Another month, another dispiriting headline about sexism in technology. This time, it was an internal 10-page memo published by a (now-former) Google employee that duly went viral. The manifesto is long, meandering and raving – but the thrust of it aimed to pose an opposition to racial and gender diversity, and referred to the antique argument that the gender gap could be ascribed to “biological” differences.
Typically, the leak has ignited a quite furious debate. As a result of the scandal, more than 60 women are now reportedly considering taking legal action against Google for sexism and gender pay disputes. The author of the memo, perhaps not surprisingly, is arguably now gaining traction as a voice of the alt-right. But, most pertinently, the fallout has raised questions about why sexism is still so plainly prevalent within tech, how it is allowed to thrive – and how women working daily in an environment that appears to gravely undervalue them deal with it.
It’s a depressing state of affairs that anyone should have to develop “coping strategies” for tackling the day-to-day sexism they have endured, but it’s a reality for all too many women in tech. In the US, one woman – who has a PhD in physics – said she has to mould herself into “everybody’s little sister" – someone who men want to protect, wouldn’t bully, wouldn’t want to sleep with – to fit in. But what about in the UK? We spoke to women who work in tech, many of whom do indeed have their own coping tactics to deal with sexism, whether it be unconscious bias or outright hierarchy. Encouragingly, most agree the situation in Silicon Valley is worse than here in UK; moreover, they are loathe to amp up the idea that tech is not a place for women in case – as one puts it – “it puts off a 17-year-old girl who really wants to work in AI”. This is their advice.
“You don’t want to look attractive or glamorous”
“There’s an immediate undervaluation of your skills if you’re a woman,” concedes one twentysomething who worked as a venture capitalist investing in tech companies, before launching her own start-up. At first, she was meeting “guys who had done a PhD in computer science in a lab where there were no women. There was an immaturity about how you talk about or to women”.
On the first week of her job, she was sharing an Uber with a general partner, who turned to her and asked, ‘How do you like to fuck? Do you like casual sex or like relationships?’
Her coping strategy, she tells me, is to “strip down my wardrobe – wearing masculine, loose-fitting Cos clothes, a lot of black, a lot of grey. A no-nonsense wardrobe. You don’t want to look attractive or glamorous – you don’t want a conversation with an entrepreneur to turn into something else”. Indeed, meetings in San Francisco occasionally took a turn for the seedy: “There were a lot who would casually put their hand on your leg.”
A friend corroborated her experience, saying things that were “absolutely shocking”. “On the first week of her job, she was sharing an Uber with a general partner, who turned to her and asked, ‘How do you like to fuck? Do you like casual sex or like relationships?’”
It spills over into business decisions. This woman reckons she won’t be able to raise a £10m cheque for her business “unless I have a man at the table, who can be perceived as the serious numbers person. That Silicon Valley machismo only wants to invest in Mark Zuckerbergs”.
Nonetheless, she is encouraged by growing transparency – and also doubts sexism is limited to technology; the profile the industry has, she says, likely skews the story. “I think it’s changing,” she continues. “Light and transparency is the best disinfectant.”
“The best coping mechanism is to make discrimination a secret weapon”
Michelle Kennedy, who launched Peanut, a social app to connect mothers, this year, has spent six years working in tech. She observes that the now-infamous Google memo “reads like a disturbing chapter in The Handmaid’s Tale”, and concedes she has been underestimated “because I am a woman, because I smile at the start of every meeting, because I like to look my best”.
“It manifests in all sorts of ways,” she says, “by someone needing confirmation that my view was the correct one from my male colleague, by someone deciding that the ‘mommy’ didn’t need an invite to the tech night out.
“I suppose the best coping mechanism I’ve got is to turn it around, and make this discrimination my secret weapon to disarm people – by being exactly opposite to the snap judgement they made about me.”
“Put yourself forward for leadership positions”
Louise Doherty, graduate of the Techstars accelerator and CEO of PlanSnap, has some typically disheartening examples of sexism. “The outrageous examples [include] being asked how I’ll cope with running my business when my boyfriend is in another country, or having my ass grabbed by a client,” she says.
Her solution is to aim for the top of the hierarchy. “It’s proven that women in leadership positions hire more diverse candidates, which perpetuates a more inclusive culture. Therefore, if you really want to see a step change to combat gender inequality, then put yourself forward for leadership positions.”
“Seek out the kickass women”
For Kathryn Parsons, CEO of digital skills company Decoded and an advisor to the government on technology strategy, an issue for women is confidence. “Women are as capable as men at computational thinking,” she says. “But they’re 30 per cent less confident that they’re going to be capable at a technical task. It’s an amazing, empowering moment when women do realise that they are capable of the superhuman skill of [coding].”
What about the Google memo? “Women have been made to feel for many different reasons that technology is not a place for them,” Parsons begins, cautiously. “But this is one guy in a huge company. I know so many kickass women who work there.” Indeed, in her opinion, the machismo cultures of San Francisco and Silicon Valley have “a lot to answer for when it comes to diversity. They don’t speak for the rest of the tech industry. Building a business in the UK has been incredible”.
Parsons naturally gives short shrift to the idea of biological determinism. “And the assumption that if women were creating AI and robotics, then it would warmer and fluffier and more empathetic, is also wrong,” she adds. She emphasises that we need diversity “of all kinds”: “Old people, young people, ethnic diversity, economic diversity. [Brogrammers] are solving problems from their own area of insight – you can solve more diverse problems with the more diverse skillset that exists.
“On a day-to-day level, I think we set some cultural values – like unconscious bias training. Often, guys attending sessions exposing unconscious bias haven’t quite realised how much it was there. Until they do, things won’t change as quickly as they need to.”