Discussing sexism in geek communities is more important than discussing gender imbalance.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Some female geeks use the discourse of increasing female representation in science, technology, engineering, and math (the “STEM” fields) as a proxy for addressing sexism in geek communities. Because countering sexism against women does not directly benefit men, some women reframe the issue of sexism by appealing to capitalist values. They argue that if women are better represented in STEM fields, it would lead to economic growth and technological innovation (and that this can be achieved through efforts to reduce gender bias).

However, this strategy backfires when male geeks interpret the movement to increase female representation in STEM fields as “social engineering”, i.e., feminists forcing women to do what we purportedly “dislike” (science, tech, engineering, and math). The subtext of this movement—which is that female geeks who love STEM topics have to endure sexism from male geeks or get out, and this is a Bad ThingTM that needs to be fixed—is lost entirely.

Observe this Digg comment on the Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences submission:

''There is nothing more miserable than a career that you don't really enjoy. But don't let that stop feminists from pushing other women into jobs they won't like. They have an agenda and ***** up someone else's life is not a consideration.'' (+10)

Observe also this Hacker News comment on the report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics:

''Yeah, though my impression is that the current focus is mostly on the good-for-society angle: that it would be better for society if STEM fields as a whole were more gender-balanced, even if not necessarily better for the women actually in  those STEM fields. This is a rather different argument than the more traditional one, that gender-bias/etc. is standing in the way of women who want to go into STEM careers but find themselves blocked. The focus these days seems to be more on women who /don't/ want to go into STEM careers, to figure out why and how we can change that, which is more of a focus on social-engineering/good-for-society outcomes, as opposed to the more traditional feminist focus on personal autonomy / right to pursue your career of choice.'' (2 points)

Ironically, when some female geeks use the capitalist discourse of increasing female representation in STEM fields as a structural strategy for reducing sexism and improving our personal autonomy / right to pursue our career of choice, many male geeks misunderstand these efforts as being anti-choice. While direct condemnations of sexism within geek communities may be met with denial and defensiveness, at least such a strategy centres on benefitting female geeks instead of benefitting male geeks. Appealing to the capitalist discourse when one wants to discuss structural inequalities may reinforce social norms that value the majority and privileged over the minority and marginalized. In this case, appealing to the capitalist discourse would reinforce the idea that women are valuable only if men benefit from it, instead advancing the idea that women are valuable because we are people too.

17 thoughts on “Discussing sexism in geek communities is more important than discussing gender imbalance.

  1. Laughingrat

    I agree with this article!

    many male geeks misunderstand these efforts as being anti-choice

    Heh–it’s probably disingenuous. They spot a way to argue against inclusion, they go for it. Folks who make sexist arguments are probably not all that worried about choice in any context. ;)

    1. Mary

      I’ve seen plenty of disingenuous arguments, pretty much equivalent to that about any feminist criticism of women’s behaviour. (“Women chose X, feminism is about choice: hahaha feminists, I have uncovered your hypocrisy! Pwned!”) But I have on a few occasions seen this as a genuine concern, also, that women-in-geekdom advocates want to force women to be geeks. (It’s often not overly thought through: what would anyone gain by forcing them? how would one force them to stick around? But it’s not always actually disingenuous.)

      Sometimes the context is parallel to my Don’t mention the war post: concern that people are lying to women about how much they’ll enjoy tech/geeking as a career. But instead of concern that people are hiding the sexism of geeking in order to attract women as in the post, there’s concern that people are hiding the presumed ill-fittedness of geeking in order to attract women. (That is, it’s a sexist version of “don’t mention the war”: “geeking is for men, it’s unfair to women for advocates to pretend otherwise.”)

    2. Restructure! Post author

      Although those comments seem ridiculously trollish to me too, they are understandable. The standard framing on achieving gender balance uses the language of “encouraging” women to go into STEM fields, which implies social engineering, persuasion, and making women do something we are supposedly uninterested in.

      1. the15th

        I think talking about “attracting” women to STEM is possibly worse; even those who think science and math are awesome may need a little encouragement sometimes.

        But when I hear someone talking about either of the above, I feel that he or she is probably trying to discuss exactly what we’re talking about — the sexism problem — in the most socially acceptable terms possible. Being “negative” is highly stigmatized right now, so there’s an inclination to frame the argument as “yay women” instead of “boo sexists.” Unfortunately, it leads to the kind of rhetorical confusion you describe.

  2. Jess

    There’s definitely room for the capitalist/business argument as part of the anti-sexist approach, but I think the framing needs to include the idea that it’s the social/cultural environment that (many) women don’t like, not the work itself. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a feminist argument for outreach to women that says that women don’t like STEM *work* but we need to get them into it anyway, but it’s a bad idea to assume that people who are invested in the status quo will do the brain work required to interpret that we mean that women are put off by the STEM *culture*.

  3. the15th

    Awesome, thank you. This crystallizes why I’ve always felt that calling for “more women in tech” misses the point. Laughingrat is correct that arguments about “pushing” women into careers that they don’t want are disingenuous and will be replaced with new arguments for why we shouldn’t end sexism in geek communities, but I still think that the emphasis switch is an important one for a number of reasons.

    First of all, if your argument depends on the idea that an increase in people entering STEM fields is good for society in and of itself, you’re probably going to end up relying on “STEM shortage” rhetoric, when anyone who’s been paying attention knows that the real shortage is a jobs shortage.

    Second, implying that women are put off by some aspect of geek culture without explicitly stating that that aspect is sexism leads to nebulous theories about how women just aren’t as weird, obsessive or whatever, and that the solution is making geek culture more mainstream. Geeks who didn’t really have an opinion on the whole sexism debate will definitely have an opinion after hearing that they need to stop being so, well, geeky.

    The problem is gender discrimination and harassment.

  4. Mary Sue

    You know, I’m in a mid-life career change mode at the moment because apparently when everyone was telling me that I was good at communicating and should become an elementary teacher and executing all sorts of harassment campaigns to get me to subscribe to gender norms, they didn’t bother to notice I was awesomely good at math and computer programming.

    I hated being a teacher. Yes, I’m good at communicating, if you want a blunt, no-nonsense opinion. That makes kindergarten children cry and their parents threaten to sue.

    I love software development and database design. I really wish I’d had this choice earlier in life, so I wouldn’t have wasted so much time and so many student loan dollars being so unhappy.

    1. Yatima


      Thank you and good luck, Mary Sue. I hope you become a kickass database designer.

  5. Carla Schroder

    Am I the only one headpounding because discussions like the ones referenced in the article still exist, and persist? Why are we still justifying our existence, our wants, our needs? This is frustrating and exhausting and I wish to twap lots and lots of useless misogynistic people. Very hard and with metal objects. They’ll always twist and misconstrue; misogyny, like any form of bigotry, is incapable of honesty.

    Nice article, good conclusion, thanks for posting it

    1. Kim Curry

      You’re not the only one headpounding.

      I pound my head every time I hear about high school guidance counselors brushing off SWE members working on outreach, with “Oh, none of our girls are interested in that.”

  6. Eivind

    There’s many problems with this argument, but I think the biggest is the implied assumption that women are not interested, and thus need to be “forced” or atleast “persuaded”.

    I think it’d be perfectly sufficient to end the strong, unrelenting discouragement that women today experience, discouraging them from getting involved in anything technical work whatsoever. It starts *before* you even leave the womb – by the time you’re actually born, there’s a pile of toys waiting for you, a significant portion of which are *strongly* selected by the sex of the unborn.

    Dolls for the girls. Cars and building-blocks for the boys.

    Countering sexism against women -does- directly benefit men though. Because many of the issues facing women also face men, especially those who value equal sharing of responsibilities. For example, a lot of sexism against women in the workplace have been policies that are hostile to parents. Traditionally, this has hurt women the most since they’re tended to do most of the parenting. Yet countering it, directly benefits every man who takes responsibility for his children.

  7. gobo

    Hmmm. Is this an American issue? I only ask because when I was in university a couple of years ago (in Ireland) there were far more more girls than guys in the majority of the science courses available at the university. Additionally it did not seem to me that the girls were in the courses for any gender issue reasons so much as a genuine interest in the subjects they were studying. Nor were they any less capable.

    1. Eivind

      It’s certainly not “an american issue” – but there are significant geographical and cultural differences. Nevertheless women are significantly underrepresented, in STEM-fields globally.

      In some countries there are a lot more women among the younger in the field, and so not all universities have male-dominated courses, but in other countries progress has been slow or nonexistant. To some degree it also “helps” that women now take significantly *more* higher education than men in many countries.

      Here in Norway, for example, almost 60% of all students are female, but less than a third of those studying computer-science are female.

      I think you’re right that few women select university-courses to prove a gender-related point. Those who *do* study in stem-fields, overwhelmingly do so for the same reason the men do: because it interests them, and they thus *want* to learn more about it.

  8. Lesley B

    Great topic !

    I’ve been ‘resting’ out of STEM for a period of time and am sorting out the threads of my need to rest.

    This article helped me recall a WISE event I attended many moons ago in Brighton, UK. One of the presenters there was what we could now refer to as a ‘women into STEM advocate’ herself. The focus at the time was in the educational sector, how to change that. Some of the women present were in all levels of the education sector but there were also a lot of practising female engineers from companies in the region.

    The companies were ticking their boxes in both having female engineers and ‘encouraging’ them to attend such events. We just needed to try and work out how to exploit it.

    At the end of the advocate’s presentation, I criticised her work – pointing out that it was an educational and social project with no professional female engineers used as data sources and so, as someone from the humanities sector (I think she was a sociologist) her work was already inadequate to the realities professional engineers faced at the work face everyday.

    I was already feeling fed up with the lack of discussions on how to address active engineers problems. It turned out a lot of other people were too. One engineer who had served the country building an airport in a place that broke significant airport site requirements effectively lost her job when she decided to start a family. Her presentation followed the sociologist’s. A second engineer gave her presentations and pointed out how women felt sidelined into project management and paper chasing rather than heading or developing any specific engineering project even with the company entry requirement for First Class Honours.

    Coming up to the present day, I heard an author on a radio program say they wrote down the things that were said in conversations to later use the material to build stories.

    As someone who has worked in a sexist environment with little to no support, often as the only women both in my team and in the Research Department, with a devil of a Director machinating away manipulating other staff to verbal attacks or deliberate actions, coupled with the occasional ‘colleague’ who would exploit the situation for their own benefit, I wish, I really wish *now* I had kept notes, on what was happening *then*.

    Not necessarily *who* said what but *what* was said and something of the context. So that I could look back at it now and reconsider, re-feel and review from my current standpoint, without relying on what is now just a memory. I can still recall some events even now but those are the significant stick-in-the-mind events – not the little events, all those lower signal to noise ratio events that wore me down on a daily basis.

    I regret not trying to find some action for us all to take at that meeting. The will was there but those who were advocates and not actually working in engineering were focussed on advocating women into STEM and, I felt, not entirely acknowledging the problems women in STEM encountered.

    The idea of keeping diaries or journals of sexist events or attitudes at work was not was mentioned at all. In that era, if it became known one was keeping a journal of work related events then it was likely the company would request to see it with protection of IP being used as the argument. If that request was denied, on any grounds, then career game over for the woman. It would also be game over if the content was used to deal with any charges of sexist behaviour within the company – and a woman could not rely on HR being sympathetic to her case within the company – only that HR would protect the company. If women attempted to change company ethic they were perceived as a threat. I have no idea if any of this has changed.

    So when you consider what was, and probably still is, at stake for many women working in a sexist environment in STEM you have to comprehend that, while advocates have a point, they don’t suffer from having that point of view, in fact they earn from it.

    Returning to any STEM environment means facing the sexist environment, however that environment is generated. I’m unconvinced the sexism women encounter in STEM is absent in other professions.

    It doesn’t matter if we’re any good, or how much we enjoy STEM itself, if we go into that environment we still seem to deal with a sexist environment every day.

    I would now strongly advocate the keeping of notes – a journal of what goes on in your company or institution or team, that you feel is sexist. Consider it a reflective practice. You will build up a diary of events in the longer term but you will also find yourself better prepared to refer to the different arguments available within the ‘normal conversational banter’ that takes place at work.

    Also try to make a note of any breakthroughs or perceived alterations in behaviours or implicit institution/company/team policy. It’s useful to record what works.

    1. Katherine

      As a counter to the company asking to see it, just don’t mention it. Keep the sexism journal and the journal of notes about the work you are doing* separate, and if they ask to see your journal, show them the one with all your projects etc. in. For that matter, you could keep both sets of notes in the SAME journal, and if your work asks to see it, well, show them a particularly arcane/obscure technical part ;)

      And scan it regularly or keep it digital so that you always have a copy even if they feel like they should confiscate it.

      *I know I’m required to keep a record of work I’ve done so that when I can get assessed for my Chartered Professional Engineer status I have proof of everything I’ve done to date. I don’t know if other fields have this requirement but it can be a good idea anyway for notes for your CV, notes on solutions to obscure problems that may pop up again etc.

    2. Melanie

      I am similarly frustrated that so little of the discussion about women in tech mentions our high rate of attrition from the industry. It’s nice that so many people want to attract girls and young women to STEM fields–but where’s all that mentoring and support when we’re at, say, mid-life, and demand apparently outrageous things like lives outside of work?

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