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Tech’s ‘Women’s Problem’ Is Back in the News

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I, like many women, have embraced the concept of “leaning in” as canon. In order to insert myself into the narrative of careers traditionally dominated by men, I adopted the idea that I had to play the man’s game, break the glass ceiling, climb the ladder of success or whatever corporate buzzword is trending in order to move forward. What the cliche du jour doesn’t communicate is the physical and emotional tax often paid by the women who reach towards these professional peaks.

As a woman working in the tech industry, I haven’t had to employ the platitudes much. I’m able to just do my job. I’ve been fortunate in that regard, which is a sucky thing to say because a respectful work environment should be standard practice. But it’s not. And while these issues face women across all fields, there is no industry with a more egregious reputation than technology. An issue clearly articulated in Susan Fowler’s recent essay on her time as an engineer at Silicon Valley’s town darling Uber.

Fowler’s experience covered the gamut: inappropriate sexual advances, being penalized by upper management for calling out inequality and working for an organization that dropped from 25% female down to 6% in the span of a year.

I was sent Fowler’s story by a male colleague with the message that her experience was terrible and “working at Uber would suck ass.” I agreed with him on the latter point, and wished I could also feel the shock he felt. Because while I have thus far been spared the worst of Big Tech, I am well versed in the possibilities. This is an old, highly probable story. Many in my industry endure everything from steady streams of casual sexism to getting passed over for jobs because of “abrasiveness,” to being doxed.

Tech and start-up culture is as notorious for its workforce skewing white and male as it is for craft beers and the consideration of in-office ping pong as a legitimate part of a benefits package (one might even make the leap to say that the former is the reason for the latter). With the current graduation rate at 20% for female engineers, this leaves the few women who enter the tech industry to experience everything from isolation to objectification in what is ostensibly a nerd-flavored boys’ club.

But what if there was another option? What if women just left?

A group of women explored that concept in Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture. To be honest, I found the title misleading. I expected this collection of essays from women in tech to be a retort to the popular message of leaning in despite the high cost of self. The title suggested an introduction to women of all stripes who decided to leave what had undeniably been revealed as another industry toxic to women.

What seemed to be a more prominent message from the contributing authors was that they were torn. Stuck between the struggle of doing work they love and having to exist in both an environment that regularly questions their merit and an industry that doesn’t particularly want them there (see Gamergate for a particularly heinous example). But, for the most part, they didn’t lean out much at all. Many of them continued to code from the belly of the beast.

They tell their stories: getting unfairly passed over for VC funding, unwanted advances from industry peers, the vilification of those who chose to speak up about predatory sexual behaviors in tech. Each story is coupled with messages of unwavering dedication to their craft, and for many, a turn towards activism based upon their experiences. It seemed that each of these women continued to ask of their field, “How can I make you love me if you don’t?”

Bonnie Raitt-inspired aphorisms aside, tech’s “woman problem” is an issue that has become an unfortunate hallmark of the industry. While inclusion and diversity may be the cry on Silicon Valley’s lips, the reality is much less heartening. Numbers often reveal a hypocrisy between the words and actions of industry leaders.

While the percentage of women pursuing tech degrees at university is still dismally low, it is growing. Katie, a 2016 graduate with a BS in Computer Science, was often the only female in her class. “I definitely felt like I had a chip on my shoulder, like I wanted to be better than all of the boys,” she tells me. Katie is bold. Unafraid to speak up, ask questions and challenge ideas, a combination many women before her have found marked them as troublemakers. That’s a label Katie felt ascribed to her from certain professors, especially when she worked her way into the most sacrosanct arena for the Mountain Dew-fueled male: video-game development.

Katie persisted, despite discouragement from one professor in particular. In fact, she often found herself “using her femininity as a protest.” As if to further make the point that, by the way, you could code in a skirt.

While the majority of tech’s bigwigs remain nestled in their native home of Silicon Valley, there are pockets of tech bubbling up all over the country. Maybe these new tech towns can leave behind the unsavory traits of their founding culture, and instead act as havens for those who don’t fit the white-male mould. Katie found a job as a software engineer in Portland, OR, a city that’s experiencing its own growing pains of tech gentrification.

She is still grossly outnumbered by her male peers (by about a 1:10 ratio), but says that she hasn’t experienced any sort of hostility or office sexism. They treat her with respect. She gets to work without having to navigate her new career under the threat of sexist presuppositions. Coincidentally, she doesn’t feel the need to wear skirts much anymore.

Perhaps as women like Fowler and those that contributed to Lean Out continue to fearlessly share their struggle inside the walls of Big Tech with the public, the positive work culture that Katie and I enjoy will be less anomaly and more standard practice. As the number of female engineering graduates continues to steadily grow, the industry will have no choice but to embrace them. Hopefully, this leads to the death of having to choose between leaning out for the sake of your mental and physical health, or leaning in at the cost of it. Those days will no doubt be laid to rest among the discarded ping-pong tables of a less-inclusive industry.

Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images.

Rachel Siemens

Rachel Siemens is a writer living in Portland, OR.

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