Yes, there’s sexism in science

If tech is widely seen as a male bastion today, it is because women’s stories have been deliberately erased, finds a new book in which 25 women speak up

Updated - June 24, 2015 07:09 am IST

Published - June 24, 2015 12:45 am IST

DELIBERATE ERASURE: “If Ada Lovelace, Radia Perlman or Judith Estrin  are not household names, their exclusions are not accidental but because they have been written out by history books.”

DELIBERATE ERASURE: “If Ada Lovelace, Radia Perlman or Judith Estrin are not household names, their exclusions are not accidental but because they have been written out by history books.”

Ask any friend to name three tech icons. It’s a safe bet they’ll come up with one or more of the following: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin. None of them a woman.

Tech is widely viewed as a male bastion. But facts belie such a view. Not many know, for instance, that the world’s first programmer, the inventor of scientific computing, is a woman, Ada Lovelace. Or that Spanning Tree Protocol, essential for network computing, was invented by a woman, Radia Perlman. Or that the key designer of Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol was a woman, Judith Estrin.

If Lovelace, Ms. Perlman or Ms. Estrin are not household names, then these exclusions are not accidental, argues a new book titled Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-up Culture , due for publication next month. Edited by Elissa Shevinsky, an American entrepreneur, the book is a collection of 25 essays by women techies.

In her introduction, Ms. Shevinsky cites the famous opening line of Pulitzer-winning journalist David Streitfield’s controversial article in the New York Times , “Men invented the Internet,” and states calmly, “this myth is blatantly untrue”.

She writes, “Women played irreplaceable roles at Apple and Facebook… Their stories have been carefully erased by men like Zuckerberg and Jobs.” It is such erasure that Lean Out seeks to partly undo by endeavouring “to tell the untold stories”.

The title is a direct challenge to the thesis in Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

According to the view popularised by Ms. Sandberg, it is not systemic social or political impediments but women themselves who are responsible for their poor representation in leadership roles.

Ms. Sandberg believes that women are socially conditioned not to be ambitious, to settle for less, and to prioritise homemaking at the cost of their careers. The solution, then, is for women to “lean in” to their careers more, without being hobbled by guilt (over sacrifices on the family front), or by the need to be liked.

If we apply Ms. Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ theory to the tech/start-up world, then the reason there are much fewer women in leadership roles, in venture capital firms, in programming, and in entrepreneurship, is because women are not ambitious enough (or not enough of them are) — an argument rejected outright by the writers in this volume.

Imagined community of nerds

If there is one idea that is attacked by most of the essayists, it is that of the white male nerd as the quintessential tech genius. In a brilliant essay titled ‘Fictive ethnicity and nerds’, transfeminist and gaming critic Katherine Cross traces the origin of the sexism and gender disparity in the tech industry back to the imagined community of ‘nerds’. Ms. Cross points out that on the surface, the tech industry fancies itself as a gender-blind, race-blind meritocracy. In actuality, the identity of the ‘nerd’ — widely mythologised in popular culture — is derived from a gendered and racialised patriarchy.

The ‘nerd’ is a brainy, tech-empowered reconfiguration of white masculinity meant to be superior to a version of manhood premised on the brawny physical charms of the jock. Yet, ultimately, the social trajectory of both the nerd and the jock converge at the same sexist endpoint — a boys club that has no place for women other than as objects of lust.

This might explain why, for instance, nearly all venture capitalists (96.5 per cent) in the tech universe are men. It might explain why even the minuscule number of women venture capitalists are on their way out. And it might explain why an angel investor at a Berlin tech conference thought nothing of telling a woman participant, “Hey G, I will not leave Berlin without having sex with you. Deal?”

The ‘G’ of this message, Gesche Haas, has an essay in this book titled, ‘Let’s talk about sex…ual discrimination’, in which she explains why she decided to risk speaking out against a powerful investor. Writes Ms. Haas, “I can tell you what it felt like receiving a very sexually charged e-mail after a business interaction. It screamed: ‘I think you have little to no worth to me in a business context — you only have value to me merely by owning a vagina — and there is nothing you can, or will, do about me deciding to openly communicate this to you.’ To a large extent it came down to feeling powerless.”

Calling out sexism, then, is a way of regaining control. Sexual harassment, however, is only one aspect of the sexism in tech. More common is gender-based discrimination which, though more subtle, routinely costs women jobs, compensation, and promotions.

Many of the essays in Lean Out are deeply personal, and together they cover a wide gamut of issues — from ‘brogrammer culture’, to lesbians in tech, to how women can build a business that “goes around” patriarchy and sexism.

The biggest takeaway of this collection is a direct contradiction of the Sandberg principle: it asks women to ‘lean out’ and be true to themselves instead of trying to ‘lean in’ or fit into a system designed and controlled by men. This could mean speaking out rather than keeping mum, seeking confrontation rather than avoiding one, and striking out on your own rather than trying to be one of the boys.

While the essays in Lean Out focus on the heart of the global tech industry, Silicon Valley, most of its observations are applicable to the tech scene in other parts of the world, including India.

The Indian equivalent

For instance, is there an Indian equivalent of the sexist white male nerd culture of ‘brogrammers’? The best way to find out is to ask women tech entrepreneurs in India. And their answer is unambiguous. “Of course!” says Ashwini Asokan, Chennai-based co-founder of Mad Street Den, an AI and Computer Vision start-up. “Most meet-ups in the Indian tech scene are all-male affairs. I find it ridiculous that professional tech communities could be all-boys clubs. I regularly call out industry events for having no women in their speaker lists.”

Having worked for nine years in Silicon Valley before moving to India two years ago, Ms. Asokan is well placed to comment on the similarities and differences between the two when it comes to treatment of women. “There is huge discrimination against women in both places. But it’s not overt,” she says. “In India, however, we are not just fighting inequality. We have a host of other issues. Our main problem is letting women get the hell out of home to begin with.”

Another U.S.-returned tech entrepreneur, Bangalore-based Myna Bisineer of Venturesity, a talent search start-up, seconds Ms. Asokan’s view. “In India, when girls get qualified and are set to take up their first job, there is a huge dropout rate right there. When they get married, more dropouts. When they have a child, there’s another big round of dropouts from the industry. So, not many are around long enough for leadership-level positions.”

Both Ms. Bisineer and Ms. Asokan are in agreement with Lean Out ’s philosophy that women should be able to operate in the tech space on their own terms. But this requires changing the gender settings of the industry. What does that entail? And where do we begin?

Ms. Asokan has a few easy suggestions for start-ups: “One, fix rooms for nursing mothers in your office; two, hire a nanny, or set up a day-care centre for your staff; three, make sure your hackathons are for two-three days during the daytime instead of being overnight events; four, when you get together to organise events, have at least one woman in all your speaker panels.”

The big guns such as Google and Intel have begun making the right gestures, by promoting coding classes for women. But clearly, there’s a long way to go before there can be a level playing field between a Sundari and a Sundar Pichai.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.