Comment For a generation we've wrung our hands and wondered why so few women have taken up careers in technology.
Could it be, as Harvard President Lawrence Summers publicly mused 15 years ago, that women just don't have the brains for such analytic tasks? (That gaffe cost Summers his job.) Or perhaps those hobbyist "microcomputers", exclusively advertised to boys (and manchildren), cut women out of the fun?
Even in recent years, with a redoubled focus on closing the gender gap in technology, it has remained stubbornly persistent. Why?
The answer – or at least a fair part of it – came to light in the wake of the suicide of alleged billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein in a New York jail cell. Epstein, it seems, had spread some of his wealth throughout elite communities of scientists and tech innovators – enabled, it would appear, by literary-agent-to-the-Nobel-Prize-set John Brockman.
Brockman hosted "Billionaire Dinners" through the 1990s and 2000s, events where the wealthy and powerful rubbed shoulders with the best and brightest. Yet, with very few exceptions, invitations to these events went to men of influence and power. Women, although a small number of female execs made it in, attended as adornments – pretty and pleasant, but insubstantial, interchangable and ignoreable.
And the dinners went on even after Epstein's 2008 conviction for child sex offences.
These men seemed to have little interest in women who might be considered peers. Were they threatened, or – as seems more likely – unwilling to be observed using their power as a way to have their way with the powerless? Either way, accomplished women rarely found their way to the big table, and this created a self-fulfilling prophecy: women didn't get invitations because they didn't have the right stuff. Otherwise, well, they'd be at the table, wouldn't they?
This closed loop of misogyny effectively cut women off from the kinds of recognition (and capital) that would have made them appear fully equal in the eyes of their peers of both sexes. It's this ugly secret, now come to light, that tells us – at the very heart of the community of scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs who have built the 21st century – a secret society excluding women openly flourished.
We now know that some of the greatest names in computing had seats at that table. And we know – because a few brave women have begun to tell their stories – that their misogynistic behaviour extended well beyond that supper club. We're beginning to see how an entire generation of women found their way forward in computer science effectively barred by misogyny at the highest levels. It's sad, disgusting, infuriating – and demands remediation.
To begin with, we must now, and forever after, view every "boys club" as fundamentally suspicious – as a potential threat. Some of these clubs are quiet and largely invisible but plenty persist in boardrooms across the world. Australia, for example, has an embarrassingly high percentage of boards without a single woman director — and very few have anything approaching parity. The misogyny of the boys' club doesn't need to be overt to be effective. The tacit agreement to keep the jobs for the boys is all that is required. And it's precisely this practice that needs to be identified and remediated, post-Epstein.
In addition, we will need a long period – at least a generation – where women are favoured over men for funding and promotion. Some will call that unfair – as James Damore did at Google – but that's precisely the reverse of the truth. The systematic discrimination exposed by the multitude of boys' clubs operating in both the sciences and technology shouts out for a balancing of the scales as the only possible remedy.
Only when we start to fear the power of the "girls' nights out", when the fates of male colleagues get decided on a whim, will we begin to understand the scope of our error, how much has been lost — and how much will need to be repaid. ®