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Mar 31 2013

Why the ____ community hates feminists

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.

 

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Eric Riley

    The discussion of ‘meritocracy’ was very interesting, and in reading non-technical stuff (blog posts, commentary, that sort of thing) from people in the tech industry – I notice it ties in with a general tea-party/libertarian/randian philosophy in which the protagonists have always gotten where they are through grit and determination – and those who haven’t just aren’t good enough.

    It’s a great story to tell yourself, and I can see the appeal to a slightly weird teenager who gets bullied a lot – it’s a shame that it builds a habit of thought that becomes difficult to impossible to throw off as an adult.

    I would change one thing-
    “It suggests those at the top aren’t there because they’re the best, but because of hard work and privilege…”

    Add luck to that one. A big heaping helping of luck. And maybe change the order – luck, privilege, and hard work – to reflect which is the biggest driver of success in the tech industry (or any industry).

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    … the enormous wealth generated by tech startups and founders isn’t justified by their superior intelligence.

    What, you mean that Bill Gates doesn’t have an IQ >300K times that of a CAD techie?

    This changes everything!

  3. 3
    Riptide

    Almost invariably, when I leave a YouTube comment to the effect of “If you disagree with a woman, why not just say why you disagree with her rather than calling her a fucking cunt who’s wasting a perfectly good set of gams?”, I get pushback to the effect of “Feminism is extremist/man-hating/misandry/etc”.

    It really depresses me that I could have turned out that way, back before I considered myself a feminist.

  4. 4
    Brony

    One of the things that disturbs me the most about this whole “controversy” is the sheer laziness of the people who are offended at feminists on this issue.

    At the base of it they don’t want to avoid a few triggering words and classes of humor. For just that little effort they can avoid making someone’s attempts to deal with pain and unfriendly social structures easier. Instead their response is to reply in over-emotional mockery at best group harassment at worst.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    it requires geeks to re-examine their own revenge fantasies of being outsiders who now rule the world

    It also means, if the dominance of today’s technology world by geeks is true* then the geeks have to be asking themselves “what kind of world do we want to be building?” I was heartened by the high tech start-ups that had daycare and so forth – good working conditions – but realized that ultimately it’s just selfishness when your shiny devices are built using slave labor. I wish someone would ask the Google guys what they’re going to do about “don’t be evil also means don’t be sexist” except they’ve given up on not being evil.

    If the geeks are right and they’re ruling the world, it’d sure be nice if we did a better job of it than the jocks did.

    (* I think it is!)

  6. 6
    smhll

    I read Alice M’s Wired piece yesterday. Good article. The first several comments were discouraging, though.

  7. 7
    besomyka

    Chris Hayes wrote a book on this topic, although he was talking more about the business and financial worlds, called Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. In it he describes how it fails, and it’s largely that false sense of equality.

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