Harassment and stereotypes pushing women out of tech

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No girls

Oh look, another day another study about women in tech or gaming. I know we’re all getting a bit tired of hearing about it, but this latest bit of research raises some interesting questions, especially as it applies not just to women doing the actual tech, but even the women reporting on it.

First up, the serious technical stuff. Over in the New York Times, new research has emerged that looks at why women are less likely to pursue careers in science and technology. Figuring out why people choose not to do something is something of a theoretical nightmare, but Doctor Sapna Cheryan did some intensive research into this and found that cultural stereotypes were more to blame than we might like to admit. Dr Cheryan and her colleagues performed a range of experiments to see what might influence a young woman’s desire to pursue a degree in computer science, many of which seemed to indicate that our perceptions about future work environments and colleagues might be a key factor.

In another experiment, Dr. Cheryan and her colleagues arranged for female undergraduates to talk to an actor pretending to be a computer science major. If the actor wore a T-shirt that said “I CODE THEREFORE I AM” and claimed to enjoy video games, the students expressed less interest in studying computer science than if the actor wore a solid shirt and claimed to enjoy hanging out with friends — even if the T-shirt-clad actor was another woman.

While we might laugh at the stereotypes, studies keep showing that public perception of scientists and computer programmers hasn’t changed much in the past 70 years. In fact, since the rise of pop-cultural portrayals found in Revenge of the Nerds and The Big Bang Theory, women are even less inclined to pursue computer science qualifications.

Men sometimes scoff that if young women let such nebulous factors deter them from careers in physics or computer science, the women are exercising their own free choice, and if girls were tough enough, such exaggerated stereotypes and feelings of discomfort wouldn’t discourage them.

Yet I wonder how many young men would choose to major in computer science if they suspected they might need to carry out their coding while sitting in a pink cubicle decorated with posters of “Sex and the City,” with copies of Vogue and Cosmo scattered around the lunchroom. In fact, Dr. Cheryan’s research shows that young men tend not to major in English for the same reasons women don’t pick computer science: They compare their notions of who they are to their stereotypes of English majors and decide they won’t fit in.

I wonder if this is something that carries over into gaming as well. While gaming studios are trying to bring on more female talent to help make games, many women feel like they don’t have the necessary skills or interests to make games and work in those teams. It might not be the right assumption, but that doesn’t really matter – in the end, people exclude themselves from a range of experiences if they believe that they won’t fit in. Perhaps we will find that more women join gaming and tech companies if those studios reach out and show that women of all walks of life would fit in and you don’t necessarily need to already be an avid gamer to help make games into better experiences.

Meanwhile, a new study about harassment of women has emerged, and it hits rather close to home for me. Research reported in The Guardian reveals that 62% of female journalists reporting on tech have experienced sexual abuse, with 20% admitting to disguising their gender or name in order to avoid abuse. Women experiencing sexist abuse isn’t exactly something remarkable, but it is worse in tech fields – “only” 50% of female journalists reported similar attacks to the Women’s Media Foundation, implying that the incidence rate is higher among tech journalists. Of course sexist attacks also occur against men, but the rate is far, far lower:

To put it in some context, 73% of US male science and technology journalists surveyed by University of Wisconsin-Madison students last year reported “no gender-related experiences”, compared with 19% of females.

I often say that I haven’t experienced much sexism in the industry, and that’s still mostly true. However, the fact that there are still plenty of examples that I can draw upon from the last three months where commenters attempted to invalidate my opinions or reviews because of my gender, something that simply isn’t as common for the rest of the (all male) team, proves that just because I don’t take it to heart doesn’t mean that I don’t experience sexist abuse. The research goes on to show that not many women think things have gotten worse, but that they do still think that more should be done to stop abuse directed at women.

I’m not sure what can really be done to curb this trend; vitriolic comments on the internet are as inherent to the medium as porn and cat memes. However, I do think that the media could do more to change perceptions. Perhaps if we stopped portraying techies, scientists and computer programmers as strange, basement-dwelling cretins but rather as the diverse and interesting people that they really are, it would be easier for women to imagine themselves in the field, and harder for others to discriminate against women either in the field, or reporting on it.

Last Updated: October 12, 2015

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