“Women in tech” was a common phrase at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival this year. But there’s reason to think that focusing on women as an anomaly in the community might hurt more than it helps.
After SXSW cancelled two panels about gender in the gaming community last fall, provoking an uproar, the Interactive conference attempted to atone with an Online Harassment Summit on Mar. 12. But the discussions turned out to be “just one more place for men to ignore women,” as The Verge reported. The poorly-attended panels were held across the river from the center of SXSW action—a geographical siloing that serves as an apt metaphor for the problem with the ways we talk about women in tech.
Thankfully, one panel sought to reframe the conversation by focusing on the long history of women in computer science. Documentarian Robin Hauser Reynolds, who directed and produced the new documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, appeared on a panel at the Capital One House at SXSW along with Nathan Ensmenger, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing. Together they discussed the social and cultural history of computing—with a special emphasis on the fact that the field is dominated by white men not by accident, but by design.
The myth of “great men and their machines” perpetuates a reductionist version of the history of computer science, according to Ensmenger. Not only were the world’s first computer programmers women back in the 1940s, women made up roughly 26% of computer science professionals in 1960. Cosmopolitan magazine even ran an article in 1967 urging young women to consider careers as “Computer Girls.” But as the tech field grew in the mid-20th century, companies had to hire thousands of workers to fill computing jobs that had never before existed. Recruiters relied on personality analysis to find the best-suited workers. They assumed that the ideal computer programmer was a focused young man who was more interested in machines than in other people.
This idea quickly became self-perpetuating. The growing prevalence in popular culture of young white male “hackers” is inversely proportionate to the number of women who enrolled in computer science college programs in the latter decades of the 20th century, Ensmenger said.
Too often, discussions about women in tech frame suggest that it’s necessary to inject diversity into an industry that has been successful without it. Attempts to close the gender gap might be more successful if they acknowledged that women have been involved in the field all along. “Unlocking the clubhouse” seems a lot less radical when it didn’t start out as “no girls allowed” to begin with. As Gloria Steinem once said: ”Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.” Women of color have been particularly subject to such erasures, and have faced even more limitations in hiring—including in the tech sector.
Moreover, the tech sector would likely be even more successful if not for its bias against women and people of color. Research shows that diverse groups make better decisions, engage in stronger critical thinking, and boost companies’ financial performance. And women’s contributions are undoubtedly valuable. A recent study on gender bias in code, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, found that women’s contributions to open-source repository Github were more likely to be accepted than men’s as long as their gender was not revealed. When the author’s gender was known, women’s contributions were more likely to be rejected.
And so discussions that paint women in tech as outliers or vanguards may not be helpful to moving the needle. “Solving” the “problem” of women in tech isn’t the point. Instead, the goal should be to stamp out the sexism and racism that has actively worked to keep women and people of color out of the industry—and to make sure all Americans have access to an industry that will be driving the American economy for decades to come.