What Sexist White Dudes are Doing to Tech

The only diversity is tech bro’s socks (source)

I have been studying sexism in tech for years and now that I’ve joined tech myself, I am starting to see things in another light. I just read Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech and it blew my mind. I had never thought of the dangers that sexism and racism in tech could pose to our entire society.

Wachter-Boettcher provides an analysis that gives you chills. She gives many examples of tech companies’ sexist attitudes, some even going so far as to blatantly choose to disregard facts about who their customers are when it doesn’t fit their sexist views, making them actually lose money.

Her examples hit you one after the other until you can’t ignore them. We all remember Apple’s Siri mocking users and saying it didn’t understand “rape,” or “my husband is hitting me.” Well, put it side by side with dozens of other such “little mistakes” and you get a clear and very dangerous pattern.

Something as seemingly innocent as default patterns can actually shape our view of the world, because most people will never change these settings. The fact that the default voice all smartphone assistants is female reinforce the belief that women’s role is to serve men (and women). These messages are more or less subtly being repeated over and over in almost all tech products, ingraining sexist ideas even further into our brains.

She also analyzes the “it’s the pipeline ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” discourse that tech companies use to shift the blame. Their recruiters use the same methods that landed them all these white dudes, and then complain they do not find enough women or people of color to hire:

In a 2014 analysis, USA Today concluded that “top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them.”

These same companies then look for people who will “fit culturally”, which is a nice way to say they want clones:

Even after making it through round after round of interviews designed to prove their skills and merits, many diverse hires would be blocked at the final stage — all because they didn’t match the profile of the people already working at Facebook.

Tech products, through default settings but also forms, put women, gender non-conforming people and people of color in impossible situations, with a clear message :

These little slights add up — day after day, week after week, site after site — making assumptions about who you are and sticking you into boxes that just don’t fit. Individually, they’re just a paper cut. Put together, they’re a constant thrumming pain, a little voice in the back of your head: This isn’t for you. This will never be for you.

These sentences, these feelings are very real for women, as we are reminded everyday when working in tech, that we don’t belong. And when we’re not at work, the countless tech products we use step in to relay this toxic ideology. And the consequences are much worse than we could think. In the case of Google for instance, it’s been proven that their algorithm miscoded women in the tech field as men based on their interest in technology :

If [… ] Google frequently coded women who worked in technology in 2012 as men, then it could have skewed data about the readership of tech publications to look more male than it actually was. People who run media sites pay close attention to their audience data, and use it to make decisions. If they believed their audiences were more male than they were, they might think, “Well, maybe women do just care less about technology” — an argument they’ve no doubt heard before. That might skew publications’ reporting on the gender gap in tech companies to focus more on the “pipeline,” and less on structural and cultural problems that keep women out. After all, if women interested in technology don’t exist, how could employers hire them?

The key point of this book — and something I had analysed but not in this light — is her analysis of the so-called “meritocracy” in tech. First, she shows that the term was invented by sociologist Michael Young in a dystopian book and has since been used in a black-mirrory way to switch its meaning to something positive. However, only those who gain privilege from this myth believe in it:

a survey to influential executives, founders, and thinkers […] found that “men were three times as likely as women to say Silicon Valley is a meritocracy.” […] the meritocracy myth is particularly pernicious in tech, because it encourages the belief that the industry doesn’t need to listen to outside voices — because the smartest people are always already in the room.

I already knew that meritocracy was a cynical concept, but she extends it to the exclusion of women and minorities as users of tech products as well, not just as hiring candidates. How sweet must it be to believe you are the best of humanity, even when you’re actually mediocre! She also shows how the meritocracy myth allows the tech industry to exert fascination over the press and our entire societies:

the more everyone on the outside sees technology as magic and programmers as geniuses, the more the industry can keep doing whatever it wants.

The industry is starting to affect every single aspect of our lives. It needs to be challenged, to be removed from its pedestal, if we do not want to end up with countless sexist and racist experiences. Diversity in tech just got a whole of a lot more urgent and important.

People like me, and other women I know who started coding after studying humanities have to be involved in the making of tomorrow’s AI if we do not want every dystopian nightmare to become reality. Wachter-Boettcher provides examples of actions to be taken, and even of companies that have started to take them. She mentions Slack, whose recruiting process is specifically designed to hire diverse people :

[The] goal is simple: to build a team where people don’t assume they’re special. No rock stars, no gurus, no ninjas — just people who bring a combination of expertise, humility, and empathy.

All companies understand that refactoring code is important. But refactoring their hiring practices is also a necessity, because, in Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s wise words:

The only thing that’s normal is diversity.