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Image courtesy of Business Insider

The high tech world is kind of a funny place.  (Aside from the fact that it’s populated by geeks, I mean.)  On the one hand, nerds don’t really care much about you so long as you’re a nerd.  Black, white, Asian, Indian; male, female, trans; gay, straight, questioning; monogamous or polyamorous; kinky or vanilla; sci fi or fantasy or romance or “lit-ruh-chure” or detective novels; it doesn’t really matter to a computer nerd.  If you can code and fit in with the nerd coding culture, you’re fine, you’re golden.

On the other hand, that culture was created largely by young, straight, white, middle- and upper-class men, even boys (maturity-wise).  So the only way to fit in is to model the behavior of that group.  Which for me–as a straight, white, middle-class male who got a degree in computer science from UC–wasn’t that hard.  But for a lot of others?  Well, the problem here is obvious.

For my entire career it’s been clear that there’s rampant sexism (among other inherent bigotries) in the high tech culture.  As this culture has developed heavily from nerd programming culture, when you think about it, it’s not very surprising.  And lately, there has been a lot more focus on this.  Articles on how women are treated in high tech; articles on the low number of women taking engineering degrees; articles on how few women stay in the engineering track in the high tech industry; articles on the dearth of female high-tech CEOs; articles on women being intimidated and pressured when they speak out about the obvious sexism.

None of this comes as a surprise to me.  What does surprise me, frankly, is how so many folks are trying to either defend this aspect of the culture, or wave away the accusations.  I think the nature of these defenses can be summed up by this person’s (a white male, naturally; probably straight, Christian, and middle-class too) comment on an article in HuffPo about how 40% of female engineers leave the field:

Most male engineers have similar complaints, and leave the profession too. As the old saying goes; “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”.

Look:  I’ve been in high tech my whole career, over 27 years now.  I love it.  I love the people, and the cool new tech I get to see all the time; I love being on the “bleeding edge” of tech development; I love that the world has come to recognize the value of what my nerdly brothers and sisters are doing, and to even give us acclaim.  I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  But I have to say to folks like the gentlemen above:  STFU.  I have seen unbelievable, rampant sexism in this culture.  At all levels, from executives down to junior hackers, in ways both blatant and subtle, from giant multi-nationals down to tiny startups, it’s an anti-female culture, and it’s disgusting.  And to wave off that fact is doubly disgusting.

Before you make flip comments, create false equivalences about how it’s “just as bad for male engineers”, pretend that there’s really no sexism, how about you do this:  Spend several years having the first thing out of people’s mouths be a comment on your clothes, hair, or appearance (When was the last time you heard a guy at work tell another guy, “Hey, nice blouse!” or “I like what you did with your hair”, or “Are you wearing makeup”?).  Go to dozens of meetings over the course of a decade or two where every time you tried to speak or bring up a topic, solution, or idea some guy spoke right over you or the moderator basically just ignored you.  Endure years of snarky, snide, or derogatory comments about how often you’ve had to come in late, leave early, work at home, or take vacation days to deal with family issues (while your male co-workers simultaneously get praised as being “good dads!” for doing exactly the same things).

How about you spend years or even decades receiving 10-20% less salary than male co-workers doing literally exactly the same job?  How about you suffer through a few months of dealing with the hostility and anger of your co-workers because of your need to take time off after you give birth (not to mention ignorant comments about how you should “just deal with it” while suffering postpartum depression).  Or maybe enjoy the delightful emotions of watching men with less experience and qualifications promoted over you multiple times.

I have seen all this, consistently, everywhere.   At meetings large and small, in companies huge and tiny, all the time.  It’s consistent.  Yes, you can squawk that this is “anecdotal evidence”, and it is.  Of course, it’s completely validated by every single woman in high tech I’ve ever spoken to on the topic, from low-level folks toiling away on front-line phone support to high-powered VPs.  Often when I make these observations they snort or roll their eyes; it’s so obvious to them, it’s like they can’t believe it’s news to the likes of me.  That’s how prevalent it is, how entrenched.

I’m proud–incredibly proud–of what my industry has and continues to contribute to the country and the world.  I love the attitude so many of us have that every problem can be solved, if we just apply enough brainpower and tech to it (as misguided as that sometimes can be).  I love working in this industry.  But that doesn’t blind me to the rampant, horrific sexism (and often racism, homophobia, and other bigotry) that it contains.  So instead of trying to wave it away, or pretend it’s not so bad, or arrogantly and condescendingly telling women to “suck it up,” we do something about it?

And folks, the first step on “doing something” is to admit we have a problem.  Until we do that, we ain’t getting nowhere.  So let’s admit the problem, and get going, shall we?

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