The panel yesterday was fun, and it got a friendly reception. There are a lot of women here, on the stage and attending in general, with the expected result that it doesn’t feel like a frat house. There is at least one “get out of my clubhouse” type here though, and I cleverly managed to sit next to him at dinner last night. That was unpleasant.
Alice Marwick in Wired says that it’s a growing thing, which is sad to hear.
Rather than attempting to discern whether Richards was in the right or the wrong, I’ve been thinking about why the issue blew up and what it reveals. Because it’s far from the first time this kind of thing has happened. The Richards incident and resulting backlash not only reveals the lack of diversity and presence of misogyny in tech culture, but the myth of meritocracy and the growing belief in “misandry” online.
Regardless of the nuances of the incident, the fact remains that Richards faced a gargantuan backlash that included death threats, rape threats, a flood of racist and sexually violent speech, a DDOS attack on her employer — and a photoshopped picture of a naked, bound, decapitated woman. The use of mob justice to punish women who advocate feminist ideals is nothing new, but why does this happen so regularly when women criticize the tech industry? Just stating that the tech industry has a sexism problem — something that’s supported by reams of scholarly evidence — riles up the trolls.
One reason for this is the growing popularity of “Men’s Rights Activism” (MRA) — groups of men who refer to feminism as “misandry” and advocate vociferously that men face more discrimination than women. Its popularity is growing and is especially active online on sites such as Hacker News and Reddit, where much of the public controversy around Donglegate has played out in the comments. Even sites like GitHub, where the PyCon conference code of conduct was posted, are not immune.
Nothing is immune. But…here we still are. And we have better allies.
Marwick argues that the myth of meritocracy is central to the problem.
Yet the myth of equality persists, since the technology industry considers itself a meritocracy where the “good” ones — for example, talented engineers and programmers — will rise to the top regardless of nationality, background, race, or gender. When considering the dismal numbers of women (as well as African-American and Latino men) in tech, the meritocratic presumption is that these minorities aren’t good at or interested in technology; otherwise, there would be more of them.
If we admit there are structural barriers to entry, and a culture that actively discourages and women and men of color from participating, then it logically follows that technology is not a meritocracy. And this threatens many dearly held beliefs of technology workers: It suggests those at the top aren’t there because they’re the best, but because of hard work and privilege. It suggests that the enormous wealth generated by tech startups and founders isn’t justified by their superior intelligence. It requires change from a culture in which male normativity is, well, the norm — to a more inclusive one where penis jokes and booth babes are no longer acceptable (and the mere suggestion to discard them isn’t met with a hailstorm of protest).
In short, it requires geeks to re-examine their own revenge fantasies of being outsiders who now rule the world and admit that they might, themselves, be actively excluding others.
Their reward for doing so? More and better allies, friends, comrades.