Women in technology and harassment

Almost 6 years ago, in March of 2007, technologist and public speaker Kathy Sierra shuttered her online site and declined her speaking engagement at O’Reilly ETech because she had been threatened and harassed online and feared personal attacks in real life. [Geek Feminism Wiki: Kathy Sierra Incident] At the time, it generated an outpouring of discussion about the abuse that women who speak in public, especially women in the technology field, face on the basis of their sex. I had attended her keynote address at SXSW that year, and was shocked that such a competent and engaging speaker was being terrorized online, and felt she needed to step out of the limelight for her own safety.

There’s been an ongoing discussion about the lack of women speakers at Tech conferences in the intervening years, with some of the best and the brightest tech conferences making an engaged and active commitment to gender diversity.

But as designer and tech speaker Sarah Parmenter discovered after speaking publicly at several public events this past year, female tech speakers are still the targets of harassment from men in the tech field. [Speaking Up] After Sarah spoke out about her experience, others have come forward: Relly Annett-Baker [Also Speaking Up].

If your wondering why there is such a climate of hostility towards women in the tech field, Milo Yiannopoulos’s incredibly sexist post on Kernel [Put A Sock In It, You Dickless Wonders] will go a long way towards shining a light on it:

For this is the technology industry: there are more men in it because the male mind is, in general, better primed with the sorts of skills the industry values; men are simply better suited to most technology jobs.

Women therefore tend to work in roles that require finesse and communicative skills, where they pop up in this world at all. What is hard to understand about this, or offensive about pointing it out? The sexes are wired differently, and that’s perfectly fine.

There will be exceptions. Women who succeed should be celebrated – though on their merits, not because they have a vagina (hello, Evening Standard). But there will always be more men. It’s a biological inevitability.

It’s certainly nothing to feel crippling guilt about.

Obviously a load of pure hogwash; there’s no evidence that men and women are wired differently or that such sweeping generalizations are even remotely true. [Susan Fisk, Is the female brain innately inferior? subject: Josef Parvizi, Clayman Institute fellow and assistant professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University]

But that this attitude is published on a tech blog is very telling about what men in the tech industry think as they listen to women speak. It’s not surprising that women would be reluctant to step up to a podium, given this sort of a climate. The experiences that Kathy Sierra, Sarah Parmenter, Relly Annett-Baker faced were not meant merely to silence them, but also to silence women in general in the tech industry.

It goes beyond just women speaking in tech to working every day in tech fields. There are times I’ve felt at my own tech job that I was in a climate I felt wasn’t welcoming or respectful towards female employees. If this kind of harassment is aimed at women who step up and speak out, what can those of us working every day in the industry expect to do about it? It’s disheartening to say the least.

Fortunately, there are some organizations like the The Ada Initiative working actively to change things for women in technology, by providing guidelines for tech conferences on how to handle harassment of women speakers and attendees, conducting research and surveys about women in the industry, holding their own conferences and a half dozen other great programs design to make things better. Support them if you can, and promote their work.

Posted in Feminism & Women's Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

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