How can “boys’ club” industries, like tech, begin to create more space for the influx of women?
In 2004, pregnant and waddling across the expanses of Google’s parking lot, Sheryl Sandberg realized something obvious: There should be parking spaces reserved for expectant mothers. She made the case to the CEOs and they promptly agreed and accommodated. There had been no hostility, only obliviousness; no one at the top had ever been pregnant before. Until that moment, that point of view had never had the ear of the CEOs.
Gloria Steinem published her now infamous essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” in Ms. magazine in 1978. If men could menstruate, she speculated, generals would claim that menstruation made them bloodthirsty and fit for battle. Sanitary pads and tampons would be federally funded. Boys would be congratulated on the arrival of their manhood (after all, it’s called menstruation for a reason). What society currently views as an icky byproduct of fertility would suddenly be viewed as cause for celebration.
Thirty-four years apart, Steinem and Sandberg are making the same point: For both policy and perception, it matters who is in charge.
When I started reading Robert Martin’s blog post “There are Ladies Present” about the ever discussed issue of “women in tech,” I was prepared for the worst. I am a woman. I work in tech. I have this conversation a lot. I follow every hullaballoo, from Adria Richards’ firing from SendGrid to the latest on Marissa Mayer’s policies as CEO of Yahoo. I have my own stories of inappropriate questions, jokes in bad taste, and code referred to as “this bitch,” (as in, “Let’s bitch slap this bitch”) by developers sitting in my row. So I was skeptical of Martin, who works for software company 8th Light, Inc., when he began his essay by describing himself as the tech equivalent of a confused Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor. Feigning confusion at lady business is rarely a good start.
Several paragraphs later, and I think he’s onto something. Martin points out that decades of male-dominated workspaces have created this strange artificial environment. It has been so isolated that some men have forgotten what it’s like to work with women; some of them never learned in the first place. They’ve been conditioned to view their workplaces as fortresses of masculine hijinks because, for a while there, they were.
As Martin puts it:
Have we created a locker room environment in the software industry? Has it been male dominated for so long that we’ve turned it into a place where men relax and tell fart and dick jokes amongst themselves to tickle their pre-pubescent personas? When we male programmers are together, do we feel like we’re in a private place where we can drop the rules, pretenses, and manners?
Imagine you had a tree house in your backyard. You didn’t exactly hang a No Girls Allowed sign on the branch out front, but for a variety of reasons that are not your fault, very few girls have made it into your fort. Now they’re starting to arrive, not en masse, but in numbers you have to acknowledge. You know it’s technically fair to let them in, but you can’t help but be a little bummed that your secret space is not so secret anymore. Those are the growing pains we’re undergoing in the tech world right now. It’s not explicitly hostile, in most cases, but there’s a rearrangement of values that has to happen to make room for the newbies.
Let’s do a little thought experiment: Say you’re a man joining a new office that happens to be all-female. Instead of going drinking at the new arcade bar after work with your co-workers, they want to go see the Ryan Gosling movie. Instead of grabbing beers and watching the game, they go for a post-work manicure. Instead of a golf outing, there’s a yoga retreat. How do you feel about that? Sure, you could get into yoga and it’d probably be good for you, and who doesn’t like Ryan Gosling? But the very fact that your extracurricular activities are so misaligned with your peers’ means that you don’t feel like you have much to say to your co-workers. Since you’re not so chatty, they stop inviting you to lunch. But lunch is where the new projects are discussed, so you’re suddenly left out of that loop too. When your boss wonders why you aren’t contributing, it’s hard to say, “Well, I didn’t want to go to yoga,” even if that might have been the start of it.
This is the extreme. Plenty of women like brews and Bulls, and plenty of dudes do yoga. People are varied and multi-faceted and all that. But, as Martin points out, few industries have had quite the extremity of gendered isolation as the tech world. That “tree house mentality” has fostered an exaggerated version of the “old boys club” phenomenon that we see across industries.
So what happens now? For the tech world, Martin’s suggestion is for men to stop considering the whole software industry their private locker room, “Treat women programmers as professional peers, while also remembering that there are ladies present.”
These are not clear lines anymore. What are our obligations to our co-workers? How much of ourselves do we share to build connections, and how much is too much and too personal? In our increasingly casual workplaces, what kind of language is relaxed, and what crosses the line? How do we create an atmosphere that encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work and also allows for those whole selves to be quite different? In our hypothetical scenario, should the guy learn yoga just to bond with his co-workers? Should they find activities that everyone can enjoy? A little of both?
I don’t have easy answers here. What I do know is that Martin is right. To create a stronger industry, a more robust network, a profession that can last and thrive, the tech world must get open the doors just a little bit wider. It is not enough to take down the No Girls Allowed sign when the space behind it still gives off unwelcoming vibes.
This goes for everyone, not just Silicon Valley. When the leader boards are stacked with men—and a certain kind of men at that—the needs of everyone else will inevitably be back-burnered until someone shines a light on them. The fix isn’t usually as simple as pregnancy parking, but we only get to hold the spotlight if we’re at the table.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.