by Leanne Westrick, Intern at MissRepresentation.org
Last month’s blow-up surrounding a Geeklist video ad, and the subsequent Twitter battle, got a lot of people talking. What does it mean when we say that tech culture is male-dominated? What does it say about the climate of the tech industry and women’s place in it?
The Geeklist controversy got ugly quickly and it left many feeling more than a little confused. People were clearly uncomfortable with the way that the co-founders Chritian Sanz and Reuban Katz engaged with their critic Shanley Kane on Twitter, but it was almost hard to pin-down why. While the co-founders of Geeklist didn’t call out her gender, the way that they responded to her criticism of their ad exploded commentary all over the internet.
There’s been a lot of debate as to whether the exchange can be read as sexist. Perhaps the co-founders of Geeklist were just being too thin skinned, but the original point that Kane was raising had to do with the objectification of women in the tech world. The way her critique was responded to and the way that she was treated is a whole debate in and of itself. Taking offense to her “tone” started a slippery slope in which they were more personally offended than they were professionally responsible. Bringing her employment into the matter elevated the incident to another level of thinly veiled threats. Their subsequent apology didn’t seem to go down very well either.
Perhaps more interesting than the Geeklist controversy, are the comments that followed. The majority of the comments, much like the Kats and Sanz, seemed more concerned with Kane’s tone than what she was attempting to point out in the first place. The original concern, regardless of how it was framed, was directed at the perceived objectification that the ad portrayed. Her initial critique got a lot less attention than the offense that the co-founders took about being called out in a public way and the drama that ensued.
How did this all happen in the first place?
To be frank, the tech industry is still mostly seen as a boy’s club. Women are present but they make up a smaller percentage and they certainly don’t get as much attention as their male-counterparts. All of these factors combine to creating a highly male-orientated climate that spawned the controversy in the first place.
This kind of advertising isn’t new where the tech industry is concerned. Men are, quite frankly, all over the start-up scene. In the last week there has been a lot of discussion around women encountering the heavily male-dominated sphere of the tech. The fact that women represent a smaller percentage of tech and engineering fields has long plagued the sciences. It isn’t a matter of women being any less competent or capable, it’s the fact that our culture tends to gender the sciences as male fields.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has a whole presentation on their website called “Why So Few?” which addresses the lack of women that exist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields). The answer isn’t that men are better suited for these fields; it’s that they’ve been socialized to excel. Gender bias exists, just not in the blatant Mad Men ways (which in all honesty is a little easier to cry out against). Rather, it’s a subtle assumption that pervades our culture, in which men are more capable of excelling in these fields.
Here’s a graph that AAUW provides in their presentation to give some perspective on just what certain fields look like for women:
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009, Women in the labor force: A databook (Report 1018) (Washington, DC), Table 11.
What is occurring in reality is that girls are less exposed to the sciences, especially computer sciences and engineering fields, early on. This translates into less women in the largely science-based tech industry. Fewer girls are exposed or encouraged in these fields and as such, there are less of them in the workforce, creating the heavily male-dominated climate that we have today.
If girls are told that they don’t statistically excel in these fields, they internalize it and don’t expect to understand it. The stereotypes adversely affect their performance. We’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maybe this is why the majority of the back-and-forth debates concerning the Geeklist controversy miss the point as much as Katz and Sanz did. It shouldn’t have been about her tone and it most certainly shouldn’t have involved her employment. It should have been a discussion around objectification in relation to their company. The resulting initiative that Geeklist is assembling is an attempt to soothe over their PR nightmare, but it addresses a very real issue. Something about the tech industry has to change. Motivating more women into the field to begin with is certainly a good start.
Leanne is an intern with MissRepresentation.org and a student at the University of San Francisco.