Technology Has A Culture Problem, Not a Man Problem

rubiks cube

This is a response to “Technology’s Man Problem,” an article printed in the April 5th edition of the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller.

Reading Miller’s recent article in the New York Times, one would think everyone working in the technology sector is White. One would also come to believe that men (read: all men) in tech are the bane of a woman working in tech. The characters in this plot are predictable: women are hapless and helpless, and men are aggressive predators.

Real life doesn’t fit neatly into the binary that Miller’s article advanced. This issue is about real life, not a novel or movie script.

Unfortunately, in “Technology’s Man Problem,” Miller treats the issues facing women in a one-dimensional way, sensationalizing events and generalizing the experiences of women in the community. Part of the problem is selection bias. The two protagonists of Miller’s article, Elissa Shevinsky and Julie Ann Horvath, agreed to be interviewed. The plight they faced in the tech world, while absolutely serious, is only part of the problem.

Where Shevinsky is concerned, perhaps it was supposed to be the galvanizing force of a shared experience, which is why Miller described Shevinsky’s feelings when watching the livestream video of the “Titstare” app being demoed at the Techcrunch Disrupt hackathon.

Now juxtapose Shevinsky’s experience with my own. I was onstage with Team Titstare, and I knew my silence would be a self-preservation tool. This was not lost on someone in the audience who tweeted the following:

Watching something online that is sexist can certainly be unsettling, yet experiencing the same event in real life is far more intense and harmful. It is not my intention to minimize what Shevinksy went through via livestream. My goal is to point out how applying the experience I faced in tech, albeit an anecdotal one, to another’s experience doesn’t serve the community or advancement.

Technology doesn’t have a ‘man problem’––as posited by Miller in the New York Times––it has a culture problem.

How do we address this culture problem in tech?

A holistic approach is needed. It is not enough to focus on sexism only, or racism only, or the threat(s) of violence against people. Focusing on one issue, or regulating interconnected or intertwined issues to second-tier status, is harmful to all women, especially women of color who are often assigned to marginalized status or erasure.

However, Intersectionality can lead the way.

Intersectionality is a theory crafted by UCLA Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her groundbreaking article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” Professor Crenshaw advances the theory that the lives of women of color don’t exist in a binary. The lives of women are complex, as are the lives of all human beings. A woman of color faces not only gendered threats and violence, but she also faces racialized ones, too.

Race is just one aspect of addressing intersectional issues. We must also consider other markers: country of origin, socioeconomic status, and even one’s health as something to be considered rather than amplifying two-dimensional representations of people.

For example, Leah Gilliam who works for Mozilla as Director of their HiveNYC project, tweeted what can best be described as surprise and disappointment at the lack of diversity in Claire Miller’s article:

Gilliam is a woman of color working in technology, and yet she didn’t see herself in Claire Miller’s article addressing her industry. She isn’t alone.

And this isn’t the first time a media outlet whitewashed the tech space. Writing about her personal experience in the tech word, Miyanda Nehwati recalls seeing a billboard promoting Silicon Roundabout, London’s version of Silicon Valley, with a photo of nearly all White subjects, in stark contrast to her everyday experience of working in the very same neighborhood:

Actually being in TechCity doesn’t feel like I’m in an exclusion zone. But walking past its billboard above Old Street Roundabout, I couldn’t understand what the photo represented. A magical all-white startup scene is not the TechCity that I know.

The photoshoot for The Guardian was itself a hastily arranged moment. Chatting with the one of the organizers later, I learned that the planning behind it was absentminded, framing what was, in my mind, a massive oversight. In her words: “We can do better,” and I agree: it was a missed opportunity.”

Miller could have also reached out to men in tech who are akin to those white liberals of the 1950s and 1960s who actively supported the Civil Rights Movement.

Historically, coalition building is important, even if it is often omitted from the pages of history. Lest we forget, women of color were marginalized during the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century, despite also amplifying the calls to bring about suffrage.

I never experienced someone being hostile to me at a tech event until last year. I’ve been in the tech space for fifteen years, attending conferences, user groups, and meetups without incident. As the old saying goes, “when it rains it pours.” I’m not excusing sexism or giving men a pass, but my focus is to bring the relevant cultural problems––like a lack of diversity––in tech to the forefront.

Since the Pycon incident, I’ve had to navigate my personal safety, both online and offline due the ongoing torrent of threats. A majority of these were made from anonymous accounts, while in comparison, many men and women who work in tech were supportive. As a long time user of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, the lack of response to enforce their Terms of Service showed a lack of seriousness towards issues of harassment.

I am not alone. It is becoming commonplace for women and youth, activists and even male game developers to be targeted for harassment. While some may think the act of trolling to be harmless, the goals are much deeper with long-term harassment campaigns planned and carried out from sites like 4chan and Reddit. Why didn’t Miller write a piece about how people can protect themselves in the untamed world of social networks and the Internet?

What I propose is not a lofty goal. Women, Action & The Media (WAM) launched a successful campaign last year to raise awareness about Facebook’s lack of enforcement when it came to gendered harassment on their platform. I reached out to WAM offering my assistance in the hopes of supporting their efforts, which turned out to be productive.

Miller missed a pivotal opportunity to address a larger problem in tech––the lack of solidarity in tech–– and chose to instead churn out yet another article positioning the industry as dangerous and wild, particular for “women.”

Despite one throwaway sentence buried in the article, “Twenty percent of software developers are women, according to the Labor Department, and fewer than 6 percent of engineers are Black or Hispanic,” she doesn’t address the culturally relevant tech issues that impact women of color or others on the margins of the community and society.

It’s unfortunate that Miller treated women subjects as a singular, dimensional, non-complex block in the tech space, with no regard for other factors that shape our lives in and outside of the tech space.

Miller e-mailed me last year about my inclusion in the article, but one wonders if my inclusion would have addressed what’s lacking in the current piece: the cultural problems in tech (not just sexism), the lack of diversity and how people on the ground are changing things. Intersectionality is about looking at exploring problems from multiple angles, not just re-upping stale tropes or stereotypes.

While Miller’s email said she was writing a “long-form narrative piece” which would take a “broad, deep and compassionate look at these issues,” her article lacked those characteristics and did not address the real world experience of intersectionality in the tech sector. She replied earlier this week via email saying I had missed my chance to be “featured” in her article. This is bigger than Adria Richards.

The tech sphere is not perfect, but things are changing, and that’s the article I wait with bated breath to read…

Photo credit: Rubik’s cube by Booyabazooka by Duncan Hull

This entry was posted in Equality, Race + Technology, TechCrunch Disrupt, Women + Technology on by .

About Adria Richards

Adria Richards is a developer and entrepreneur focused on digital equality. She has worked in the tech industry since 1998 solving big problems for companies of all sizes. Embracing her inner nerd, Adria moved moved to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her passion for technology. Previously she has worked in technical and training roles for enterprise, nonprofits and startups; from Apple to Zendesk. Adria is a popular speaker and gives talks about culture, communication and diversity. In her free time, she enjoys snowboarding, yoga and bacon; not necessarily at that order. Her Twitter account is followed by President @BarackObama.

4 thoughts on “Technology Has A Culture Problem, Not a Man Problem

  1. Anjuan Simmons

    This is a thoughtful response to Miller’s article. As you stated, the diversity issues in technology are not one dimensional nor can they be understood through a single lens. Unless we honestly examine the complexities of the technology sector’s inclusion problems, we will create solutions that don’t fix the problem.

  2. Paul Richardson

    Having read the article I can agree with your analysis AND as you point out, it is a general (read u.s.) culture problem. The question which should also be answered is where the framework for this general normative culture comes from ? That origin has been well documented.

    We need to be careful about who we are referring to when using the phrase “people of color” because in some respects depending on what level of power and agency you are looking at there is an improved level of diversity (read numbers) in tech, at least in the valley.Hence the response of one HP exec when after hearing Jesse Jackson’s ask for more diversity,he figuratively scratched his head.

    From where I sit, there has NOT been a significant improvement for Blacks and Latinos in tech, at least the tech I know, we should be determining the why’s and how’s of that situation.

    Finally a new phrase MUST be brought to the lexicon , that phrase being “Equity and Inclusion”, as it speaks more to opportunity and agency.

    Apologies for spelling errors etc… Typed from my phone

  3. GermanGuy

    marginalization and career hindering prejudices exist also within white population where certain groups are perceived inferior, so it’s not just PoC or women issue

  4. Karmakin

    I feel like virtually all of the discussion on this particular subject feels a bit hollow. It’s like there’s a piece missing that ties it all together that’s off the radar. You talk about what’s going on at 4Chan and Reddit, but I think exactly what’s going on is a bit missed. There’s a popular podcast, Hardcore History, that talks about..well..history. A recent episode discussing WWI talks about the concept of total war…and the absolute fear of everybody that they’ll be the one caught with their pants down. “What if somebody threw a war and only one side came?”

    We’re currently in a state of “cultural total war”. Everything has to be responded to full blast. To not do that is to cede the battlefield and to lose everything. I think that’s how a lot of people on all sides of this are looking at it. Things are amplified way beyond their intentions, and things blow right out of control.

    The end result of this, unfortunately, is to present women and PoC not as people looking to integrate themselves into a larger community, but invaders looking to pillage and conquer. That’s why something as innocuous as Depression Quest gets horrible flack…because it’s seen as part of this Culture Total War. It’s not seen as something to teach about somebody else’s experience. It’s seen as being you better play games like this instead of your Call of Duty’s/Halo’s/whatever

    Ending the Cultural Total War is key. Doing that is easier said than done, because you have to get agreement from all sides.

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