Fighting Technology's Man Culture ; in Computer Engineering, Women Can Be Outsiders in an Alpha-Male Society

By Miller, Claire Cain | International New York Times, April 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Fighting Technology's Man Culture ; in Computer Engineering, Women Can Be Outsiders in an Alpha-Male Society


Miller, Claire Cain, International New York Times


Even after so many barriers have fallen for women, the computer industry remains behind.

Elissa Shevinsky can pinpoint the moment when she felt that she no longer belonged.

She was at a friend's house last Sept. 8, watching the live stream of the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon on her laptop and iPhone. Entrepreneurs were showing off their products, and two young Australian men, David Boulton and Jethro Batts, stood behind the podium to give their presentation.

"Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits," Mr. Boulton began, as photographs of women's chests on a cellphone flashed on the screen behind him. After some banter, Mr. Batts concluded: "This is the breast hack ever."

The crowd -- overwhelmingly young, white, hoodie-wearing men -- guffawed. Something in Ms. Shevinsky's mind clicked. If ever there was proof that the technology industry needed more women, she thought, this was it.

Ms. Shevinsky, 35, wasn't the only one who was disgusted by the presentation. Twitter lit up with outrage. She joined in. Opening her computer, Ms. Shevinsky wrote a blog-post manifesto: "I thought that we didn't need more women in tech. I was wrong."

Then things got worse. The next day, Pax Dickinson, who was her business partner in a start-up called Glimpse Labs, as well as the chief technology officer of the news site Business Insider, took to Twitter to defend the Titstare pair against accusations of misogyny. "It is not misogyny to tell a sexist joke, or to fail to take a woman seriously, or to enjoy boobies," he wrote.

Ms. Shevinsky felt pushed to the edge. Women who enter fields dominated by men often feel this way. They love the work and want to fit in. But then something happens -- a small slight or a major offense -- and they suddenly feel like outsiders. The question for newcomers to a field has always been when to play along and when to push back.

Today, even after so many barriers have fallen -- whether at elite universities, where women outnumber men, or in running for the presidency, where polls show that fewer people think gender makes a difference -- computer engineering, the most innovative sector of the economy, remains behind. Many women who want to be engineers encounter a field where they are not only significantly underrepresented, but also feel pushed away.

Technology executives often accuse schools, parents or society in general of failing to encourage girls to pursue computer science. But something else is at play in the industry itself: Among the women who join the field, 56 percent leave by midcareer, a startling attrition rate that is double that for men, according to research from the Harvard Business School.

The culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha- male culture that can make women and other people who don't fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned or even in danger.

"It's a thousand tiny paper cuts," said Ashe Dryden, a programmer who now consults on increasing diversity in technology, describing working in technology. "I've been a programmer for 13 years and I've always been one of the only women and queer people in the room. I've been harassed, I've had people make suggestive comments to me, I've had people basically dismiss my expertise. I've gotten rape and death threats just for speaking out about this stuff."

She added: "A lot of times that makes me want to leave. But it's hard, because this is basically the only field that I've ever known. And is it right for me to have to leave when I'm not creating the problem?"

Ms. Shevinsky never received death threats, but she experienced her share of come-ons and slights. A few days after Mr. Dickinson's "it's not misogyny" tweet, she quit Glimpse. She had been aware of earlier cringe-making tweets in which her business partner had joked about rape or questioned basic feminist precepts. Still, she admired Mr. Dickinson's technical skills and his work ethic. …

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