The Best of Systers Blog Sexism in Tech: The Revolution is being Tweeted
Author: Leslie Hawthorn
And your business will get forked if you’re not paying attention….
We hear about sexism in the tech industry frequently, and many readers of this blog no doubt experience such on a daily basis. The most recent prominent entries in the ongoing saga of poor and demoralizing behavior aimed at women in the technology industry? Squoot and Geeklist. If you’re not familiar with either of these incidents, you can check out Read Write Web’s synopsis of Squoot’s offer of women serving beer as a perk of attending their hackathon. Or you can check out Charles Arthur’s Storify on Geeklist, a model dancing about in her underpants, and the founders’ backlash against the woman who asked them to remove the video. I’m not even going to touch the Girls Around Me application or Evolven’s possibly April Fool’s joke possibly not Hottest Women in IT post. I’ll talk a bit about the Squoot and Geeklist incidents, but stick with me to the end, gentle reader–it gets better.
Ok. Deep breath. Now would be a great time, if you haven’t already, to bask in a moment of total “What the fsk?” and wonder why, yet again, women find themselves the target of objectification, intimidation, and implied threats against their financial well-being for speaking up about sexism. Really, people. We pride ourselves on working in an industry that by nature eschews old ways of thinking and doing in favor of the latest innovations. Why are these kinds of mistakes still made? Why are we still having discussions about treating women as equals 40 years after Gloria Steinem founded Ms. magazine? For reference, that’s more than 11 years before the release of the first computer that I and many technologists in my age cohort used, the Apple IIe.
Why Are We Still Having These Discussions?
I can’t answer those questions definitively, and I suspect it’s any number of things. To paraphrase Shanley Kane, perhaps it’s all the economic activity in the tech sector right now; as more and more dollars are being thrown around on outrageous ventures, sexism creeps back in because people begin to feel like all the stops are off and appropriate levels of forethought are no longer a requirement to do business. People, both men and women, have trouble acknowledging their internalized sexism, and it takes blatantly nasty behavior to remind folks that this issue roils quietly beneath the surface of our day-to-day lives as technologists. These conflicts also seem to be required to bring folks into a discussion of sexism, issues of privilege, and how to understand that, yes, these sexist behaviors are, in fact, a big deal.
I’ll admit that Squoot’s disastrous marketing ploy didn’t faze me one bit. I took one look at their copy–riddled with typos and grammar errors in addition to sexist drivel–and thought simply “amateur hour.” They clearly hadn’t vetted their announcement with anyone, let alone their sponsors–for those new to the startup game, failing to run your announcement copy by your sponsors is a big no-no–and their auto-tweeted apology was laughable at best. I said my piece on Twitter, and watched as friends and friends of friends pressed for the hackathon’s sponsors to pull out. They did, quickly, and props to them, and I went my merry way feeling that good had triumphed.
In fact, I congratulated myself on having grown a thicker skin and having not gotten angry about the latest testosterone-laden brogrammer crap that crossed my Tweet stream. I was excited that the community backlash was swift and just. While I largely shrugged it off, I knew others who were genuinely disturbed and upset by the whole thing, and I hoped that the outcome had reassured them that such incidents were surely going to become increasingly rare. People were learning. Women’s voices of protest were heard. Allies swarmed to our cause. I felt like things were genuinely getting better.
Apparently, We Never Learn….
The Geeklist fiasco, though, really hit me hard. Just days after the squishing of Squoot, it didn’t even occur to this company’s founders that they might have a bit more to think about than their egos when responding to a woman’s request to remove a video showing a model dancing about in her underpants whilst wearing the company’s logo on both her t-shirt and said underpants. Didn’t occur to them that the best response to a complaint about a video that one of the founders admitted needed “less skin” was simply to offer to look into it further or, better yet, to take it down immediately. Didn’t occur to them that suggesting there was no merit in the complaint because the complainant used an aggressive tone was a bad idea. Didn’t occur to them to not draw in the woman’s employer as a means to silence her objections. The bad press Geeklist received and their subsequent apologies didn’t make me feel any better. Apparently, “no one” was paying any attention to the many voices denouncing sexism in our industry. “No one” was learning a darn thing. So much for small victories.
Ok. Deep breath. What the fsk. Really, what the fsk. Inappropriate. Discomfiting. Juvenile. Horrifying. The constant drip drip drip of subtle sexism that I largely ignored began to weigh upon me once again. I wondered why the hell I or any other woman remains in an industry where she is constantly made to feel othered. I pondered how many cycles are wasted in the challenging of such behaviors and in explaining and re-explaining why it’s such a big deal. Cycles that could be spent solving technical problems, creating innovative products, or opening new markets entirely. I briefly entertained changing careers entirely, heading to a profession where my merit would be measured by my output rather than how primed I appeared to be to “put out” for a largely male audience.
But, all righteous indignation aside, I love working in the tech industry. I love being surrounded by some of the world’s most intelligent people solving some of the world’s most interesting problems. I love most of the people I work with daily. I remain impressed by the number of male allies who gladly speak up when these kinds of things happen. And I really don’t want to spend my days feeling like my only recourse is to have yet another “man bad, woman good” conversation.
It is of some help that the Geeklist folks apologized for their poor conduct and attempted to make amends by both admitting wrongdoing and dedicating effort to showcase the accomplishments of women developers. Apparently, some people are listening and some people are learning. However, I still feel like we’re much better off having a useful vector for discussions of sexism and non-inclusiveness in the technology field that doesn’t start with a flame war and end with apologies. I’d rather we construct a framework for useful dialogue that leads to positive and global cultural change.
Here’s a Tool to Make Things Better
As a good friend once said to me, software communities are really great at negotiating about code and licenses, but not about most other things because there’s no objective way to measure the effectiveness of human interaction. While I think my friend had a point, we can surely establish some sort of baseline to test for inclusivity in our communities. This baseline testing can be then be used as a framework for useful dialogue.
Enter The Inclusive Team Tests. We’ve all spent a great deal of time discussing sexism in the tech industry, how it manifests, and how we’re sick and tired of it. Modeled after The Joel Test, the Inclusive Team Tests are meant to be a set of questions that allow companies to better examine their inclusivity in a proactive and non-confrontational manner. The questions are also meant to be useful for job seekers looking to better understand if the companies they are about to join value inclusivity in both word and action.
The concept of the Inclusive Team Tests may not solve all of our problems or be ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’d like to see us converting all those aforementioned wasted cycles into kinetic energy to move us all forward. If you find this resource to be useful or valuable, please fork it on Github, add your contributions, and submit a pull request. The first Inclusive Team Test, the Ada Test, focuses on women, but my collaborators and I would like to see this project improved and expanded. You’ll note that Bug #1 filed against the Ada Test states that it was originally authored by a white male, my colleague, Troy Howard. We know these resources need improvement and welcome your contributions. We hope that this resource will provide a useful starting point for both corporate introspection and candid discussion.
For those who may still be wondering what the big deal is with all the kerfuffle about sexism in the tech industry, I urge you to check out the Ada Test. Consider just how inclusive your marketing materials make your company appear. Consider what messages you’re sending to your customers, your would-be employees, and your potential investors. If they suspect the next news they’ll see is a Tweet storm of anger about how far you’ve missed the mark when it comes to knowing and respecting your audience, chances are you’ll lose some from each of these categories.