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Sexism in tech

This is certainly a hot-button issue. I’ve seen an increased focus and willingness to acknowledge and address this issue throughout the tech community, but many still deny that it exists. Much has been said of the inertia of male privilege and the meritocratic ideals of the tech industry, both of which are invariably characterized sociologically, as some metaphysical Force that operates on a level separate of the individual. At the same time, the sociological/systemic problem continues to be defined as the aggregate of interpersonal—not societal—failures (an authority figure looking the other way toward degrading behavior, men telling insensitive/sexist jokes, etc). This interpersonal dimension is not consciously discussed, leading to a type of stall in resolving the group inequity that seems common. The outlines of many inter-group conflicts are drawn in broad sociological terms, which motivates political action to achieve a negotiated level of structural equity. But if the focus never shifts to interpersonal equity, progress can stall culturally and the problem can persist and stagnate. For example, because of affirmative action and equal opportunities and desegregation, many today believe that race relations have achieved a satisfactory state, but the majority of minorities will disagree with this.

An article hit Hacker News today about the sexist bullying experienced by one female high school student in her computer science class. This obviously spills out of the tech field into high school culture, but generated a lot of discussion on Hacker News regardless. One comment called for men to simply accept that women have subjectively different experiences than they do. I agree, but the questions remain: why haven’t men already done this, and how do we progress from there?

I have observed that for many men having difficulty in comprehending/accepting that women experience the industry so differently than they do, they either A) over-generalize from an exceptional interaction, or B) follow those that have over-generalized. By “A” I mean that men can rely on confirmation bias to cement their impression of the female experience based on a few choice interactions, in order to create an intellectually convenient worldview. For example, confirmation bias can allow a random chat with a well-adjusted, confident woman who appears impervious to tech sexism to dispel for many years any notion in that man’s mind that sexism exists in the industry. Thereafter, contradictory signals can themselves be dismissed as the exceptions, and because of cognitive dissonance, can even sere to reinforce the misconceptions. (It should be noted that even though a woman might appear impervious, she actually may not be anyway.)

By “B” I mean that men with no relevant direct interactions with women (not uncommon given their low numbers) may follow the lead of the people with whom they associate, who are by definition men. So any confirmation bias of those men then spreads to them.

In considering such interpersonal breakdowns, what is not often recognized is that individual women have unique experiences. They are affected to varying degrees and in various ways by prejudism and ostracization. As a male, rather than tip-toe around or ignore the issue with a female colleague—allowing the assumption of the most intellectually convenient possibility—I’ve found the best hueristic for recognizing your potential to participate and perpetuate a toxic environment is to earnestly sense/inquire the nature of her individual past experience. (You may also share your own relevant experiences, if any.) Such a dialogue can help establish a common foundation and framework for maximizing the team and progressing the industry.

I believe the widespread focus on the direct, open, and individual treatment of interpersonal relationships (and moving away from the macroscopic one-experience-fits-all mentality, which lacks common sense and is susceptible to confirmation bias) is an important next step for evolving stalled relations between social groups in general.

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