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Sep 16 2013

If we’re all going to police what we say

Matt Yglesias points out that misogyny is not actually a necessary ingredient for cooking up a batch of innovation.

Former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson offers some further reflections on the question of women in technology:

I think the tech world is just kind of—it doesn’t have a woman problem. Women in tech are great. There’s just not that many of them because tech is just a kind of thing that a lot of women aren’t that interested in, I think. I mean, I don’t think it has a problem. I’d worry more about taking away what makes tech great. The freewheeling nature of it is what leads to innovation. And my fear is that if we’re all going to police what we say, maybe we lose that innovation. And tech is important, it’s really important to this country and to the world. And I’d hate to see us kill the goose that lays the golden egg by turning it into a politically correct wasteland.

This bit about the “freewheeling” (i.e., misogyny-tolerant) nature of the technology culture as being key to innovation is some truly pernicious nonsense. Innovation is great, and it’s great that there’s so much innovation in the computer programming space. But the startup culture’s chest-thumping about it tends to encourage this kind of thing where “innovation” becomes an all-purpose shield against criticism.

That’s a pretty ridiculous claim. You could just as easily say that if techbros didn’t waste so much energy talking misogynist smack, they could innovate even more.

At the end of the day, the innovative nature of the digitial technology industry isn’t some great mystery. Hiring some programmers and buying them a few computers is really cheap compared to, say, building a factory. What’s more, when your computer program crashes nobody dies. Engineers who build airplanes are held to a much higher standard and need to proceed much more cautiously. And this, fundamentally, is where the innovation comes from. People can tinker around. They can launch services without being 100 percent sure they’ll be able to scale them properly or handle edge cases. When the servers get overloaded, there’s no explosion, no oil spill, no wreckage, nothing but an error message. It’s nice! People can try a lot of new stuff, and talented people don’t necessarily need to spend years paying their dues to give their big ideas a shot.

But none of this has anything to do with people being jackasses to women.

Well there went that excuse.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    if techbros didn’t waste so much energy talking misogynist smack, they could innovate even more.

    For sure, a lot of techbros sit around wondering “Where are all the women gamerz!?!!” Because they apparently are smart, but not smart enough to realize that Lara Croft doesn’t ‘empower women’ or make them comfortable. In simple terms that equates to: going after half of the market which is a strategic failure of Rumsfeldian proportions.

    Meanwhile, I play in a guild on Warcraft (Ironbadger on US Venture Co: clan Thunderhoof, drop by and say hi!) that has a fairly proportionate membership of female gamers, who contribute and enjoy themselves, and are unharassed, etc. All the gamebros who are making great big male-fantasy wish-fulfillment games might want to ponder why a 10+ year-old engine has an active membership and a lively social scene: it’s because we don’t put up with harassment, regardless or real-or-implied gender and orientation, and we treat people as equals. It’s not complicated. There’s no secret formula. You don’t have to implicitly annoy half your market. Here’s another clue: the really popular games in the last few years (Mass Effect leaps to mind, as well as Skyrim) offer a wide range of options for the player to identify with their characters. Cha-fucking-ching!!

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    BTW – the way to fix this problem is to get the shareholders in software companies, and their boards of directors to understand that the company is “incredibly fucking epic stupid” if they are making products that only appeal to a subset of half of the customer base.

  3. 3
    Nepenthe

    What’s more, when your computer program crashes nobody dies.

    Well, that really depends on what your computer program does, doesn’t it?

  4. 4
    smrnda

    @Nepenthe

    Yeah, and too many over-confident bro-grammers *know* they don’t need to do more testing since they are just so awesome and innovative.

    All said, after seeing the horrendous ‘titstare’ app, I think that we’ve come to the end of the innovative capacities of tech dude-bros.

  5. 5
    601

    Although there are some efficiency benefits to a monoculture, in my experience, it’s not worth the trade off.

    Especially with hi-tech innovation, cultural diversity (including gender) provides alternative perspectives (reducing mutual blind spots) and enhances creativity.

    However, we tend to form like-minded groups socially, and when that group forms a startup company it will inherit those qualities, for better or (often) worse. But if they are successful, they will tragically credit their micro-culture, instead of luck.

  6. 6
    Chiral

    I work at a large tech company, writing code. I was assaulted (very minor, but still) last year by a manager at the company. Because it didn’t repeat (telling him to stop and avoiding him did the trick) it didn’t go any further than my management at the time. I told my managers first because I was afraid of creepy manager dude making complaints about me to them. However, I recently found out from other women that this guy has a history of this, so I went to HR.

    The worst thing is that through all of this, I’ve been worried about losing my job over making a fuss. I don’t really care if they believe me or whatever, although I think it’s really crappy that this guy who has a history of assaulting female coworkers is a manager. I’m mostly going through the process in the hope of stopping it happening to other women.

    There’s so much misogyny, but it’s so hard to fight it, knowing that you’re risking your livelihood. Where is the bar where you start complaining? Is it when people start calling women bitches and stupid to your face? Is it where the manager grabs you? Is it when the hiring manager propositions you during the interview for a job you really wanted? I know it can’t be where people ignore ideas you have until a man repeats them or where they talk over you in meetings, even if you are the meetings are ostensibly yours, because almost all the male engineers do this.

    Attitudes like this Pax Dickinson guy has are very common and wear me down, weigh me down so much that it’s hard to get up some days. I’m very good at my job, one of the best in a small field, but I’m having one of those months where I wish I could just walk away from tech, preferably while flipping off everyone and cussing them out. I know I’d miss the problem solving and I don’t know how I’d pay the bills, so I stay. I wish I could change the culture, but I don’t know how.

    So yes, I wish people would police what they say and especially what they do a bit. Do you want the best people in tech or don’t you? How many young girls have been scared away by things like this? I know it was hard to get my Bachelor’s even harder to get my Master’s, but not because of the coursework, which was fun. It was hard being the only female in a room with 20 men (including the professor) making rape jokes, hard to put up with the social ostracizing for sexual rumors I didn’t even find out about until I was talking to one of my professors years after I graduated. Things like that.

    Sorry for venting here, but this topic always gets me going. It’s been so hard lately and I feel better for typing it all out and, strangely, posting it somewhere public.

  7. 7
    notsont

    “police what we say…” We police what we say every time we speak to people, the only people who don’t police what they say are probably dictators, the rest of us keep many many thoughts to ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with that. Where did this idea that it should be OK to just spout off whatever stupid crap comes into our heads come from? No, the problem here is that some people were used to being able to spout stuff at certain people without consequence and now that things are changing to the point where they have to give respect in order to get it, they don’t like it one bit.

  8. 8
    A. Noyd

    Can someone explain to me what’s so innovative about repeating the same damn “jokes” about women making sandwiches and punning on slang words for genitalia? I mean, I’m sometimes fond of stooping to the latter, but I never feel particularly clever about it. It’s always about the fun of getting people to make the same naughty association in their mind. (Hence why it shouldn’t be done around people who aren’t comfortable with that.)

    Also, I find Dickinson’s turn of phrase extremely ironic since female geese are the ones that lay eggs. If he was really worried about losing out on special eggs, he should’ve stopped teaming up with the other ganders to peck all the egg-layers to death (so to speak).

    ~*~*~*~*~*~

    @Chiral (#6)
    I’m sorry that happened to you, but thanks for sharing. I think it helps to change the culture the more people like you speak up and add to the heap of evidence that these things are as widespread and common as dirt, and how unpleasant they are—the evidence that, as it piles up, gets harder and harder for reasonable people to brush off as just a few incidents here and there. (No shame for those who can’t bring themselves to speak up, though!)

  9. 9
    edithkeeler

    Technology, it’s more of a guy thing.

  10. 10
    oursally

    >What’s more, when your computer program crashes nobody dies.

    Umm, I make safety critical software. If it goes wrong, people die. More than half of our time is spent testing. That’s why real software is more expensive then the throw-away app rubbish you download.

    An exception: someone I met programs suicide automats (for people who can’t do it the usual way, whatever…) – I gather the person wishing to end it all pushes a button and gets injected. Anyway, if his software goes wrong, oh dear, somebody might live!

    (For all the professional gosh-you-might -offend-someone-whiners out there, this is how us softies talk all the time. Tough, innit?)

  11. 11
    theoreticalgrrrl

    When I saw this cartoon it made me think of the “women just aren’t interested in _______” argument:

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151921110607803&set=a.432350482802.217329.550672802&type=1&theater

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