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Why sexism in tech is even more complicated than you think

Here’s why women are leaving Silicon Valley.


Miri Mogilevsky

Internet Culture

When we think of a “hostile workplace environment,” we often think of the blatant, obvious things—like inappropriate touching, overtly sexual comments, and the implication that the boss needs “a favor” before you can get a promotion.

But for women in tech—an industry that has been making the news lately for its poor representation of women, many of whom are leaving Silicon Valley in droves—it’s the more subtle things that push them out.

For instance, Tracy Chou, now an engineer at Pinterest, says of a previous experience: “The continuous pattern of all these people treating me like I didn’t know what was going on, or excluding me from conversations and not trusting my assertions, all these things added up and it felt like there was an undercurrent of sexism.”

Women of color particularly face the “double jeopardy” of race and gender. For instance, almost half of black and Latina women working as scientists report being mistaken for janitors in their workplace. Such comments send a subtle message that they don’t belong in the lab or the office.

It’s easy for those who are not targeted by such comments and behaviors to dismiss them as “not such a big deal” and to tell women to “grow a thicker skin”—or, of course, to deny that they happen at all. However, that betrays a lack of understanding of social psychology.

Here’s an analogy that may be familiar to many men working in the tech sector: school bullying. While some bullies use overt physical violence against their targets, many do not. It’s the mean note passed to you in class. It’s the way people roll their eyes or turn away or whisper exaggeratedly as you pass in the halls. It’s the backhanded compliments: ”Nice shirt. Did you get it at Goodwill?” “Wow, you actually managed to get a date to Homecoming!” It’s the comments and pranks that are just a little too cruel to be a joke between friends.

When children who are being bullied try to tell teachers or other adults, these authority figures often either deny outright that there is a problem or assume that unless physical violence is happening, that there’s no real danger. (Even then, many adults are reluctant to get involved.) Confronting bullies, of course, is useless. They often gaslight their victims: “We were just joking around!” “What’s the problem? I was trying to give you a compliment!” “Of course, we want you to hang out with us!”

I see similar dynamics going on in tech and other STEM fields. Women give examples of how their male coworkers create a hostile work environment, but those with the power to change things deny or ignore the problem. Meanwhile, women know what they’re experiencing, and their bullies know exactly what they’re doing.

While overt bullying, harassment, and discrimination can obviously be painful and damaging, it can sometimes be easier for people to make sense of it, and easier to cast the person doing it in the role of perpetrator (emphasis on sometimes). It can become a source of pride and strength to remain in that environment despite these circumstances and to prove that you have what it takes to succeed there.

But when it’s more subtle, women are left constantly questioning whether or not anything even happened, whether or not it’s “a big deal,” whether or not they’re “too sensitive,” and whether or not it’s worth speaking up about (even to other women). That’s why the hostile work environments that women in tech frequently describe are so damaging: They erode women’s passion and confidence in their work without leaving them a clear explanation of what’s going on.

When you hear someone list off these “little things”—the way nobody pays attention when she speaks in a meeting, those times a male colleague got credit for her ideas, or the fact that her boss discourages her from trying new things and learning new skills—it’s easy to dismiss each individual incident as random or meaningless. But when they pile up, they’re hard to ignore, and they have a cumulative effect. It’s sexism by a thousand cuts.

It’s tempting, too, to try to assign some sort of objective level of hurt to every sexist action, to rank them all from least to most sexist. Men who have not experienced sexism may imagine that, since it’s much more rare for women to be literally assaulted at work these days (though it happens), they have nothing to complain about. Being interrupted constantly by men at each team meeting can’t be “as bad,” can it? Getting passed over for promotion after promotion is surely “an improvement” from not being able to get hired at all!

But if women are saying that sexism hurts and negatively impacts their careers, that’s because it hurts and negatively impacts their careers. Trying to rank different types of sexist actions from “least bad” to “most bad” helps nobody except men who don’t want to change their behaviors and workplaces.

There are, of course, other reasons besides subtle sexism that women are underrepresented in the tech sector. The oft-discussed “pipeline problem” refers to the fact that many girls and young women who initially want to pursue STEM careers end up dropping out before they ever get there, perhaps because others explicitly and implicitly discourage them from studying these subjects. Fixing this is important and requires educating the public about the role of gender stereotypes in keeping talented people from doing what they want to do.

However, despite the leaky pipeline, there are already many women doing what they want to do—or trying to. To help these women stay there, we must expand our definition of sexism to include the subtle things we’d rather ignore and encourage people with authority in the tech industry to hold each other accountable for them.

Photo via CL-Photography/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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