Unintentional Sexism in Tech

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) promo photo via LinkedIn

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) promo photo via LinkedIn

The blog This is Not a Pattern has an intriguing post entitled “Ways Men in Tech are Unintentionally Sexist.” The post draws attention to various unintended but meaningful ways that men in high technology, a notoriously male-dominated field, behave and speak in ways that normalize women’s exclusion and marginalization in this profession. This is particularly timely in the wake of Ellen Pao’s recent lawsuit for gender discrimination. The author sees several ways in which the culture of high technology subordinates women: language that perpetuates men as the default and women as outsiders; normative assumptions that tokenize women, emphasizing the (assumed or real) contrasts between them and men as the majority group; and perhaps most importantly, the tendency among workers to remain silent (and thus complicit) when sexist behaviors and gender discrimination occur.

While this article highlights important patterns that no doubt contribute to the myriad challenges women face in technology, I found this article particularly interesting because in many ways these innocuous behaviors are likely found in many male-dominated professions. Kris Paap’s ethnography of women working construction, for instance, provides extensive evidence of how men assume a gendered (male) worker in this field, and how that assumption shapes their language and interactions in ways that help maintain women’s underrepresentation in this field. Similarly, sociologists like Louise Roth and Jennifer Pierce have shown how women in finance and law, respectively, face cultural assumptions about their lack of qualifications, skill, and suitability for their professions.

This article also reminded me of my own research, and the importance of thinking from an intersectional perspective about how various groups navigate workplaces where they are in the minority. For instance, the author rightly emphasizes the importance of interrogating commonly-held assumptions about women employees (i.e., the often-pernicious belief that women are less dedicated to work because of their care-giving obligations), and rightly stresses the need for men to challenge sexism when they see it. However, my research on black professional men working in white male-dominated fields (including but not limited to engineering) revealed some important complexities affecting men’s willingness to ally with their female colleagues. The black male professionals I studied expressed an acute awareness of the fact that organizational culture worked to women’s disadvantage, but more importantly, they used their position as members of the gender-dominant group to open up more equitable outcomes for their female counterparts. I spoke with respondents who described the challenges they saw their women colleagues facing (assumptions of inferiority, stereotypes about their work ethic, etc.), and expressed empathy based on their own experiences with marginalization as racial minority men. Notably, these black men took the opportunity to mentor, work with, and support women of all races as a way of countering these cultural biases. Thus, while it’s important to push men to work as allies in combatting sexism, thinking about the social factors that bear on this possibility –that is, how race, gender, and class shape men’s experiences– can help us recognize important differences among men’s willingness to help. Some men may already be working to undermine the informal practices that marginalize women in male-dominated industries. Other men may work in very different ways.

I applaud this author for highlighting the ways that men in technology may be unintentionally behaving in ways that maintain the existing gender stratification in this field. And I think this piece draws attention to problematic behaviors that are undoubtedly replicated in other lines of work. Going forward, it is important to do more research to consider potential male allies in these fields, the strategies they incorporate to equalize their fields, and the ways that these acts of resistance can be replicated more broadly.

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