Over the last few years we’ve watched parents, educators and mentors everywhere working hard to get women into science, technology engineering and maths careers. Those efforts are succeeding: the number of women going studying engineering at the tertiary level has begun to arc upward. This is a good thing.
But we also know that when these women graduate they will go to work in companies that have revealed themselves as toxic hives of sexism, misogyny and harassment.
“Not all companies!" some will say. But there are so many examples of women suffering discrimination in the workplace. Women report continual casual misogyny. The United States recently decided to sue Oracle over discriminatory practices. That's Oracle, where a woman who won a sexual harassment case scarcely covered her legal bills while her harasser kept his job.
And then of course there's Uber, recently the subject of a detailed exposition of a discriminatory culture, the exposure of which only motivated a troll army to attack the woman brave enough to go public with her story.
Maybe things are changing. Maybe the fact that women can discuss workplace sexism is a sign that we’ve lanced the boil. Maybe.
But I fear not. In private you'll hear stories of women passed over for promotion by men half their age, because he went to university with the founders; senior managers who simply can not believe their female staff have more degrees (and are notably smarter) than themselves. The whispered traumas of harassment and rape, which are far more common than we want to believe. Nearly every woman who has worked in tech for any length of time has at least one of these stories. Often several.
So let me ask again: when these women graduate, with their new STEM credentials, can we in all honesty invite them to work in the tech industry? Come for the disruption, and stay for the harassment. Quite the sales pitch.
Things need to change. If things go on as they have, no one could ethically recommend a career in tech to a woman.
We need a root-and-branch revision of the culture of tech (a culture that seems to be at its worst when it involves VCs, ‘disruption’, and white boys barely out of their fraternities), cutting away the diseased attitudes -- before the infection spreads and kills the patient.
It’s not enough to forgo the casual sexism that fills our tech workplaces: we have to call it out. We need to make it impossible for a serial sexual harasser to move from job to job - as they regularly do - avoiding the consequences of their actions. We need to promote women disproportionately, pay them equally or better, offer them the flexibility that comes with shouldering the lion’s share of the childcare and housework. And we need to do all of this today.
There’s only one way through this: for the next twenty years, men must be on their best behaviour. A big ask, to be sure, but considering what women have been through - and continue to go through - also the least we can do.
Can we be better? Do we even know where to begin? Tech culture has centered on testosterone-fuelled ‘geek machismo’ for so long - an insatiable ‘need for speed’ - we’ve effectively traded our essential humanity for a few more megahertz. But as technology becomes the culture, that measure becomes meaningless.
People treasure relationships, connection, and growth - together. Our smartphone-centered culture is proof of that. The future of tech grows from values regarded as ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’ - ironically everything discouraged in the ‘tech bro’ enclaves of Silicon Valley and its imitators. Dinosaurs unable to adapt to a changed world, the future is already passing them by.
They won’t be missed. ®