Sexism in the Tech Community

As a woman in technology I feel pretty lucky. I know that my field is dominated by men and that there are pockets of sexism, but I am fortunate enough to work with a lot of women and with men who are feminists. So I was pretty shocked to read this post about the really atrocious sexism in the open source community, especially since I am a huge fan of the open source philosophy. The post describes FOSS conferences in particular and the “creepy” behavior found there:

What kinds of creepy are we talking about here? You name it: guys taking upskirt photos, guys showing slide shows of bikini models, guys inviting strippers… to parties (ostensibly because stripping and programming Ubuntu go together like chips and dip). Several of the women have been physically assaulted.

Hopefully this is not representive of the FOSS community as a whole, but I think we can all agree that even a little of this kind of behavior is too much.

The post also links to the inspiring Geek Feminism Wiki, which includes an awesome timeline offeminist geek activism, beginning in the late 1980’s, which I promptly added to our case study list for the Global Digital Activism Data Set.

This got me thinking about what leads a community (online or offline)tointolerant behavior. A commenter named fakeplastictrees had an interesting insight:

As loath as I am to say the following, it seems to me that this is a result of not working with women as often as necessary. I am not implying that men immediately resort to being dicks when women aren’t around, but I think this is just a very extreme version of normal male behavior when women aren’t around.

It’s not that male programmers and developers are inherently sexist jerks (some are, but most aren’t). There’s something about a homogenous social environment that brings out the worst in people. When interacting with other people in a community, we communicate based on a perceived set of shared norms. This includes perceptions about “insiders” who aremembers of the group and “outsiders,” who aren’t. Polite as we may try to be, we are more likely to express a negative view about outsiders than about insiders – it’s part of how we identify ourselves as members of the group.

In a group that is homogenous (based on religion, gender, sex, age, ethnicity, class, what have you) there are many more outsiders than insiders and thus many more groups that one can criticize safely. Not only willtrash-taking outsidersnot threaten a fellow group member, it will probably increase group cohesion, as every statement underlines not only a “them” but alsoan “us.”

Now imagine acommunity which is diverse along those same perameters. The number of outsider identities is relatively small and the number of insider identities is relatively large. In fact, if the group is diverse enough, the individual members may not even know the identies of their fellow members (for example, if a member is gay or politically conservative).

In this context trash-talking any particular identityrisks offending a member of the group and casts a stigmaon the critic for threateninggroup cohesion. This is why diverse communities tend to be more tolerant, more “politically correct”. If you know you are in a diverse community, it’s best to play it safe and notsay things that might threaten the group or one’s standing in it.It’s just the evolutionary adaptation of a social species.

There are now a lot of feminist techgroups, like BlogHer and WomenWho Tech, who are supporting women in the tech space and encouraging new ones to join. But it is probably the gender trends that will defeat sexism in the long run. Froma 2008 article in theNew York Times:

Research shows that among the youngest Internet users, the primary creators of Web content (blogs, graphics, photographs, Web sites) are not misfits resembling the Lone Gunmen of “The X Files.” On the contrary, the cyberpioneers of the moment are digitally effusive teenage girls.

When there are more women in computer science classes and, a few years later, going to those tech conferences, I bet the amount of sexist behavior will take a nose-dive. In a community which accepts multiple genders, a sexist would label himself as an outsider, and even a geek wouldn’t want to do that.

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