"Ambient Un-Belonging": Women and Tech Startups

It's been a week now since Mike Arrington published his screed about women in the tech startup community. It made me both fucking livid and fucking depressed, and I've wavered between exhaustion (literal) and violence (rhetorical) as I've tried to figure out how to respond. Fortunately as I've sat and stewed, a lot of smart folks have already addressed Arrington -- directly and indirectly. "And so it goes," I feel, as many of us having been talking and doing and writing and working for a long time on various parts of the battle.

So in lieu of a "Weekly Round-up" of the things I've written, I've listed below some of the various voices who've addressed various aspects of the problems faced by "women in tech."

Various. Various. Various. I've repeated that word far too many times in these opening paragraphs. But I want to stress that there is no silver bullet that will bring about equity -- in numbers, in treatment -- of women in technology. There is no one thing that any blog, blogger, VC, CEO, CS professor can do to magically bring about gender equity in tech. There are a myriad of cultural and institutional factors that have shaped the demographic make-up of the tech startup community. And as such, there are a number of areas in which we can work to address what the Wall Street Journal noted in the article that got Arrington's hackles up: "the lack of women leading tech startups".

Jolie O'Dell was one of the many folks who wrote a post in response -- and I think it's worth noting here that Jolie says she's been working on this post for a long while, an indication that we haven't all "suddenly" started "blaming men" (or blaming Arrington) or that we haven't all "suddenly" realized we need to blog about this topic. Her post looks at some of the dismal statistics surrounding women who pursue CS degrees and who enter the tech profession. I'd add that by the time women are selecting their college majors, it may be too late to convince them that technology would make a great career. As NCWIT's research points out, by the time girls reach the eighth grade they have already developed a far more negative view of technology and computers than their male peers.

Earlier this year, at TEDxSeattle, Sapna Cheryan gave a great talk about some of the stereotypes about computer science and computer scientists that may dissuade women and girls from pursuing academic and career work in the field. (You can view her talk here.) Cheryan speaks of "ambient belonging," the idea that you can walk into an environment, look at the objects and the setting, and get a sense of whether you will fit in with the environment and with the people you imagine frequent there, of whether the environment is one in which you think you can succeed.

Sometimes the things that tell you "you don't belong" and "you won't succeed" can be very subtle. Sometimes, as the comments aimed at Michelle Greer in Arrington's article demonstrated, they are overt -- and overtly hostile, at that.

And it's this "ambient un-belonging" that makes me laugh whenever I hear someone argue that the tech industry is a meritocracy (which means by extension, according to the commonly-stated argument that Arrington parrots, the lack of women means we just don't want to succeed in the field badly enough). But the tech industry is not a meritocracy, not by any means. Aliza Sherman's point-by-point refutation of Arrington's piece argues that as well as any I've seen. You are judged based on your gender. And you are judged based on your age. I would add that you are judged based on race. And you are judged based on class. You are judged based on nationality. You are judged based on sexual orientation. Such is the world we live in. The tech world is no exception.

If you cannot see that, then I'd argue that it's a matter of your privilege. Privilege -- male privilege, class privilege, and so on -- impacts what we see and don't see. Typically, those of us in privileged positions can move through the world without ever having to confront (and thus never having to see) the ways in which we benefit (or the obstacles that others might face). As the great philosopher Douglas Adams once observed, "It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever." And a common response when we are confronted or challenged by the folks we've been "sitting on" is to get defensive. Very defensive. We don't listen; we lash out.

I think Arrington was wrong with almost the entirety of his analysis. And if that was all it was -- just a matter of disagreement -- I'd still be irked, no doubt, but I'd see it as par for the course in a world where, ya know, people are entitled to different opinions (and where I am quite accustomed, as a woman, to running into men who are ignorant of the privileges their gender affords them). So in this case, it's not just privilege or ignorance that I find so appalling. It's Arrington's disdain. Since writing the post, he has gone on and on and on and on about women in technology -- belittling those who've written posts challenging him, belittling the experiences and analyses of those who've disagreed, challenging the credentials and the achievements of people working to address gender disparities, acting as the outrage and the frustration is really just a big joke. And it's this mocking response that I have found to be the most disconcerting, and most indicative of where Arrington -- and the legions of men who are echoing "hear hear" -- really stands when it comes to addressing the lack of women in tech startups.

Add that to the long list of things that women and girls will assess when they evaluate their "ambient belonging" in the tech world.

Other responses to Arrington: Douchebag Decree: Michael Arrington, Technological Determinist What Do "Where Are the Women" Shitstorms Achieve? Getting More Women to Tech Women in Tech: How Anonymity Contributes to the Problem Too Few Women in Tech: There's More Than You Think On Influence, Lists, Women, and the Confluence Thereof Arrington is completely wrong about women in technology Fretting, asking, and begging isn't a plan: a response to TechCrunch on women in technology Too Few Women in Tech: Stop Telling People How They Should Feel About It Blame Men -- And Women: A response to TechCrunch's article on women in tech


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