Sexism in My World (aka Technology)

Flash question: which one of these people is a programmer?

If you answered the guy on the left, you are a sexist. The correct answer is that it’s impossible to make that kind of judgement based on appearance alone.

Unfortunately, sexism is a real problem in the technology industry, and as I’ve read about and thought more about this topic in recent times, I’ve had to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I am part of the problem. Because, you see, I would have answered guy on the left myself…if only unconsciously. This may not be so much of a problem if I’m just another programmer on a team. I like to think I treat all people with respect and without prejudice, regardless of their gender or other obvious attributes. I would never say something exhibiting outright bigotry, like “you’re a pretty good programmer, for a girl” or “wow, I’d never guess you’re a coder…you look like you should model for Victoria’s Secret!”

But there’s a more subtle, possibly more insidious issue at play here, one that is often labeled implicit bias. According to social researcher Rachel Godsil*, implicit bias occurs when someone consciously rejects stereotypes and supports anti-discrimination efforts but also holds negative associations in his/her mind unconsciously.  *link

How this might play out is when I’m placed in a position to evaluate a person’s fitness for the job, either as a hiring manager or a consultant. If you show me two LinkedIn profiles, the first where it’s a man who looks like that guy above-left, and the second where it’s a woman who looks like that gal above-right, I might automatically assume the guy is more qualified. I mean, he looks like a geek. He must be a real programmer, right? That woman looks like she should be working at Macy’s, not AwesomeTechStartup.com.

Or maybe she’s already been working at the company for a while in a junior role but is ready to move up to a senior position, maybe even in a management capacity. I might fully appreciate her skills and qualifications, but now when I’m thinking about someone “like her” leading a bunch of dude hacker types, it could seem like a bad idea. “Um, maybe we should just promote Alex, he’ll probably fit better into that role at this time. We can promote Beth when we have a few more female coders working here.”

This kind of thinking always sort of makes sense in the moment to the people who are making the decisions, but in hindsight, it’s pure sexism, plain and simple. There’s absolutely no legitimate reason why a programmer, or a manager of programmers, can’t wear lipstick and look gorgeous. There’s absolutely no legitimate reason why some scruffy, slightly overweight guy with a beard and glasses is better equipped to write a sorting algorithm in Ruby.

These kinds of stereotypical prejudices are just the same as a hundred years ago when men said women couldn’t become X, where X might be anything from architects to politicians to doctors to journalists. Now we enlightened modern men might like to pride ourselves in the notion that we support women in technology. “Oh absolutely, we need more women working in technology companies. The more female programmers, product designers, hardware engineers, etc., the better! I support organizations that educate and encourage women to join the tech workforce. I have binders full of women!”

(Sorry, Mitt, I couldn’t resist.)

Yet can we honestly and sincerely claim that we’ve never made snap judgements stemming from implicit bias? Can we maintain our integrity and say that we’ve never shrugged off the fashion model in favor of the glasses-wearing geek in our dealings with prospective employees, business partners, and mentors?

Implicit bias rapidly loses its power once it’s fully acknowledged. Now that I’ve become aware of my subconscious prejudices, I hope to be more fair and more open as I interact with the people I meet in the tech community – regardless of their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, age, and any other attributes that tend to divide us. If anything, I believe that a more diverse workplace is genuinely a better place to work, which ultimately means that the company will be producing better products. If you have people on your team who are simply unable to function in that kind of egalitarian environment, then maybe those people are ultimately less valuable to the company than you would assume.

This goes way beyond just sexism of course, as I’ve alluded to above. Bigotry comes in many forms: racism, homophobia, hatred towards a particular religion, etc. Even I, a young white male, have been made to feel uncomfortable on more than one occasion, such as for food choices I’ve made like not eating pork or shellfish. That may seem like a minor thing to some, but to me the embarrassment is real. Lack of sensitivity towards my Christian faith has also been an issue at times.

But let’s not try to solve every workplace problem at once. Clearly sexism in particular has become a hot button issue in the tech community, especially Silicon Valley, and we need to do all that we can to speak up about it and help educate people on what this issue entails. This is just my introduction to the topic, and I hope to write much more about it in the future.


Have you encountered sexism on the job? Or are you rethinking how you deal with the issue yourself to help move the conversation forward? I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!

Jared White