by Jen Giacalone
Women enduring sexism in male-dominated fields is nothing particularly new. There are horror stories from all kinds of fields – from banking to coal-mining to the art world and everything in between. But the most egregious and juvenile misogyny these days seems to be coming from the tech world.
Witness the bro-tastic tweets of Business Insider’s CTO, Pax Dickinson, who I hear has recently been relieved of his job:
“feminism in tech remains the champion topic for my block list. my finger is getting tired.”
“Who has more dedication, ambition, and drive? Kobe only raped one girl, Lebron raped an entire city. +1 for Lebron.”
Elissa Shevinsky tells a nauseating little story about attending Techcrunch and watching a contest in which a couple of tech guys pitch a fake app called “Titstare.” You can go read about it if you want; I won’t waste time describing it.
Women are making inroads in this field, a few are even making it to the top, and it really seems like a lot of these guys just can’t stand it. I wondered; has the sexism always been there? Is it just backlash? Women are relatively late breaking in there as opposed to other fields, after all. Or is it maybe something else?
I decided I needed a second opinion, so I called my friend Steve. Steve and I went to high school together. He’s probably a lot like the stereotype that you think of when you think of the working-class Italian guy from Long Island who likes to fix cars. Except Steve is a bright guy, who, while he would probably never, ever describe himself as a feminist, is really good at explaining, without hostility, how male-dominated society and traditional gender roles are miserable for men too. It’s useful when I start to forget about that or can’t see that perspective.
So I called him. “There’s a lot of stuff in the news right now about women having a hard time in the tech industry, with sexism and harassment and stuff.” I lobbed it out there and waited.
He paused for a moment, then immediately launched into an anecdote. “There’s this type of girl that you find a lot of times, working the desk at the auto repair shops,” he began.
“OK…” I said. I wasn’t clear where he was going with this.
“Her name is Darla.”
He described Darla. She sounded a lot like Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.” Darla knows you, knows your car, knows just from what you told her on the phone that it’s probably the tranny and since it’s a Pacer, you’re gonna need to just replace the whole thing because nobody is going to want to deal with finding parts for it. Guys will come in and ask for Darla, and if she’s not there, they’ll leave, because they trust her. Younger mechanics come from the back to get her opinion because she’s grown up around cars and knows as much or more than they do. Steve, over many years in and around the auto repair business, has run into many Darlas.
“Now, Darla’s cousin Frank works in the back of the shop. Like your typical blue-collar guy, in any kind of a team or work environment, he and the other guys who’ve been there a while are going to pick on the younger, smaller, or physically weaker guys. You have to prove yourself, prove that you can take it. It’s about the team knowing they can count on you. And then once you prove yourself, if anyone picks on you… they close ranks and defend you.”
“OK…” Where was this going?
“And most of the time, if a woman wants to work in an environment like that, she’s gotta put up with the same kind of thing, in the beginning. Even Darla.”
I was horrified. “Are you saying that sexual harassment is just guys’ way of testing women in the workplace to make sure they’re on the team???”
“Hell no! Sexual harassment is terrible, but that’s not what this is. It’s more like a… hazing period, and sometimes women can mistake that for sexism because they don’t see that it’s equal opportunity. If you can’t match these guys physically, they need to know that you can do it emotionally. That you can take a few punches without whining about it.”
So then I explained about Titstare. And Pax Dickinson. And the myriad women in tech who get overrun with online rape threats simply for the crime of pointing out that tech is a hostile field for women. So many rape-threat stories, so little time…
“Oh. Well, that’s different. There’s only one thing you need to know, then: Frank and his friends in the shop spent most of their high school years punching those computer geeks in the nuts and stuffing them into lockers.”
It was a long walk to get there, but I understood. Sure, there are plenty of dude-bros in tech,but there are also a healthy number of physically nonthreatening, nebbishy guys who had their manhood questioned by bigger, stronger guys who were going to grow up to be mechanics and ditch diggers and guys who blow things up for a living. Some men just weren’t built for that ritual and, unfortunately, they came away with an idea that the way to prove their manhood is to put someone else down. Lucky you, ladies of tech You might be Darlas, but you’re not dealing with Franks. You’re dealing with the guys Frank used to beat up.
I’m neither bashing nor stereotyping; I have spent time in both of these kinds of environments. I’ve spent Saturday nights hanging out with Steve and his gearhead friends, and I’ve worked in mobile gaming. I’m not saying that everyone in either arena is like this, just that there are enough to make the environment hostile. I’m saying that like always – and yes, I’m about to use the “P-word” – the patriarchy is screwing everyone. Its rigid expectations for what constitute manhood may produce close camaraderie among men that fit its mold… which ironically may mean that “macho” men ultimately feel unthreatened by a tough chick in their midst. But it also may make less stereotypically manly chaps feel that the only way to prove their mettle is to be objectively hostile to women.
For those ready to object, I’m not suggesting sympathy for the Titstare guys or anyone else. They may be victims of the patriarchy, but they still have to learn to eat without drooling and disagree with people without punching them in the face. It’s just useful to have some idea of where the behavior could be coming from in order to figure out what direction we might be able to go.
This isn’t something that can be fixed tomorrow. Getting more women into tech will probably help a lot. So will a general shift in cultural attitudes about sexism. But to use Admin Pattie’s phrase, we are dealing with entrenched gender roles that are without a doubt built on apatriarchal structure. And while we can and should be spending time talking about how to be a woman in tech, it would be equally useful to start talking about some different, better ways to be a man.