Sexism in tech: why gender needs to stop being an issue for female geeks

Woman and computer

The world of technology is exciting. It changes all the time and the opportunity to use your mind to create something new is right there for the taking. So why aren’t more women strolling in this space? We should be up there, using our unique way of thinking to add value and to start our own businesses. The problem is, women don’t feel very welcome in geeky circles and most would rather get a job where fighting to prove themselves every day isn’t a standard part of the job.

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You may be reading this article and thinking, “Oh brother (sic), yet another piece whining about the non-existent gender bias in the technology industry”, but before you click to the next page in a self-righteous rage, let’s take a look at some names: Adria Richards, Anita Sarkeesian and Elise Andrew. Recognise them?

Each of these women has been smacked about with the sexism stick in the past few months, and their claim to fame is how much abuse they’ve received for simply standing their ground in a male dominated industry. Anita wanted to make a series of videos on female tropes in videogames and got the kind of abuse that made people (regardless of gender) feel a bit sick.

Adria Richards tweeted about a dongle joke made at a conference and lost her job because of it, and Elise Andrew apparently stunned the world when it found out that she was the owner of I F**king Love Science on Facebook. A woman? Loving science? Let’s all have a quick lie-down shall we?

It’s easy for the female gender to get really riled about sexism in technology, to get more emotional than logical as they face comments like, “Why don’t you go and make me a sandwich, ovendodger?” or, “You are the reason your children are a mess, get back into the kitchen”. Think these are made up? Think again…

“It’s not fun having to engage in a dominance contest when you meet new male clients or spokespeople because they think that they know more than you, and before you can get down to serious conversation you have to prove who has the bigger [ahem],” says Samantha Perry, a South African technology journalist and the woman who broke the recent Samsung Sexism debacle on Girl Guides. She’s not alone.

Jokes and assumptions

“I’ve had people walk out of interviews saying, ‘I didn’t expect you to ask such difficult questions, you look too pretty to know to ask them’ and I’d just smile and think how useful it is for a journalist to be underestimated,” says Ansie Vicente, news editor for supplements at the Mail & Guardian.

Sam Beckbessinger, Head of Strategy for digital agency Quirk in Johannesburg, adds, “I think the thing that gets me the most is when I go to conferences and people assume that I must be from the PR agency. I also find the need for male MCs at tech events to make incredibly sexist jokes quite annoying.”

“When I was starting out and accompanying a senior to a site visit the client would always be surprised that I was a technician,” says Shana Kay, CEO and founder of IntelliCred. “I would always be asked if I knew how to fix a computer or if I was sure that I knew what I was doing. I did get annoyed, but more about the fact that men needed to ask me if I could actually do a job that I was patently there busy doing.”

These ladies were brave enough to be named. When we asked the females in the tech industry what sexism they had experienced, most refused to comment because they weren’t keen on the backlash.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of comments that would make your toes curl,” said one. “I had a colleague tell me that I must have slept my way into my position and that I was a feminazi because I had my own, very clear, opinions.”

“I was told that I should stop whining about how I wished there were more playable women characters in videogames because I had The Sims and that’s all a women needs,” said another. She didn’t want to be named because the perpetrator used to be a good friend.

What’s really saddening is that, in an industry that’s all about the future and hope and changing lives for the better, there’s a Cro-Magnon-like stubbornness to lay claim to it as a man’s world.
The sexism that abounds doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it is close to impossible to tell someone that their views fit that description when they believe they are as liberal as they come.

So what’s next?

Do we abandon the bridges? Declare war? Kerry Evans, Managing Director for Quintica Sub Saharan Africa, offers an extremely level-headed view on the issue: “I’ve not found sexism to be a problem for me. Perhaps it is because I am quite a forceful person and, at my age, I don’t take much in the way of that kind of nonsense. Men and women think differently and I believe that this makes a great combination for working together. If we respect that we are different, these working relationships have the potential to be more about collaboration and less about who is in charge.”

Interestingly, some of the woman agreed, having had the privilege of working with some exceptional men who refused to take part in the gender war. It can be hard for women who’ve been at the receiving end of relentless gender bias to set aside their defences, but for things to change gender needs to stop being an issue. Full stop.

Women may be criticised for pointing out seemingly innocuous remarks (such as donglegate, above), but how else do we stop them from being part of the status quo? Every comment, so-called joke, casual grope – these all allow for those in the industry to accept it as the norm. Now is the time for change and we all need to step up and make a difference.

Participate in the conversations with women and men who fight the gender divide on #1reasonwhy or #safetytipsforladies.

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