Harassment and stereotypes pushing women out of tech

6 min read

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.

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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.

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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

Zoe Hawkins

Wielding my lasso of truth, I am the combination of nerd passion and grammar nazi. I delve into all things awesome and geek-tastic. I believe people should stop defining themselves and just enjoy playing games, so let's get on with it!

  • “62% of female journalists reporting on tech have experienced sexy abuse”

    I’m not even alerting Geoff to that typo because it’s hilarious

    • Grand Admiral Chief

      Lol you bad man you

    • xD

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

  • Alien Emperor Trevor

    My niece used to enjoy her video games when she was younger, & was the only girl in the IT class at school – used to get endless shit about it from other girls, and often the guys when she got top marks. It was a factor that turned her off pursuing it. Luckily she found a different profession that she absolutely loves.

    • Which side caused her the most problems though.. the endless shit from the other girls or the mocking of the guys when she did well?

      • Alien Emperor Trevor

        I don’t know – but I also don’t think that’s something you can really quantify – as in 32.4% guys & 67.6% girls for argument’s sake. In a situation like that, especially as a kid, every criticism informs their perception on a matter. Obviously one or two random fools can be safely ignored but when it’s happening regularly, and she used to complain about it often, it doesn’t really matter to the person experiencing it who was doing it more – it’s that it’s happening at all.

        • But it makes a big difference when trying to resolve it.. spending 100% of the time trying to fix the male problem when it’s only 50% of the problem isn’t going to help

          • Alien Emperor Trevor

            It’ll fix 50% of the problem. ;P

            No, you’re right. It’s a much bigger issue overall than just boys being shitty towards girls because they can.

  • Sageville

    They never seem to mention useful solutions to these problems….

    • Martin du preez (D4RKL1NGza)

      Twitter #hashtags obviously

    • konfab

      They want men to solve them 🙂

  • Greylingad[CNFRMD]

    While I was studying engineering there were two ladies in our group, there were constant little jabs about different make up groups that these ladies could join to not be so let down by a course that could potentially ruin them… The funny thing is that the ladies mentioned both finished their studies with flying colours and one of them did so on performance bursaries, the people that were making those comments never finished their second semester…

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      Think there’s a subset of guys who feel threatened when they see a woman doing better than them at something, particularly if it’s at something they feel is a “man’s” domain.

      • Greylingad[CNFRMD]

        That was exactly it! What’s worse was that those mentioned weren’t necessarily the sharpest tools in the shed and only realised their mistake in their assumption when they had to ask said ladies for help with some of the mathematics and physics involved in the subject matter… oh, sweet irony…

  • Mistake Not…

    Yeah, as a male studying in the Science field, shows like Revenge of the Nerds & Big Bang Theory are just embarrassing, and are even more hurtful towards women.

    And not to be a downer, but Jessica Curry at The Chinese Room (Amnesia, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) stepped down as co-director partly because people didn’t respect/accept that she had any contribution to the company as a women, often mistaking her for a PA.

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      Was the headline: “Too hot for Curry”?

      Yes, I feel bad. But I’m still laughing.

      • Mistake Not…

        Trying not to laugh in a serious situation.

  • DragonSpirit009

    I have this kinda problem with my passion towards animation or when I play games. Usually its from my friends or family. I’ve heard what they have said about me behind my back and I pretend not to hear them. Or I pretend that I don’t care what they are saying but the truth is its hurts. Badly. When it comes to strangers or the internet I don’t give a rats ass what they say.

  • Deceased

    I personally bask in the fact that I’m seen as some strange, basement-dwelling cretin.

    The average person would go to odd lengths to “fit-in, yet stand out”, but I’ve noticed that those same people generally find nerds and geeks ( us cretins ) amusing… it’s as if their superficial, plastic brains cannot comprehend a being that is true to itself.

    So on that note, ( obviously I have not read up any further on the matter ) I have to ask, the students/undergrads that were “experimented” on… what type of people are they? I mean, if you ask the most popular girl in an American high-school, which would probably be on the cheerleading squad, goes to the mall to hang out with her female friends at the food-court and do clothes shopping, etc ( trying to paint the picture of the barbie doll mentality ) whether she would go into tech/science, I bet all my money the response would be an overwhelming “NO”.

    As much as society wishes everyone was equal ( I don’t mean anyone is “less than or greater than”, I’m just saying some people do some shit better than others ) and exactly the same… we’re not… and that’s okay :/

  • Bagel

    *runs away*

  • Nikola

    Thing is it’s easy to not notice these things as a male as you will most likely not experience it, however first time I saw this was actually very recently when Zoe did an article on NBA2K16 review I mean my word some of the comments were shocking and it was by the people that never even comment on the site it’s like they all came out of nowhere. I think one guy said he would never trust a women with a review of a sports game I mean wtf?? And that was not even bad some of them I read were horrible…

    • Rock789

      Yup, feel the same way. And wrt those persons who crawl out of the woodwork, it’s like they have some kind of detection system… Or can smell it… Like, **sniff** “Oh wow… Something I perceive as promoting women just happened. I better go take them down a notch.” Narrow minded idiots!

  • Mistake Not…

    There’s this sort of underlying mentality in our society, and it’s sometimes hard to notice. In high school, if a male in my class was to say he wants to study engineering, the reply from an adult was usually: “Wow, you must be smart.”
    A female friend said she wanted to study civil engineering, and the adult was like, “That’s very difficult, you need to work hard.” It’s hard to notice sometimes, but it’s there.
    So men are clever, but girls must work hard. Wut? Maybe I’m looking for stuff that’s not there.

    • Greylingad[CNFRMD]

      I loved witnessing how two female engineers, quite literally, wiped the floor with guys who criticised them about women being engineers, not because people underestimated them, but because, in a sense, they worked harder to disprove the illusion… I still have lots of respect for both of those ladies…loads of respect…

      • Mistake Not…

        Yeah, fortunately I haven’t come across any sort of criticism towards females at my university. The majority of my physics tutors (they’re Masters and PhD level) are women (not that their gender should have any impact on their education).

        • Greylingad[CNFRMD]

          Two of the smartest people I know are ladies, one gave me lessons in mathematics, she has a doctorates in applied math, the other is quite literally a nuclear physicist….

  • Excellent write up. It does feel like a never ending battle. But I believe progress is being made. If somewhat slowly

  • “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.”

    Excuse me because I really don’t mean to come across as an asshole, but how is an article like this helping to serve this point? You’re telling us (people who do not want to see women harassed) that women in tech get harassed, and this is serving no further point (most of us already know this anyway and are trying to fight the good fight, for both men and women), and then asking us to portray tech as better? What?

    Consider: Actually portraying tech as better. Not lying, mind you, or denying the facts. But finding positive spins rather than throwing the old SEO-approved buzzwords into the title.

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