The crowd guffawed

The New York Times has a long piece about the tech industry and women.

Elissa Shevinsky can pinpoint the moment when she felt that she no longer belonged.

She was at a friend’s house last Sept. 8, watching the live stream of the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon on her laptop and iPhone. Entrepreneurs were showing off their products, and two young Australian men, David Boulton and Jethro Batts, stood behind the podium to give their presentation. “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” Mr. Boulton began, as photographs of women’s chests on a cellphone flashed on the screen behind him.

After some banter, Mr. Batts concluded, “This is the breast hack ever.”

The crowd — overwhelmingly young, white, hoodie-wearing men — guffawed. Something in Ms. Shevinsky’s mind clicked. If ever there was proof that the tech industry needed more women, she thought, this was it.

Ms. Shevinsky, 35, wasn’t the only one who was disgusted by the presentation. Twitter lit up with outrage. She joined in, writing a blog-post manifesto: “I thought that we didn’t need more women in tech. I was wrong.”

Hunnnnnh. Honestly. Is it too much to ask that men not talk about women the way a ravenous bear would talk about a freshly killed goat if bears could talk?

Tech executives often fault schools, parents or society in general for failing to encourage girls to pursue computer science. But something else is at play in the industry: Among the women who join the field, 56 percent leave by midcareer, a startling attrition rate that is double that for men, according to research from the Harvard Business School.

A culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha-male culture that can make women and other people who don’t fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned or even endangered.

“It’s a thousand tiny paper cuts,” is how Ashe Dryden, a programmer who now consults on increasing diversity in technology, described working in tech. “I’ve been a programmer for 13 years, and I’ve always been one of the only women and queer people in the room. I’ve been harassed, I’ve had people make suggestive comments to me, I’ve had people basically dismiss my expertise. I’ve gotten rape and death threats just for speaking out about this stuff.”

And that’s a problem?

Yes. It is.

Ms. Shevinsky’s epiphany, however, wasn’t just about Mr. Dickinson or a couple of engineers. It was about computer-engineering culture and her relationship with it. She had enjoyed being “one of the bros” — throwing back whiskey and rubbing shoulders with M.I.T. graduates. And if that sometimes meant fake-laughing as her colleagues cracked jokes about porn, so be it.

“For years, all I wanted to do was work and code and make software,” she said in an interview. “That’s why I didn’t care about feminism. I just wanted to build stuff.”

“But Titstare showed me that was no longer a viable option,” she said. “We had to address our culture, because something was really not working.”

Or, feminism ate her brain. You decide.

“We see these stories, ‘Why aren’t there more women in computer science and engineering?’ and there’s all these complicated answers like, ‘School advisers don’t have them take math and physics,’ and it’s probably true,” said Lauren Weinstein, a man who has spent his four-decade career in tech working mostly with other men, and is currently a consultant for Google.

“But I think there’s probably a simpler reason,” he said, “which is these guys are just jerks, and women know it.”

The choice for people who are uncomfortable with the “bro” culture is to try to change it or to leave — and even women who are fed up don’t always agree on how to go about making a change. But leaving can be hard too.

Obviously it can. If you’re leaving the very thing you want to do – yes, that’s difficult.

After the Titstare presentation, a commenter calling himself White_N_Nerdy wrote on Reddit, “I’m honestly trying to understand why anyone says that females are ‘needed’ in the tech industry.” He continued: “The tech community works fine without females, just like any other mostly male industry. Feminists probably just want women making more money.”

Online gathering spots for engineers, like Reddit, Hacker News and 4chan, where people often post anonymously, can feel like hostile territory for women.

“Many women have come to me and said they basically have had to hide on the Net now,” said Mr. Weinstein, who works on issues of identity and anonymity online. “They use male names, they don’t put their real photos up, because they are immediately targeted and harassed.”

That sense of being targeted as a minority happens at the office, too. That is part of the reason nearly a third of the women who leave technology jobs move to nontechnical ones, according to the Harvard study.

“It’s a boys’ club, and you have to try to get into it, and they’re trying as hard as they can to prove you can’t,” said Ephrat Bitton, the director of algorithms at FutureAdvisor, an online investment start-up that she says has a better culture because almost half the engineers are women.

It all seems so high school. Wouldn’t you think adults could do better?




  1. AsqJames says

    “The tech community works fine without females, just like any other mostly male industry.”

    Yeah! I can’t see all the things women haven’t done because they’ve never been there to do them. This is 100% proof that even if the women were there they wouldn’t have contributed anything.

    These women never existed.

  2. countryboy says

    The tech industry in the US quite frankly sucks. It’s sloppy, short sighted and half assed. A massive influx of females could only improve that wasteland. As for adults doing better, these aren’t adults, they’re overgrown children badly in need of a spanking.

  3. Seth says

    Before I dropped out of highschool, I thought that my peers would get better when I grew up. Now that I’m about to finish a Master’s degree, I’ve realised that my peers are basically the same shits that they were since elementary school, but older now and with kids of their own, kids they’re trying to turn into little shits. It’s the cycle of shit.

    Fuck people.

  4. chrislawson says

    I know it has nothing to do with me, but as an Australian I feel strangely compelled to apologise for Boulton and Batts.

  5. MyaR says

    That’s why I didn’t care about feminism. I just wanted to build stuff.

    Yeah, I don’t think many of us actually want to care about feminism — we have to care, because it’s our livelihoods, our bodies, and our lives on the line. I think most of us have performed some variant of being “one of the boys”, and it really only works if you’re willing to sell out other women.

  6. Gordon Willis says

    “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,”

    “You”, of course, is all the people in the world. The ones they are talking to. You know, real people like themselves.

  7. Gordon Willis says

    “I think most of us have performed some variant of being “one of the boys”, and it really only works if you’re willing to sell out other women.

    I hope and –actually — believe that most of you haven’t. And if any of you have you will know that it does not work, really not, not ever. You’ll never be “one of the boys”, you’ll only be tits “people” will stare at. My personal view (and relevant in all analogous circumstances, hard though it may prove for the lonely and dispossessed) is that it is better not to try, but to find whatever guns you can and stick to them till better guns come along. Speaking metaphorically, of course. I’m talking about taking a stand for your own presence as complete persons on the planet, and about not yielding to the perceived expectations of the others in the unhappy hope that they will respect you.

  8. says

    I read this last night and had to take a day to calm down. I’m in software and I cannot deal with that kind of blatant misogyny. It has no place in the business and those little boys with the “ooh, girl cooties” attitudes need to get (metaphorically) slapped around until they decide to grow up.

    I’ve been extremely fortunate in my 40+ year career to have worked with some amazing women. Women who are far better at software and theoretical computer science than I will ever be.

    As far as “The tech community works fine without females, just like any other mostly male industry”, let me add more to the link AsqJames provided. Frances Allen who did pioneering work on optimizing compilers — we’d still be writing in machine code without that. Pat Selinger, one of the pioneers in relational databases; you know, like Oracle, DB2, Sql Server, MySQL? I could go on for hours. Without their contributions we certainly wouldn’t “work fine.” The thought that we don’t need women in computer science is ridiculous. What we don’t need are whiny little boys.

  9. says

    Gordon @ 9 – that resonates with me. As a child I did do that pathetic trying thing – trying to wear what everybody else was wearing, do what they were doing, all the rest of it. Children do. But I soon grew out of it and thank fuck for that.

    Well said, Art.

  10. Numenaster says

    When I began establishing myself online 25 years ago, I picked a gender-ambiguous handle very deliberately. I knew from my computer science studies that a recognizably female moniker would mean my words would get no assumption of credibility. I was hoping some day this would change: looks like we need to do some more work still.

    I wonder if it will be different in time for my nieces, both presently under 14. I hope so, but I’m not confident.

  11. Gordon Willis says

    Ophelia, I have tried that too, and it cannot work. It is only pain and grief and hypocrisy and everything false. No one can live that way, but it seems all too natural to try, and it is a terrible thing to be caught in it without even a glimpse of freedom, or to be afraid of freedom. I don’t think that it is only children, however. You asked “Wouldn’t you think adults could do better?” The whole history of the world shows that adults are no different. The adult’s world is the child’s world with compromise tacked on.

  12. Gordon Willis says

    I think, further, that the fact of trying breeds contempt. If you have to try to be accepted, it is a sign that you aren’t, because when a child is accepted, she doesn’t think “I am accepted”, she is simply OK about being and doing. Belonging is an unconscious fact about the world, not a personal achievement. Personal achievements are always extraordinary, and belonging is so ordinary that only those who don’t belong are capable of noticing its factuality.

  13. Gordon Willis says

    only those who don’t belong are capable of noticing its factuality.

    I wonder if that’s too strong. Then again, maybe it isn’t. I’m not by temperament a belonger either, so I may be exaggerating. Anyway, finding one doesn’t belong can be a devastating experience — for example, if you have devoted years of your life to something which turns out not to be what you thought it was. It can have lifelong effects on a child, but I know from personal experience that adults are not immune. Some discoveries change everything.

  14. MyaR says

    To add some clarification to what I said upthread — I think most of us figure out by adulthood that the ‘belonging’ isn’t worth it because of the compromises you have to make, but I think that’s a little less true in tech (where I work, but not where I was educated). There is a LOT of exceptionalism (“I’m not all shallow and bitchy and kind of stupid like those other girls”) in certain parts of nerd culture. I think it’s probably somewhat better than it was in some ways, but worse in others. I thank people like Bernice Sandler for the former, and blame MRAs and their ilk for the latter.

    But when I talk about “selling out other women”, I’m thinking about the little, mostly negative things — not defending another woman when you hear men bad-mouthing her, because you know it’s a no-win situation for both of you*. Not directly confronting biased hiring behavior when you see it*. Not championing other women and their ideas*. Not figuring out how to defuse situations where women are set up to compete with each other, so the men have a clear playing field*. Basically, the opposite of solidarity. And they’re also things that we’re not really aware of, especially at the time they’re happening.

    *I’ve witnessed all (and been forced by circumstances to participate in some) of these in pretty much every job I’ve worked in for the past 20 years, whether it was in human resources and recruitment, publishing, tech (both startup and well established), or government contracting. The worst was the startup — not only sexism, but racism, too.

  15. says

    When I was a software engineer in SIlicon Valley in the 80s, it was really hard sometimes not to point out misogyny. We were swimming in it. My first boss got ribbed by other guys because his team of programmers was mostly female, and he shot back “Why should I hire men when I can get women who are better and pay them less?” Sad but true at the time…

    But to point it out would be suicide. To not laugh at the misogynist jokes meant you weren’t a team player, and the only way to get onto the good projects at some companies was to play the one-of-the-boys game. And yes, it led to feelings of being a fraud — “I know I’m good at what I do but I’m not a guy and if they find out that I hate that macho stuff then they won’t let me play with the cool machines and the neat projects anymore”.

    There was a guy at one place I worked who had an Open/Closed sign on his door, a freebie from a Japanese beer company, that showed a (fully-clothed but suggestively posed) woman with her legs open on one side and with her legs closed on the other; the company let him use that, but refused to let a woman have a sign on her door that looked like a “Men Working” sign for roadworks, but said “Women Working”‘ the company said she could only display that inside her office. The open-legged-woman/closed-legged-woman sign was just fine, but Women Working was offensive??

    And that was better than the misogyny in academic chemistry, which I’d left for Silicon Valley (which, back then, would take anybody who could do the job because pretty much nobody yet had a BS in computer science).

    I had hoped it would change in my lifetime, but while the situation is somewhat better, the pendulum continues to swing, and we’re on the backlash side at the moment, it seems.

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