Is Tech Culture Really Hostile To Women?

Not too long ago, Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson was forced to resign after he posted a series of tweets that were dismissive of concerns over the role of women in tech. In defending himself, Dickinson pointed out that he reported to a woman at Business Insider for the past three years, and that his longest tenured senior developer was a woman.

The incident followed on the heels of two sexist, inappropriate presentations at TechCrunch Disrupt in September. In light of the events, many bloggers began reflecting on tech culture and whether such incidents are unusual, or simply expressions of typical views.

‘Normal’ Inappropriate Behavior

Sonia Connolly, a Senior Software Engineer at LivingSocial, has been working as a developer since her first summer job in 1987. She holds a master’s degree in Computer Science from UC Berkeley. Although she says she hasn’t experienced blatant sexism in her industry, she has noticed the subtle and pervasive kind. “What I get is the people who expect me to not know what I’m doing but are willing to keep their mouths shut to find out whether I do or not,” she says. “They don’t tell me, ‘you must be a junior programmer,’ they just kind of act like it until I surprise them by actually knowing what I’m doing.”

Hostile to WomanAlthough she has worked in a company in the Bay Area with female managers and directors and worked for a female head of engineering for a fairly large startup, upon moving to Portland, Ore., Connolly found herself with only five female engineers out of a company’s123.

She recalls watching a presentation on security from someone outside of the business. “We were watching it remotely because my company’s really distributed, and there was an internal chat room, and I noted that the typical user is always male, except in this case,” she recalls. “They were talking about a victim of a security incident, and so it was clearly a woman they were using as a symbol for a user. I said, ‘Yeah, the default user is always male until it’s a victim… and also of course the silhouette of the victim was white and the silhouette of the person invading was black.”

In return for speaking up, Connolly received quite a round of backlash. “Boy, people came down on me,” she says. “It wasn’t OK that I brought that up. They thought I was attacking the speaker and I wasn’t. I was pointing out an aspect of his presentation. I wasn’t saying that he was a bad person. People who were not white men responded that way [as well]. It’s our culture to support and defend the dominant groups.”

Speaking Out

Ruby Developer and RailsBridge Co-Founder Sarah Mei, who has an academic CS background backed by a decade of real-world app building, says that inappropriate presentations are not uncommon, and that speaking out at the moment it happens is important. “I’m the one who will ask the awkward questions in the Q and A. That is my job … because if I do it, other people will do it,” she says.

While working as a Software Engineer at Pivotal Labs, Mei attended a lunchtime tech talk in which a developer used example code including the string “Princess Leia in a chainmail bikini.” Says Mei: “That phrase was up on the screen a lot. Everything else was pretty normal stuff. At the end of the presentation he asked if there were any questions. And a lot of people asked questions about the technical content, but I raised my hand and I said, I’m curious why you chose that example.”

Just asking the question made a big difference. “We had a similar thing happen a month or two later and the presenter was basically challenged almost immediately by a man in the audience,” Mei recalls.

Though Mei believes that most men want to do the right thing, she says, “they don’t read social cues very well and they don’t understand what’s appropriate.” Further, Mei points out, incidents at conferences where speakers put pornography or near-pornography in their presentations are still all too common.

An Improving Atmosphere

Mei, who feels that changing the balance of the audience at events is important, has given a lot of presentations herself. “When I first started doing conference talks, I thought that maybe they were picking me because they wanted more diversity in their speaker lineup and not because they thought my talk would be good,” she says. “As I did my talks and got better at it, I actually realized I did a better job than most people, and am better at it than most men, and that actually I don’t think it was ever the case that they picked me because of my gender. They picked me because I give good talks and can organize technical information well.”

Despite ongoing challenges, “the vast majority of the time, I feel comfortable,” Mei says. She’s also noticed that the open source community is much more apt to discuss gender issues than it was when she started in 1999. “Back then it wasn’t even something we talked about,” she says.

Though it happens less and less, Mei still sometimes finds herself on a team with people who have never worked with women before. She points out that research indicates diverse teams do better than homogenous ones, even if they’re less qualified on paper. “When you are interacting with people that don’t look like you, your brain is getting in a mode where it’s not completely comfortable. You have to work a little bit harder.”

“I don’t think a lot of people understand the reason why diversity is important,” Mei observes. “We as a society have some amazingly difficult problems to solve and we can’t solve them if only half the people in the world that are qualified to work on them work on them.”

Software Developer Elise Worthy, who was working as a marketer alongside programmers for startup Web applications, notices that increased technical clout has actually improved the way she gets perceived.

“I definitely get treated differently and people think I’m more credible and more interesting because I am a programmer and not a marketer,” she explains. “They’ll say, ‘Oh! I didn’t realize you were actually smart!’”

Though she says the majority of the men she works with are supportive, “there’s sort of a spectrum of people that make questionable comments, and there’s a handful of people I don’t want to interact with.”

Meanwhile, Web Designer and UI Developer Jen Myers, who’s worked in design and front end development for a decade, counts herself as fortunate in that she hasn’t confronted any difficult personal experiences herself. “I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone’s experience, but I want to be honest about mine. I am fortunate to be around people that don’t say those things on a regular basis,” she says.

“I think overall the atmosphere is good. I think you hear more about the bad people who are louder, though, which sometimes represents the underlying part of the culture we don’t always question or think about.”

Moving Forward

On Pax Dickinson’s tweets, she believes, “even though he and his comments are ridiculous, way down the line they are rooted in something that is real.”

“I don’t think we should shy away from speaking out about incidents and correcting that behavior,” she says. “I do think it’s important when people say or do things that are unacceptable that we call it out and consider asking the question of where that comes from…. I think for the most part, it’s something we haven’t been paying attention to or questioning because it’s under the surface.”

While Myers believes speaking out about things that are wrong is important, she also believes attention should be paid to the good things people are doing within the community. For example, she organizes chapters and teaches classes at Girl Develop It, an international organization aimed at making programming more accessible to women. She also works full-time at DevBootCamp, an accelerated Ruby on Rails training program.

Media scandals notwithstanding, increased opportunities for female developers, along with people speaking out about incidents as they occur and conference lineups that increasingly include more women, are moving the industry forward.

14 Responses to “Is Tech Culture Really Hostile To Women?”

  1. …Just women? The corporate environment is a cesspool of bigotry -period. Career oriented work is given to out-sourced labor, and whatever is left over is given to Americans based on biases. While people from India are able to cooperate, tolerate, and train / learn from each other, ‘Americans’ would rather obsess on which co-worker is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, and how to act subversive and abusive towards others different. Corporate Culture is enabled to be “hostile” -you have no one to go to in order to stick up for yourself. You can be singled out, isolated, and then fired for no reason other than not having the same type of lifestyle as the people you work with even though you train yourself, show up to work on time, and make an effort to get to know your co-workers. We are consumers when not at work,and economic units that comprise a ‘person’ when at work, and the last thing we practice is involvement in any type of democracy / compromise / tolerance -regardless of our gender.

    • Seeing Things

      Agreed – Years ago I would have a manager who actually tried to manage people, now I get MBA-types who are only interested in self-advancement and supporting their own circle of friends. The MBA-types are destroying us.

  2. Experienced Developer


    You might be mind-reading and jumping to conclusions.

    I think it was Brooks in “The Mythical Man-Month” who wrote that the there was two orders of magnitude difference between the best and worst programmers. This was in stark contrast to most crafts like plumbing with a range under ten. So if we meet at a Java converence and I think I’m “average” in Java, experience tells me that I might be many times more or less productive than you. It’s a delicate task to establish a mututually-beneficial conversation under these circumstances. Gender has nothing to do with it. I don’t want to waste your time nor do I want to patronize and be thought sexist. I’ve found it easiest to bring a list of tough technical problems and open conversations with “I’m stuck trying to do XYZ and I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard of anyone who could…”

    I’ve also seen that many accomplished systems people are so far up the autism spectrum they simply have trouble talking to people in general, women being a special case. You make these men feel funny inside but you’re not a pizza that they can consume to stop the quesy feeling. You can tell this type because they won’t swing their arms natually as they walk away to find a slice of pizza.

    Lastly, if you’re an attractive woman (let’s say top-third) and you appear to be voluntarily talking with me (who sits firmly on the cutoff for the bottom third), then it is perfectly rational for me to assume, based on decades of evidence, that you are trying to recruit me or sell me something. Again, keeping quiet is the polite thing to do, unless you have pizza.

  3. > Though Mei believes that most men want to do the right thing, she says, “they don’t read social cues very well and they don’t understand what’s appropriate.”

    I’d love to know the context of this quote. It would be unfortunate if Ms. Mei actually said/thought that “most men don’t read social cues very well / don’t understand what’s appropriate”, which is obviously a gross overgeneralization on par with “most women are bad at computer”.

    That said, I suspect that the referent for the out-of-context “they” is actually some specific group of men not mentioned in the quoted segment of the interview, which would be more consistent with the rest of her comments—I’d just be interested to know what that specific group is.

    Overall, though, I thought this was an excellent piece. It’s nice to see some journalism that takes a more sober, level-headed view of this problem than the typical vicious attacks or overwrought defensiveness I see most places.

    • Nightcrawler

      Yeah, I wonder if she was referring to guys on the autism spectrum. Someone else mentioned above that many programmers are on the spectrum. It makes sense that people with autism would drawn to computer-related occupations; they may relate better to machines than people.

      I’ve run into great difficulty because, as a female, I’m “supposed” to be able to read social cues really well, but I’m actually on the spectrum myself. That’s one of the reasons why I got a Math/CIS degree. I was hoping not to have to work in a profession where I was expected to be a bubbly “peeple person” and a social butterfly, flitting around the room chatting everyone up.

      Anyway, while gender and age discrimination exist, I think that classism is what’s most prevalent these days. Everyone is told that they need to “tap their network” to find a job, but those of us who are of lower social class don’t *have* a network to tap. Actually, that’s not true: we do, but only if we wish to be “networked” into the $10.00/hour, dead-end jobs that our “network” labors in. People of higher classes cannot fathom this. I remember reading a comment from a woman who complained about women being pigeonholed into “lesser” jobs like technical writer. I guess from her POV, technical writing jobs are bottom-rung, but that type of job would have changed my entire life. To me, that’s not the bottom rung; that’s so far up the ladder from where I am, clouds obscure it.

  4. The ‘victimized’ women in this article seem only to have minor complaints, and all seem to have advanced greatly in their careers, so overall this is a non-issue especially compared to many other industries. I would guess most of these problems stem from those from foreign cultures unfriendly to women. On the other hand, ageism is a very real form of discrimination which rarely gets similar attention.

    • Atlas2013

      Just because someone overcame an obstacle does not mean that it should be trivialized. Also, I have found that the “foreign” IT men are much more pleasant to women than the American men.
      Most of the ageism I have witnessed has more to do with a potential employee’s perceived physical fitness and energy when applying for a job requiring a great deal of physical work (racking servers, mounting PC’s, etc).

  5. Atlas2013

    I used to work with a male tech who kept getting mad at female employees for hole-punching their ID badges…until I explained to him that unlike 99.9% of men’s pants, having pockets on women’s pants is hit or miss, so many women wear the badges on lanyards (thus necessitating the hole).
    If the “guys” in I.T. stepped outside their warm little bubbles more often, they would be better equipped to deal with these scenarios! I.T. departments would be well served to break up the boy’s club atmosphere and seek out employees of both genders who are more well-rounded and socially capable.

  6. Eh… since there were like three comments to this regard- yes other ‘isms’ exist, there should be discussions and forums on all of them. Doesn’t mean there still shouldn’t be a forum for 50% of the population.

  7. SpaceVegetable

    Honestly, I’ve found the tech industry to be far more blind to gender than others. I’ve only encountered problems twice in the past 24 years. One was due more to school elitism – the manager went to MIT and thought anyone else from other schools was inferior, so he favored the worker who went to his alma mater even though the guy was an idiot. The second time was more a culture thing in a small company run by older retired military guys. They constantly overlooked the female workers and ignored the few women managers. They were completely gobsmacked when I told them I felt I was the wrong gender to work there in my exit interview. Note, that I’ve worked as a contractor in many different industries for the past 21 years, so I’ve had exposure to a lot of different personalities and work environments.

    I have notice issues surfacing lately relating to age and appearance. I’m over 40 and recently had medication-induced weight gain, so going on interviews and being seen as an “old fat chick” has accompanied a sharp decline in my hire to interview ratio. I’m fairly sure it’s mostly an unconscious thing, but when those doing the interviewing are mostly younger than I am, I’m sure they can’t help that sort of impression.

    Studies have shown that younger, more attractive people get hired more often and are paid more. Appearance matters, even on a subconscious level. Working on contract makes age less of an issue, but it’s still there, especially when you look at newer, smaller companies that are staffed primarily with younger folks. When the start extolling the virtues of foozball tournaments, weekly beer bashes, and free pizza, you can tell it’s mostly a younger crowd. That’s not a bad thing, but those of us a bit furthered removed from Fraternity Row can appear to be “not a cultural fit” with that sort of environment.