Closing the Gender Gap From the Bottom Up: Women in Tech, Donglegate, and Revolution

I have wanted to write about the issue of "women in tech" for a long time, and now donglegate has elevated the matter to a level I can no longer ignore. It's like a train wreck from which you can't look away, but the underlying tension speaks to a broader conflict in the tech community. While I find Amanda Blum's excellent post on the matter pretty authoritative, I don't want to focus on Adria Richards' behavior, but instead talk about the background issue of sexism and gender parity in the technology community that informed her behavior.

So, first off: are women and minorities underprivileged in the technology sector? Of course; they are underprivileged in almost every sector of society. Biases, hostile environments, outdated socially constructed roles, bigotry and outright discrimination are pervasive in our community, as they are in most communities. And it doesn't just suck for our community because it's manifestly unjust, but also because it hurts us and our work.

We technologists can write all the code, build all the gadgets, run all the software we want--but if people can't use it, if it doesn't actually solve their problems, if it doesn't speak to their diverse experiences, then it's useless. As women become an ever larger user base, we require their perspective as first-class citizens in the creation of software, hardware, and other high tech products that have become so important. We need to listen to them, sure, but they should also be part of our community as creators themselves, possessing the same skills and ability to pursue their vision in concert with, or independent of, male technologists.

None of this is particularly controversial in the ongoing conversation about women in tech, though I think the ways in which people pursue it often undermines authentic progress. In a field that has experienced such dramatic upheavals on such a regular basis, why has this rather common problem persisted? I want to bring up a few points about institutional power and the nature of community that I believe have been overlooked thus far. I seek to absolve us men of neither our failures in the past nor our responsibility to work towards a more just, compassionate, and inclusive community. But can we do better, and if so, how exactly?

Which tech community?

Consider that those who understand the problem as simply "not enough women in the technology community" are being too reductive and simplistic. "The tech community" is a vague, expansive, and shifting concept by which people mean different things. Sometimes it means programmers, hardware technicians, and other highly technically skilled people who associate through online fora, mailing lists, IRC, etc. Other times it means almost anyone with a smartphone, bloggers, social media users, "enthusiasts" of certain tech brands, tech journalists without any specialized knowledge, etc.

First of all, one should be clear about the specific community to which one is referring when discussing gender parity in tech, because it determines what the prerequisites for respect are. Hackers, developers, and other folks with specific technical skills are known for respecting competency. For decades they were the misfits and outcasts who fiddled and experimented, forging a community out of the successes and failures of this often marginalized and forgotten activity. "Open source" as we know it is largely an outgrowth of people who took personal responsibility for the software they used, building a bottom-up meritocracy out of this sorely needed--but unappreciated and uncompensated--labor.

Nowadays, being a "nerd", a "geek", or a "hacker" is looked upon favorably. This has more to do with the money, influence, and outright power that high tech, startups, and non-traditional technology activities of all kinds command in our society; it's not some nerdy arc of history bending towards us. It's important to remember that many of our tech forefathers were themselves socially marginalized. But now you're seeing more people who don't have the skills wanting to associate with that crowd (Portlandia parodied this hilariously, and got the requisite sexism critique).

Now, are women the only party fudging their tech credentials to get a seat at the table? Absolutely not--not even a little bit. There are plenty of skilled women in our industry, but they are often invisible to us. In addition to the standard discrimination all women experience, they often face humiliating assumptions that their participation in the community is merely on the periphery as girlfriends or "booth babes". When they are doing technical work, they often have to deal with bigotry and disrespect from their colleagues.

If there's a weakness to the point I'm making here, it's that I and other men in tech have often dropped the ball in maintaining the emphasis on skill as a measure of merit and respect. It's not always about sexism, but we have often not extended the same compassion to others that we benefited from as noobs. Programmers focus on communicating with compilers and interpreters, and we could spare some effort to work on communicating with human beings who may not be operating on our precise protocol.

Secondly, the phenomenon of unskilled women identifying as members of the tech community is especially sad because I suspect women have long been tracked into careers on the periphery, careers that require more "emotional labor" or "people skills" like management, customer support, and other less-than-technical fields. These roles lend themselves much more to building the organization than building the product itself, and they are consequently more dependent on workplace politics. Indeed, computer operators were chiefly female at our industry's inception--right up until it was discovered that what they were doing was not mere secretary work but took real skill. When bosses (not technologists themselves) systematically exclude a certain type of person, we should not be shocked when it affects the accompanying culture.

In fact, if I had to guess I'd say that unskilled, wannabe males have been infiltrating the tech community in greater numbers and for longer. However, doesn't this therefore mean the gender parity problem isn't some situation unique to bonafide geeks? Instead, this is a situation where a wider social problem is manifesting in a part of society precisely because it has gotten more diverse.

Finally, all this injustice may have had a quite unfortunate side effect: women in tech placed excessive emphasis on the organizational bureaucracy to the detriment of building technical skills, for the very reason that the chief obstacles have been political, not technical. Has the systematic disadvantages experienced by women convinced many to elevate skill in leveraging managerial power over the technical skill that confers legitimacy in our community?

That wouldn't be entirely their fault, given our community's failures to be sufficiently accommodating. But it also suggests this isn't as simple as pure sexism. This is also an issue of class and workplace control, the same constructs that always pit management against labor and induce people to place business interests and career advancement over the actual work and those who do it.

The industry versus the community

I think this alignment with the formal tech industry against the informal tech community might best explain why Richards addressed the situation by reporting it to conference authorities rather than addressing them directly, as well as why so many women in tech would never behave that way. After all, "developer evangelists" don't write production code much as far as I know. They tend to play a role closer to media personalities or spokespeople, selling to the newly powerful market of software developers, system administrators, and other technologists. Perhaps this is why Richards and many women instinctively appeal to corporate managers, government agencies, academic departments, etc. to champion advancement and equality for women, when the history shows women have every reason to be uniquely and especially hostile towards these centers of concentrated power.

Indeed, if the tech community as a community can be characterized by anything, it is not their rejection of women so much as a disdain for how they are managed. Whether in business, academia, government, non-profits, or other organizations, technologists often feel stifled and let down by the way their skills are employed, the frequency with which their experience and insight are overridden by raw power. They often deal with management grudgingly and derisively (see Dilbert). This is an attitude that singles out power, not women, as the enemies, those who hold the purse strings, boss us around to do what amounts to busy work, taint cool and useful projects with the need to turn a buck, bully us into conforming with byzantine and meaningless top-down policies written by lawyers, and generally make what should be a limitless endeavor appear to be pretty fucking limited on a regular basis.

I believe that's why much of the tech community--male and female alike--chafes at Richards' actions. It's not simply about taking diversity and justice seriously. It's how one pursues those goals and the class with which one instinctively aligns. We techies know arbitrary, under-explained, superficial, imposed demands when we see them, and that's not how members of a genuine community of equals behave or how mistakes and bugs are exposed.

Put aside the distinction between a sexual and a sexist joke. Put aside misunderstandings about the context of "forking". These disputes will happen even without underlying bigotry, and dragging power into it is neither healthy for the community nor how these issues can be resolved. So maybe Richards' behavior shows that she herself doesn't feel part of this community, not that she is a marginalized member.

That could be because of her gender, but it might have more to do with her lack of real participation in our community of skilled technologists. One demonstrates this not by merely "appreciating technology" or "evangelizing for software development" but actively tinkering with it, pushing it, writing it, building it with ever more elegance and ingenuity, creating the open source, bottom-up infrastructure that leads to community, congeniality, respect, and the best possible solutions and standards. Her lack of participation doesn't mean she doesn't deserve respect as a human being; it might very well mean that she doesn't deserve respect as a member of the tech community.

Nothing I'm arguing should be construed as an apology for misogyny in our ranks. I've seen it myself, and have indeed looked for it and expected to find it because plenty of it exists in society at large. Techies are not some special breed of enlightened human.

What it does mean, however, is that looking for a solution from the tech industry--corporations, policies, conferences, and all the constructs duly organized by money and power--is not only utterly mistaken, but it risks casting reform as something that the business folks must impose upon the nerds and geeks, as if through their cleverly crafted anti-discrimination policies, lawyerly anti-harassment tips, and mechanistic affirmative action programs they can or would want to truly empower more people. It's fighting for justice from the top-down rather than from the bottom-up, and the latter has a better history than the former. None of us, in other words, should trust the man.

The elitism inherent in this hierarchical answer to bigotry does little but subvert the meritocracy and decentralized character of our community. Such heavy handed measures will only backfire to the detriment of all, the more marginalized and the less marginalized alike. And when they fail, it will not be seen as a failure of tactics and philosophy, but rather as a reason to keep doing the same thing with broader license and ever more draconian vigor. They can't understand that fighting one kind of oppression by ratcheting up another kind of oppression is a recipe for, well, more oppression, and more confusion about who's doing it and why.

Bottom up, peer to peer justice

What is the solution to the gender imbalance in tech, the lingering misogyny, the unfairness and imbalance of power? I'm not certain, but I think it includes the following:

On that final point: those who have turned gender parity into a rallying cry often grossly understate how nuanced and complicated this coming together is. So you have formulaic presentations like "Anti-Oppression 101" in which some admittedly well-meaning activists represent the struggle as simply changing some personal habits and doing a few things differently. They understand a complicated human matter in terms of statistics and institutional signifiers: how many women are being hired or graduating in our field, or how many reports of discrimination are made? Is it really so simple?

This glosses over the formative role that power and privilege of a non-gender variety play in reinforcing the sexist status quo. Few are asking about the class issues that are arguably more prevalent in tech, or whether getting any gender hired into management shifts the net disempowerment in our industry. By leaving the issue of hierarchy and institutional power totally untouched, those who push a narrow "women in tech" message ignore the crucial ingredient in all oppression: power. Reducing the struggle to a few easy things you can do that won't disrupt your career cannot combat entrenched, organized privileges that sustain the poisonous elements that marginalize people in our field. No, this is revolutionary stuff, and you have to start by liberating yourself.

A truly egalitarian, meritocratic tech community will only thrive once it has built an alternative, parallel tech industry that completely embraces open source, peer-to-peer culture. We must not only take responsibility; we must control our labor and its product so it can be fully leveraged against those ends we choose. Deposing capitalist control of what should be a barrier-breaking, genuinely liberatory community is the only way we can hope to lead the charge for true equality (for more on capitalist faux-egalitarianism, see this essay criticizing from a leftist perspective what we often call "political correctness").

Technology is now an integral part of every institution, from supra-national organizations to families. Those who can operate it have a unique kind of privilege, if you will, that will last no longer than it can be deskilled and commodified by capital. We could choose to leverage this against bigotry on our own terms, without giving the glory to some preening, entitled CEO going through the motions, or some hypocrite who thinks hierarchy is A-OK so long as a person who looks like oneself has a seat at the table. We can see that decentralized, non-hierarchical political groups like LulzSec, Anonymous, and Wikileaks have emerged to take the fight to entrenched power, even as they show how much work we have to do on ourselves still. If we truly care about making our community more just, it means we have to do it ourselves and get rid of all the reactionary, incompatible obstacles that hold us back, those within and without.

Written on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 | Tags: women-in-tech, gender, hierarchy, corporatism, feminism, donglegate