Essays, Life

A Taxonomy of Sexism in Technology

April 21, 2015
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Sexism in tech isn’t as obvious as you might expect

After reading the excellent and approachable Coding Like a Girl, I began thinking about the kinds of sexism I’ve faced in the tech industry.

Between my undergraduate degree and my career, I’ve been in tech for over 8 years — so, sadly, it almost goes without saying that I’ve encountered my fair share of sexism. Yet, the moments I’ve encountered during my time here are often less overt than those experienced by the author of “Coding Like a Girl”. They’re a sneaky, subtle kind of sexism. It’s the kind of bias that can deeply permeate a culture, hiding beneath the surface, just out of sight.

When you encounter this kind of sexism, you’re not always immediately able to put your finger on what’s wrong, or able to identify what’s making you feel uncomfortable until later, after much thought and deliberation, when you finally realize why the situation was disconcerting or upsetting.

In short, sexism in tech — and, I suspect, in many STEM fields these days — is not like what we see in Mad Men. There are few Don Draper copycats. While there are certainly far too many cases where women are treated differently based on attire, told that they don’t look like developers, or told that theysimply shouldn’t code at all, many other forms of sexism are running rampant — and not necessarily the kinds you might expect.

I began to wonder about my peers’ encounters with sexism in technology. When I reached out to my network and asked both women and men about their experiences, a few patterns began to emerge. What follows is a taxonomy detailing the kinds of sexism we’ve experienced, plus recommendations on how everyone can modify their behavior to avoid falling into the same traps.


The Well-Intentioned Sexist

Well-intentioned sexists may have your best interests at heart, but the issue lies in how and when they choose to express themselves. For example: in a meeting with others, a near-stranger loudly told me that I should “stand up for myself”. This man had no idea what my work style was, nor did his comment actually have any relevance to the overall discussion or the point I was making at the time. So, while his remark may have been well-meant, it was completely inappropriate.

In another case, a man on our team — a passionate advocate for women in tech — sent an article to our “Women of <Team>” distribution list at work. Along with other points, the article’s (female!) author dishearteningly claimed that it’s a great time for women in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) because we can “break cultural stereotypes”, improve “diversity [and] communication and collaboration between teams”, contribute “customer empathy”, and make teams more “fun”. Yikes. Well-intentioned? Certainly. Sexist? Definitely.

Telling an underrepresented group that their presence in a field is needed to “break cultural stereotypes” is tantamount to saying the burden is on women to disprove the myths that they can’t do well in STEM fields — in other words, “show them they’re wrong — you know how to code!”

And, while it’s true that having diverse teams improves the performance of teams and companies alike, this is not a compelling argument for women to pursue tech jobs (it is, however, a fantastic reason for companies to want more women.) The onus should not be on women to improve diversity; the burden is on the industry to increase representation. As one woman put it, “if I want to quit my [tech job] to be a bus driver or a stay at home mom, I’m going to do it even if it somehow means I’m not a good ‘role model’.”

Lastly, implying that only women can improve communication, collaboration, customer empathy, or workplace fun is not only sexist because it assumes that women are somehow naturally better at these things, but it does a disservice to men because it implies that they are somehow fundamentally lacking in these areas.

Well-intentioned sexism is one of the most insidious forms of bias because it’s often packaged as positive advocacy, advice, or even empowerment (“you should stand up for yourself!”) Yet it’s the language within, its unfair application to women, and how it’s presented that ultimately makes it sexist.

The solution: Before providing feedback to a female colleague, ask yourself if you would say or do the same thing to a male peer. Imagine for a moment: would you tell him to stick up for himself in the middle of a meeting? Would you ever say that he’s too assertive or has too strong a personality? Even if your feedback passes these basic sniff tests, remember: there’s a time and a place for this kind of advice. If you strongly feel that you must provide this feedback, a private setting is likely more appropriate than announcing it publicly, which can look like an attempt to publicly discredit the individual.

Additionally, it’s a well-known issue in social psychology that traits which are valued in men (confidence, assertiveness, authoritativeness) are not necessarily valued in women, so be careful to ensure you’re providing consistent feedback to your peers and direct reports regardless of their gender.

Lastly, when sending out articles or other advice to female colleagues or another underrepresented group, ask yourself if the same guidance would be applied to men. Is there anything about it that’s unfair or sexist in a way that places a burden on the group in question? When in doubt, have a peer take a look at what you’re planning to send before you share it with others.


The Interrupting Sexist

This individual has a tendency to interrupt or talk over women. Although he may not always be aware he’s doing it, it becomes a consistent pattern in both one-on-one situations and large meetings. For example, I have been interrupted in an important meeting where I was the main presenter. When I tried to continue talking, I was shushed — loudly.

Multiple female peers mentioned experiences where they would begin discussing an idea only to be interrupted. Their interruptor would often go on to introduce the same idea as if it was their own.

One developer even described being in a meeting where her ideas were continually being shot down by a male program manager. A male tester arrived, unknowingly proposed the same idea as the developer (even citing the exact same justifications), and got immediate buy-in. The female dev’s idea was shot down repeatedly, yet the male tester’s identical idea got approval.

Anecdotal evidence isn’t the only place where this plays out. A linguistconducted a study at her tech workplace to determine how often interruptions occur: she discovered that not only do men interrupt conversations more frequently, but they’re three times as likely to interrupt women as they are to interrupt other men.

The solution: Don’t interrupt coworkers in meetings. If you have something to say, wait your turn. If you have trouble getting a word in edgewise or are a person who has trouble identifying appropriate pauses in discussions, try raising your hand or using another signal to indicate that you want to speak.

Most importantly, always acknowledge an idea’s originator, even if you plan to elaborate on it — don’t claim it as your own. For example: “I really liked Ellen’s suggestion from before, plus it has the added benefits of X, Y, and Z.”

If you notice that someone’s else’s idea is being reintroduced and they aren’t being given credit for it, try to find an opportunity to attribute it back to them. For example: “Good point, Greg, but I think Jen already mentioned the same idea earlier. Before you continue, maybe we can ask her to elaborate.”


The Condescending Sexist

Whether this individual means to or not, the Condescender talks down to women. He may talk to someone like she’s his young daughter because that’s the only way he knows how to relate, or he might simply make assumptions about her technical ability by saying things like, “You wouldn’t understand, it’ll be easier if I just do it” — both examples that came up in my discussions with colleagues. Either way, he is functioning under the assumption that his female colleagues are infantile and incapable. In another instance, a male program manager defended his (incorrect) ideas by saying, “I have a Ph.D. — I can’t be wrong!”

This Condescender may also believe he knows everything about you, including who you are (“you’re the receptionist, right?” or “so, your husband must work here?”) and how you got to where you are (“you’re just here because you’re a girl”).

The solution: Don’t talk down to coworkers, and never make assumptions about their technical abilities. Don’t begin statements with “you wouldn’t understand X”. Instead, assume everyone is competent at their job. If in doubt, start technical conversations with, “Are you familiar with X?” Also key: if they are familiar with X, don’t act surprised. This is alienating and unnecessary. Be professional and move on with it!

Additionally, don’t assume you know what someone does or how they got to their current role or project. Instead ask: “Do you know where the team receptionist/admin sits?” “What do you do for <Company>?” “How did you decide you wanted to get into X?” “What kind of cool stuff have you worked on recently?”


The Touchy-Feely Sexist

These people aren’t necessarily sexual harassers, or even creepy — sometimes they’re big, cuddly men who want to sweep you in for a bear hug, or (grand)fatherly types who like to pat you on the back or shoulder as they’re walking by or in greeting. As with many of the other examples, they seem to be blissfully unaware that what they’re doing is sexist, but on the other hand, they don’t hug their male coworkers or casually pat them on the backs. Yet, for some reason, they’re comfortable touching your body, without giving a second thought to how it might make you feel.

The solution: Don’t touch coworkers unless you know they’re okay with it and you have their verbal permission. For greetings and goodbyes, opt for a handshake. If a close coworker is upset and genuinely seems in need of comfort, ask, “Is it all right if I give you a hug?” Otherwise, hands off. Really, it’s that simple.


The Institutional Barrier

The institutional barrier isn’t a person, but it takes people in institutions to enforce — or fail to break down — barriers. One peer discovered that a recruiter at his company was intentionally steering promising female developer candidates toward less technical positions. In that instance, the company ended up missing out on a promising new hire, who went on to work as a developer for a competitor.

In another case, a developer noticed an unfamiliar email distribution group was added to a thread. Its name jokingly implied that it represented her team’s engineering authority figures, but a closer look revealed that the only members were senior male engineers — ranking women on the team were mysteriously absent. A discussion with a manager set the issue straight, but it was a sobering lesson in institutional imbalance.

One last example: as an intern at a tech company I once dealt with a very public, sexually harassing comment. Feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, I took the matter to my manager, who dismissed my concerns and tried to discourage me from reporting the issue. It wasn’t until other interns backed me up and corroborated my story that he filed the report with human resources. It was exactly the kind of barrier to reporting harassment that I’d read about, but never thought I would personally experience.

Regardless of the cause, institutional barriers discourage women from pursuing technical roles, exclude them from fully participating in engineering culture, and/or prevent them from feeling fully safe in STEM fields.

The solution: If you notice institutional sexism or barriers in your workplace, raise your concerns with whomever will listen — particularly human resources. If you do not get the appropriate level of support from your management, go up a level (or even higher, if you need to), until your concerns are heard.


The Creepy Sexist

Ah, the good old Creep. If you’re “lucky”, this is a person who makes overt comments to you that can be recorded and reported to human resources or an advisor — things like, “Who else am I going to date in my major?”, “You’re just a teacher’s assistant because you’re a pretty girl”, or someone who always follows you around to your computer science classes and tries to sit near you (once again, all real examples.)

If you’re unlucky, the Creep is someone about whom you have a bad gut feeling, but nothing tangible. Unfortunately, I have experienced this. Going to a former coworker’s office felt like entering a lion’s den. I could feel his predatory eyes on me at all times from the periphery of my vision, and could see him looking me up and down. The only solution was to not go into his office on my own. Discussion with other female coworkers on the team revealed that I wasn’t the only one who was uncomfortable around him, but none of us had anything concrete that we could report. Eventually I left the team for other reasons, but it was a huge relief to no longer deal with the stress and anxiety of working with him.

The solution: Unfortunately, creeps are unlikely to change their behavior, but if you believe you might be making others uncomfortable with your actions, I recommend seeking professional counseling. A therapist can help you explore body language, interpersonal relations, and how your actions are inappropriate.

My advice here is instead predominantly for women — or anyone — who has to deal with a workplace creep: be safe and don’t be afraid to share your concerns with your peers, management, or HR department, even if you don’t have tangible evidence. You can always say, “I don’t feel comfortable working with <Person> and I want you to be aware of this. Nothing has happened, but I’ve discussed the matter with others on the team, and they feel similarly.” You also have the power to ask to be assigned to a different project. Above all else, your safety and comfort at work are absolutely critical. Anything that impedes this is hindering not only your work, but your right to peace of mind and a safe environment.


The tricky thing about sexism in technology is that not all of these examples involve “bad” people or individuals with ill-intent. In particular, touchy-feely types, interrupters, condescenders, and well-intentioned sexists aren’t necessarily aware that what they’re doing or saying is even wrong. Their behavior may be borne of bad habits, unconscious bias, insensitivity, awkwardness, or some combination thereof.

This is not to make excuses for their actions — their behavior is still sexist — but it makes matters more complicated when a well-intentioned sexist views himself as an ardent supporter of women in technology. Broaching the subject of, “Yeah, it’s awesome that you’re an ally, but…” isn’t easy. How do you break it to someone that they have biases when they’re trying so hard to be a good advocate?

Thankfully, one of the approaches being taken by technology companies — unconscious bias training — addresses exactly this kind of issue. I hope to see much more of this in the future, including at my company.

Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot to be thankful for in my professional life, especially when it comes to my current team. I know for a fact that they will back me up in meetings. They respect my opinions, treat my viewpoints as legitimate, don’t talk over me, and assume I’m competent by default. They don’t treat me as an exception to some sort of unspoken rule about women in technology.

But some of them also say or do things that make me uncomfortable, and the responses I received from friends and peers tell me that we have a long way to go towards resolving sexism in our industry.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and there are likely many more kinds of sexism (and potential solutions) than I’ve listed here. Nonetheless, this is at least a start towards building awareness, particularly regarding how even unconscious biases can cause harmful behaviors. Until we eliminate the many different biases in our field, even the subtle, seemingly-innocuous ones that are hard to put your finger on, the tech industry won’t truly be welcoming women with open arms.


This article originally appeared on Medium.  Heartfelt thanks to my colleagues who let me share their experiences with sexism, and to Robyn for her careful editing.  


Photo credit: streunna4 / Source / CC BY-NC-SA


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