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Sexism in Tech: Beyond the Outrage

With the discoveries at Uber, there is a fresh new heap of outrage over sexism in tech. I was outraged for years about sexism in tech. While I worked with many advocates, I have experienced many levels of sexism in tech.

I have been told to watch my tone, asked if I was technical in a pandering way, and “mansplained” to like I didn’t know what I was doing. In the worst moments, I was told not to be such a woman at work, was given make it pretty projects while less technical men got the meaty stuff, had to report a plan to fire a woman specifically because she was pregnant and was told by HR that I should be more concerned with how people perceive me, and was even once asked to make myself scarce after a management team dinner because the “boys needed to bond” afterwards.

Before I go further, I want to be clear — if you need to be outraged, be outraged.

It's important for us to process these things in a way that works for us. However, if outrage is getting tiring the rest of my article explores a different, potentially more effective path. This is a triggering topic because its very very personal to everyone in the tech industry. My learnings on this outlined in the article “what happened when I talked openly about sexism in tech?” With that — back to outrage.

Outrage takes a TON of energy. Tons. Its really exhausting. I spent tons of energy being outraged and I’m not sure what I have to show for it except that it made me so exhausted it was a big factor in my leaving my career in tech.

If we want more girls to have successful happy careers in tech, we need to augment the toolkit of outrage with other, less tiring but equally effective tools.

The other issue with outrage is that it can hurt our ability to solve the problem. Where there is outrage, there is fear. Where there is fear, there is subversive and passive aggressive behavior like we are seeing at Uber. The problem still exists. Its just not being talked about or addressed in a productive way.

So, if we want to move past outrage and to a more productive conversation about solving the issue, we first have to ask the question “Why do we get outraged?”

We get outraged when confronted with an uncomfortable reality. Anything that conflicts with our values and beliefs about the way the world works will make us outraged. Let’s apply that theory to sexism in tech.

We want to believe that sexism in tech is no longer a problem. That its done. Its solved. We can encourage more girls to go into the industry and they’ll have wonderful, gender-bias free careers.

But then we hear about occurrences of sexism in tech and that scares us. We are encouraging girls and women to go into an industry where we can see instances of sexism. Its too messy an issue for the human brain to manage.

The human brain likes problem/solution black and white thinking. When conflicting values get tangled together in a reality — in this case “It's good for women to be technical” conflicting with “The tech industry is not always fair to women” — it creates a huge logic rift that our minds can’t resolve. This causes anxiety which leads to outrage.

Outrage says:

We are going to force the tech industry to always be good to women! That way, we can continue to encourage girls to go into tech and feel ok about the consequences.

The truth is that we cannot force that outcome. The tech industry is made up of human beings. Human beings will always have “a-hole” moments and some of those will be manifested in sexism in the tech industry. Sexism is everywhere in our culture. It exists. We can work towards improving it, but the belief that we will fix it forever will take a lot more than outrage.

Sexism will occur in large quantities as long as our cultural norms encourage it. In any industry that is primarily men, women will be seen somewhat as “the other” until there is gender balance and corporate culture has adopted feminine values as well.

Until we have wiped out the value of sexual objectification of women from our culture, there will always be a tendency to view women as sexual objects by some men. Its just there — in music, movies, and magazines — telling us that a woman’s value is her beauty and a man’s value is his power. That doesn’t turn off at work. Just look at the double standard our new US president has for himself and women in terms of personal appearance requirements. It normalizes it. Mixed messages are everywhere,

Since it will take a while to eradicate sexism not only from tech, but from the earth in general and outrage is exhausting to have throughout a career, what can we do? This is a big challenge, so I’m going to start with what I see and I’d love to hear what you see as well.

  • We need to find ways to blend both truths — “It is good for women to be technical” and “Sexism in tech exists”. We can do this by accepting that moments will happen but when they do ensure we have developed tools to address it.
  • While there is still a long way to go to the goal, we are making progress. My mother experienced more sexism than I did. My daughter will experience less. Progress. Appreciating the progress but remaining committed towards the goal creates gratitude. Gratitude builds our energy while outrage takes it away.
  • Girls and women need positive outlets for the energy-load sexist moments dump on them. If we look at sexist moments as an opportunity to improve something that needs to be fixed, rather than as victims of something that should not be happening, it doesn’t suck our energy as much. One outlet could be that every time a woman experiences a sexist moment, we pay it forward by taking extra actions to help women rise up.
  • Forming, supporting and growing positive advocate communities, like that of Equal Respect in the cybersecurity industry, normalize the conversation that sexism does still, in fact, exist in tech to a non-triggering productive tone and there are positive way to address it. Accepting that it exists makes it a clear challenge that will lead to stronger problem solving experiments and discussions. It also provides a method to let advocates be active as advocates. One of the primary reasons some men get triggered by the sexism in tech conversation is that they are fearful that the outrage will go their way. Providing them a role in helping solve the problem will not only calm that fear, but also put more effort towards solving the problem. Win win!
  • Unconscious bias programs at companies are growing. Encouraging HR to adopt them will help alot.

That’s just a small slice and those are big tasks. We’ve got a long way to go. I started by writing this article which shares my thoughts on a topic that is pretty triggering. I will repeat again — You get to feel however you want to. These are just my thoughts. Its a very personal subject. What are your thoughts?

About Me: I’ve made it my mission to squash senseless career misery by providing an exit path to the rat race — because the rat race is only a state of mind. I do this by providing the tools, services and education to support authentic leadership, fulfilling careers, and a true feeling of wealth to clients at every stage of their career. I use my 20 years of experience in tech, products and marketing combined with coaching tools that work to make it happen. Learn more at www.gretchenhellman.com

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