Thinking beyond gender: Why do sexuality and race matter in the tech industry?

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by Lauren Alfrey  and France Winddance Twine

How do women negotiate male-dominated workplaces of the tech industry? In the February 2017 issue of Gender & Society, we address this question by building upon foundational work on occupational inequality. Inspired by Joan Acker’s concept of inequality regimes, we offer the first qualitative study and intersectional analysis of women tech workers from a wide range of backgrounds. We show how race, class privilege and gender expression shapes the occupational experiences of “geek girls.”

In our interviews with 50 men and women employed in a variety of positions in the San Francisco tech industry, we discovered that the gender-fluid, LGBTQ, White and Asian female workers reported a greater sense of belonging among male co-workers when compared to heterosexual women. In contrast to the gender conventional women in our sample, they were perceived as “one of the guys.” However, the gender-fluid Black LGBTQ women we interviewed did not experience the same inclusion or degree of belonging. Neither did conventionally heterosexual White and Asian women, who, like the Black women, also described routine micro-aggressions and sexist interactions that undermined their ability to be seen as competent equals in their workplace.

We argue that this represents a racialized and gendered spectrum of belonging—the dynamic forms of inclusion and exclusion that women experience according to their race, sexuality, and gender presentation. In occupational cultures where masculinity and hetero-normativity are the norm, fluid gender expression provides some women with conditional acceptance.

These findings expand and complicate earlier research of gender scholars by showing how cisgender women who deploy gender fluidity experience workplace benefits similar to those of transgender men (Schilt 2006). By not presenting as “femme,” and thus not as heterosexually available, gender-fluid women in our sample enjoyed patriarchal dividends (Connell [1995] 2005) that included greater respect and acceptance, and positive evaluations of their competence. Black women in our sample did not report receiving the same benefits from gender fluidity; they were instead evaluated primarily by their racial status (Valian 1998).

Despite the fact that White and Asian women in our study successfully navigated workplace hostilities by distancing themselves from conventional heterosexual femininity, this strategy merely reinforces inequality regimes that privileges male workers. It leaves unchallenged the idea that the most competent creators of software—the essential fabric of our digital age—continue to be men.

Lauren Alfrey is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Portland who researches and teaches about social inequalities of race, class, and gender in the new economy and sociology of the family. France Winddance Twine is a professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara who conducts transnational research on social inequality regarding race, class, sexuality and nationality. They co-author the forth- coming book, Geek girls: Race, gender, and sexuality in the tech industry.

This post summarizes findings from ‘Gender-Fluid Geek Girls: Negotiating Inequality Regimes in the Tech Industry,’ in Gender & Society.

Cross-posted at the Gender & Society blog.

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