Writing About Women In Tech? Here Are 13 Rules You Should Probably Keep In Mind
Every so often, a new think piece will pop up that declares the whole "women in tech" discussion sexist and condescending. The piece will typically declare that it is time for us to stop talking about "women in tech," and start talking about people in tech. It will go on to claim that whole sexism and gender discussion is so hyped-up and over-saturated that it obscures the real innovation and work of talented people, regardless of their gender. Shouldn't we talk about work alone, it will conclude, instead of gender?
Well, in a word: nope. You may be gender-blind, but as the facts have proved time and time again, the tech industry isn't. Of course, it's possible to think that, say, former Cisco Systems CTO Padmasree Warrior is awesome, without fully understanding the odds she had to go up against to become a powerful and innovative woman within the tech industry. But when you dismiss that part of her story, you're missing out on a crucial puzzle piece. Specifically discussing women in the tech industry isn't singling them out, dumbing down their work or focusing on an irrelevant bit of their anatomy. Rather, that discussion acknowledges and pays attention to the challenges that they face. Women comprise 30 percent of the labor workforce in technology companies — and a much, much smaller percentage at the higher end of the job ladder. When that stops being true, then we can talk about women in tech and their accomplishments without mentioning the "women in tech" thing. Until then, not so much.
There are, however, ways to talk about women in the tech industry that are helpful to them and can further the discussion, and ways that, er, are less so. Here are 13 tips about how you should and should not talk about women in tech.
1. Don't Call Women "Girls"
Unless you are Beyonce, do not refer to grown women as girls. Unless the women in question are under 18 and going to a Girls Who Code event, "girls" is not a good thing to call professional women (just ask Sir Tim Hunt). Also not cool: "ladies," "womenfolk" and "vagina-havers".
2. Know That Looks Are Probably Not Relevant To The Discussion
If a female tech innovator's hair is scientifically proven to be part of her development process, I will then take descriptions of it as relevant. Until that time, odds are that describing the appearance of a woman in tech is not going to be helpful. (Unless she has a robot arm. Any detailed description of a robot arm is always relevant, in my book.)
3. Know Your History
Sometimes Silicon Valley treats women in technology as its own invention. But women in tech are not the iPod — they existed before Steve Jobs. Some great historical examples include Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Radia Perlman — all women who have played a strong role in the development of technology as we know it, particularly in the realm of computing.
4. Don't Just Cover The Big Names
There are very few big female names in technology, and the media's tendency to go straight back to these familiar faces does kind of indicate how rare they are. But as awesome as they may be, those big names still don't paint the whole picture. Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Padsmaree Warrior are not the only women innovating in tech. Come on, people reporting on women in tech! Look for some new women to talk about. Give us something fresh, something new. Something with jazz hands.
5. Don't Mention Stereotypes About Women And Math
No, it's really not necessary to remind us that some people think women can't do math. Believe me, we know — we've heard it all our lives. It's a message that is reinforced socially throughout pretty much all levels of education, and pretty much everywhere else, too. No, really, thank you, but we don't need to hear about it again.
And for the record, Elizabeth Spelke's groundbreaking work for Harvard showed that all three assumptions that most people make about the reasons that men dominate tech fields — that they're more object-oriented, that they have better innate mathematical and calculating ability, and that they're smarter in general — aren't supported by evidence. So nyah-nyah-nyah to that.
6. Don't Refer To Women As "Emotional"
Many an article about women in tech mentions women's alleged superior emotional intelligence and how it may 1. hold us back professionally; 2. qualify us for more touchy-feely roles at companies; 3. somehow prevents us from developing technological expertise, possibly by clogging our delicate brain-cogs with emotional fuzz. Being constantly told that emotions are a problem is definitely not going to help anyone involved. Don't contribute to the perception that having emotions is a flaw.
7. Talk About Sexism
I know it's boring to read about. So think about how boring it is for the people who are experiencing it. The temptation to ignore sexism in tech because we've already spent so much time talking about it is very high, I know — but talking about it remains necessary and relevant.
It's not really realistic to talk about a tech company's new female hire without mentioning how unusual that is and what it means. Talking about women in tech through the lens of sexism isn't hijacking the discussion; it's admitting that sexism is an intrinsic part of the discussion. Yes, we should talk about the tech itself as much as possible — but leaving out gender discrimination may create the impression that everything is all right on that front. And it isn't.
8. Mention That Inequality Goes Beyond Wage Gaps
The gender inequalities in tech industries go beyond pay imbalances. There's inequality from the ground up: not enough girls are encouraged to study tech-adjacent subjects in schools, not enough women take tech-centric college courses, not enough women get jobs at tech firms, not enough women get to take steps up the career ladder once they've landed jobs at tech firms — and on and on it goes. The real picture only becomes clear when you mention all of it.
9. Think Outside The U.S.
The big American tech firms may be heavyweights, but there are others around the world —some with big-name women in the driver's seat — who are an important part of the discussion. In 2014, Geektime named 10 of the highest-powered women in technology outside the U.S. — a list that included, Cher Wang, founder of HTC; Sun Yafang, head of Huawei; and Mazine Fassberg, head of Intel Israel – and wondered if perhaps the situation was less dire for female tech experts in other markets. Their stories and contributions are a part of the big picture that all too often gets ignored.
10. Don't Illustrate Your Story With An Irrelevant Stock Photo
It isn't that difficult to find pictures of women at technology conferences, fiddling with circuit boards, building robots, or even doing that weird Tony Stark thing where they're apparently linking different idea-bubbles in mid-air. Even a photo of a woman in front of a computer can suffice. But please don't use stock photos of women doing totally unrelated things like giggling, checking texts, or eating salad to illustrate your story about female tech experts or innovators. I'm looking at you, Economic Times Of India.
11. Don't Dismiss Hiring More Women As "Affirmative Action"
When reporting on women in tech, it can be tempting to play both sides, and wonder whether quotas for women in new-hire tech positions are actually useful. But hiring quotas aren't just examples of companies trying to be politically correct. The founder of Wikipedia called the small percentage of women in tech "frankly disastrous," so know that there are real stakes at work with these hiring quotas.
It's also important to remember that mixed-gender higher management helps company performance. The diversity action plans created by companies like TechCrunch — which include initiatives to boost education, get more female role models involved in the company, foster more mentoring, and nab more funding for female-led startups — aren't just about making the industry fairer. They're about making it empirically better.
12. Remember That The Ellen Pao Verdict Isn't The End Of The Story
The verdict against Ellen Pao's gender discrimination claim against Kleiner-Perkins seemed to cast a pall on the whole improving-diversity-in-tech thing. Pao's case fell apart because the jury didn't think her own problems had been gender-motivated, sure — but they didn't dismiss the idea of there being a sexist environment at Kleiner-Perkins.
And Pao's case is just one of many gender discrimination cases currently brewing in the tech world — including suits against Twitter and Facebook. So in the future we may look back and see Pao's lawsuit as the first of many legal challenges that eventually reshaped tech. And as Pao herself told the Wall Street Journal, the high profile of her case may mean that more women feel confident about coming forward with similar complaints in the future.
The decision in Pao's case doesn't mean that her loss should be framed as a step backwards, or a sign that the problem doesn't exist. Progress is rarely a straight line, and every company and every case is different.
13. Don't Just Demand More Diversity — Take Steps To Make It Happen
A stirring rally cry for an end to sexism in tech is a great way to end an article. However, it is also not going to do very much to actually end sexism in tech. CNet has been running a fascinating series on tech diversity, which demonstrates the difference between grandly declaring that gender dynamics in tech need to be improved, and actually tackling the deeper issues, which can go considerably further than hiring inequality and glass ceilings.
The idea of developing in-house training programs at companies to uncover "unconscious biases" among employees is a relatively new and promising one — but it's going to take a long time to see change based on that or any other new programs. And it'll be years before we see any fruit from new initiatives created to attract women into tech in college or high school. But that's where the real value in writing about women in tech is: finding, examining and publicizing solutions. Grandstanding is great fun, and sometimes a bit valuable — but it isn't enough.
Images: Getty (1), Giphy (12)