Insight Of An Intern – Sexism in Tech

October 2, 2012 in Afterhours, Coding, Community Internship, Community Marketing, Conferences, Intern Advice, Intern Guide, Introduction, Networking, Personal, Sexism, Slideshow, Technology

Believe it or not, I’m generally not one to get on my high horse. Despite being a politics student, I attempt to keep my mind open and, where appropriate, my mouth shut.

But I have my limits, so I apologise in advance for what may be quite a long entry. 

I am currently attending a GOTO conference in Aarhus, Denmark; it’s a software development conference designed for developers, team leads, architects and project managers. Overall, it has been a great experience; my first ever tech conference, my first time travelling to a new country on my own and a really great chance to immerse myself in the latest developments in the software development community.

As with most things tech, the conference is hugely male-dominated – I’d estimate that around 90% of the attendees are male, and around 80% of the exhibiting sponsors, of which my placement company 10gen is one.

Now, this isn’t generally an issue; I’ve always been somewhat of a tomboy, and in my short time in the tech industry I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; in fact, my placement company itself provides undoubtedly the most welcoming and supportive working environment that I have ever had the pleasure to experience.

Yet there are still moments where I am forced to consider whether this is really an industry culture I wish to be a part of- and whether it really wants me to be a part of it…

Last night was one of these occasions, when I was confronted by a tech evangelist from another vendor who – though not intending to cause offense – blithely announced to a table of my industry colleagues that I had obviously gotten the 10gen job due to being a ‘young hot chick’, and that had I been ‘an ugly girl of 300 pounds’ I wouldn’t have been sat there that evening.

I’m not denying that aesthetics have an effect upon the way others react to each other, nor indeed the chances people are given in life. It’s a sad yet accurate statement that we tend to respond more positively to those considered aesthetically pleasing. What I objected to so vehemently in the situation was that this man had taken no time to enquire about my academic or employment credentials, nothing of my tech-related knowledge (admittedly only basic at the moment, but improving every day in this job) nor anything other than what he took to be the only thing I had to offer as a person in that moment; the way I looked.

I’m obviously not alone in my feelings –  a blogpost by The Real Katie summarises nicely one of the most frustrating issues as a woman in tech:

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Let me tell you, I love coding. Been doing it since before I hit puberty. I did it when I barely had the money to keep a server up. I do it on the weekends and evenings, and I’m teaching my kids how to do it. I’ve spent thousands of dollars to go to conferences so I can learn more about it. Why would I ever leave the profession where I got paid real money to do what I love?

In short, I got tired of being told to ‘lighten up.’

This industry is one of subtle sexism. I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out. The subtle barbs are usually dismissed as something I need to not care about. It was a joke! Sheesh. Why are you so sensitive?! All I did was make a joke about you needing to be in the kitchen!

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This ‘beneath the surface, only having a laugh’ sexism may seem harmless at first – indeed, any woman who calls someone out about it is liable to be labelled as an overreacting feminazi – but I’ll be honest with you; it’s exhausting. There’s only so many times I want to have to fake a smile as a guy ignorantly makes a crack about how the MongoDB logo is particularly well-placed on my t-shirt (right across my bosom) or how marketing girls are always a highlight of conferences.

Such subtle sexism is almost more infuriating than the issue of sexual harassment in computer gaming, because at least the kind of person to scream “Stupid bitch! I hope your boyfriend beats you. Nah, you can’t get a boyfriend” are easily labelled as AWTDs (work that one out). But those guys acting out this other kind of sexism are harder to deal with because, I kid you not, they’re often bloody likeable people. 

As Charles Arthur put so well, it’s a sort of background hum of sexism; the level of droning that can drive women out of potential careers, and leave the ‘brogrammers’ baffled, looking at each asking “where are all the women?”.

I think we can all agree, there’s something infinitely depressing about the fact that even in one of the most progressive industries in the world, we’re still debating the treatment of women. 

[It should be noted that all views expressed here are my own and not that of 10gen, The University of Bath or anyone else for that matter]