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Sexism isn't getting better in Silicon Valley, it's getting worse

International Women's Day? Pah, make me a sandwich

Analysis In the technology field, many people like to think that they are at the forefront of human development, but it is becoming clear that the industry is failing when it comes to dealing with sexism against women.

In January, a survey from Stanford University of women who'd spent at least ten years in the tech industry found that women were twice as likely to suffer sexual harassment as some other industries, with 60 per cent receiving unwanted advances from male counterparts and a third fearing for their personal safety from some staff.

Even women online are getting a harder time of it. Prominent women in technology now routinely get blasted by rape threats, sexist abuse, and doxing promises by those hiding behind the coward's cloak of anonymity, and such activities are growing, rather than fading away.

How did it come to this? As someone who has been covering the industry for the last quarter of a century, things seemed to be getting better on the sexism front for a long time. Now it seems the situation is regressing.

In part it's a generational thing. At a post-RSA party last weekend one now-retired senior executive said that the first generation of pioneers in the personal computing sector were much more inclusive, in a large part down to their backgrounds.

"When we were at school in the 60s and 70s, computers were the geeky thing to do – we were the kind of people to get bullied hard and that makes you more empathetic to the plight of others," he said.

"Nowadays computers at school are the norm and the kinds of people getting into the industry didn't get that experience. It's utterly unscientific but that's my take on why things are getting worse."

Who's the boss?

Part of the problem is that there's still a significant sex imbalance in management. Women are underrepresented in the boardroom and among middle management, outside of the fields of finance, PR and human resources.

There are still a lot of women entering the technology sector, but the industry has a lot of problems retaining them in the middle management stage, Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, tech entrepreneur and author of a new book on the subject, told The Register.

"There isn't a problem of there not being enough female role models anymore," she explained. "But women are caught by a lack of success at the middle of their careers. They aren't stupid – they go where they are most valued – so many exit and move elsewhere."

This isn't universal in the industry, she said. In fields like web development and information security, women have a more egalitarian environment, since status in those fields largely comes down to "Can you do the job well?" rather than management style.

Companies can help a lot by devoting more time to teaching staff, especially women, about necessary leadership skills and identifying those with senior management potential early on. Some companies have done well here, but there's still a lot of ground to make up.

Part of the problem is that women are penalized for being skilled in areas like networking and project management, she said. Men in these areas are described as leaders while women tend to get typecast as pushy or aggressive.

This was backed up by the Stanford study, where 84 per cent of those surveyed reported being told they were too aggressive. It's difficult to imagine someone criticizing Steve Ballmer or Larry Ellison in such a way.

Getting more women into management is, however, going to be crucial to solve the problems of in-company sexism. Men are more likely to treat women as equals if they work under one who leads the way, and less likely to disparage their female coworkers.

Why should we care?

With another International Women's Day now come and gone, certain sections of the internet have been venting about the need for such an event.

Elise Andrew, founder of the "Ifuckinglovescience" Facebook page, noted that "I might end today with brain damage from beating my head into my desk, thanks to all the comments from men's rights activists on International Women's Day posts."

On the one side, so-called men's rights activists complain that women already get more than enough support and now it's men who are being trampled underfoot by politically correct "social justice warriors." On the other, there is a quantifiable sexism problem in our industry and IWD can help combat that.

"We still need IWD to champion the efforts and achievements of women across the ages which have been, and still are, largely unremarked and unrecorded," Dr Sue Black, British computer scientist, told The Reg.

"Our society, unfortunately, is vaguely misogynist and has been for some time. This has affected the way that women's achievements have been viewed in a negative way. Women have been, and are still, given less opportunity to make the most of their lives, and this negatively affects women and men. Our culture makes it easiest for everyone to live life as a stereotype, and this again diminishes opportunity, as a life lived in this way curbs potential."

Incidentally, there is also an International Men's Day, on November 19 each year. No one seems to complain about this, however.

There is hope

At the end of the day, this is going to be a generational issue, and there are some signs of hope.

"I know the data shows we have lots of work to do, but I'm more optimistic – [however] it will take time," Michelle Zatlyn, cofounder of Cloudflare, told El Reg.

"When I went to business school, the class was about 33 per cent women and now it's up to 40, with women in some sectors like medicine now in the majority. There are now tens of thousands of women in the tech industry working to change things."

The key to it is having women who make a success of their careers, she said. In the long term, men who disparage women who then go on to succeed are being forced to change their views and realize that they were wrong.

Hopefully it won't take too long before both sexes can work in an egalitarian meritocratic atmosphere that benefits us all. ®

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