats, and publishing personal information about their “targets” for having the temerity to just be female and exist in a public space, it is our problem. We created it. To sit idly by as people like us make the lives of women and other groups a living hell is shameful. If you’re upset by being lumped in with the angry masses of misogynist men, stand up against them—don’t just blithely wash your hands of it.

But, what can we do? Aside from doing our best to shut down those in our midsts who contribute to the problem, and to amplify the voices of women and other marginalized groups, I’m lost. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this issue in my writing for weeks. Part of why it’s taken me so long to publish anything is that I’m worried both that I wouldn’t add anything of value, and that my voice, like that of so many white male “allies” would be amplified to the detriment of important work women and other activists for the technologically marginalized are doing. When a male technology CEO publishes a book about the struggles of women in technology, he gets praised. Meanwhile, activists in the trenches, of all stripes, are ignored once again. I don’t want that to happen here.

There are plenty of women making their voices heard. At the forefront is Shanley Kane’s Model View Culture, with contributors across the gender and racial spectrum contributing insightful criticism of technology. Brianna Wu, of game studio Giant Space Kat is essential to follow, as is Randi Harper, a DevOps engineer, and OSS contributor (the one whom Mitnick tried to get fired). Creatrix Tiara has led the charge against Ello and how social media fails the marginalized. This is just a sampling, and there are plenty more women, trans*, and minorities who are fighting the good fight in technology. Follow them, read them, and learn. Then, take action.