Over at CNET today, Molly Wood has a post about why we need to keep talking about women in tech. This time, some assholes in Copenhagen were sexist at a Dell conference. Wood is right about the bigotry, but she’s wrong about the headline. It’s actually time to stop talking about women in tech.
The imbalance between men and women in our industry has already been well documented, vigorously discussed, and appropriately fretted over. But despite all the Women in Tech conference sessions, the empowerment meetings and summits, the magazine articles, the searching blog posts, and the defensive ripostes, we haven’t got very far. Women are still underrepresented in startups, large companies, and especially in leadership. That’s pretty messed up, because by now it should be clear to us all that women make much better leaders than men.
I know as much from personal experience. My last three bosses were women, and so is my current one. The boss of my family is a woman. One of the most effective Prime Ministers in my home country’s history was a woman. Hell, even my girlfriend is a woman.
Men in particular need to acknowledge that women are just better at running things. They’re more empathetic, they have a better mix of the rational and the emotional, and most of the time they’re just not total dicks.
Sure, plenty of men aren’t total dicks. But so many are slave to their egos. That means they’re resistant to criticism, overly cocksure, aggressively insecure and insecurely aggressive, and so puffed up with testosterone that it actually reduces their ability to understand what people are thinking. It’s this same compulsion of ego that leads them to make up stuff in the service of making themselves look better. That’s why some of history’s most hated leaders have a Y chromosome in common.
I know I’m being kind of sexist. Nuance is a victim of my argument. But sometimes you have to burn down the trees to see the topography of the forest floor. (Don’t take that literally. Trees are good.) So with that out of the way, I want you all to take a deep breath and say along with me: Enough with the talk about women in tech.
Conferences and articles about “women empowerment” are well meaning but counterproductive. Same goes for the fetishization of prominent female leaders and all the magazine features about the 50 Most Influential Women in the World. Those things bug me just as much as political commentators who talk about women as a “voting bloc,” as if they are homogeneous subsidiary to the “real” power brokers in society.
It’s all just lip service to a problem that is far bigger than any one industry. Yes, women aren’t getting a fair shot in tech, but that is less a function of the industry than it is a function of thousands of years of institutionalized sexism.
As Christopher Ryan has suggested in his groundbreaking book Sex At Dawn, male dominance in human society has probably prevailed since the introduction of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That tremendous shift, which Jared Diamond has called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” not only facilitated the spread of disease and concentrated finite resources in limited spaces, but it also probably tipped the balance of power in favor of men, whose physical strengths would come to be relied on for farming and protection of private property – a concept that didn’t exist in the hunter-gatherer times that constitute 90 percent of humanity’s collective existence. (There’s a lot more that could be said along these lines, including the newfound importance of paternity certainty, how gatherer women brought in food of equal caloric value to that hunted by men, and how protection, child-rearing, and resources were all shared, but let’s not get too far off track. Suffice to say: Here we are in 2012, still trying to undo the damage.)
These deep-rooted issues of sexism can’t be solved with quotas, conferences, posters, or slogans. In fact, the very existence of these “inspiring women” and “we can do it!” memes gives people an excuse to ignore the problems. Men in particular are allowed to think that these issues are no concern of theirs, because they’re being dealt with elsewhere by people they’ll never see on the golf course. Success for women, on the other hand, is inadvertently framed as something to be achieved despite their “handicaps” and is, at least implicitly, intrinsically tied to their womanhood, rather than just being totally normalized.
By all means, women should look at other successful women – the Hillary Clintons, the Christine Lagardes, the Angela Merkels, the Sheryl Sandbergs – as role models. But it’s more important that they look at men – flawed creatures ruled by ego, deficient in empathy, and stupidly aggressive – and recognize how much they suck. Women, in tech or anywhere else, should not be held up as “successful women”; they should be held up as successful people. By the same token, male bigotry at a tech conference shouldn’t be framed as an issue for women in tech – it should be called out as a problem for society as a whole, and its perpetrators subjected to public humiliation for their utter scumbaggery.
Yesterday, I wrote about an impressive technology that allows targeted advertising across devices. In part, the story was pitched to me as being an incredible company started by a woman. It’s unfair for me to single out one PR agency for this strategic line, and I know it was well intended, but I’m never going to give one story priority over another just because it’s about a disadvantage demographic. That’s condescending, counterproductive, and it shifts the focus away from an achievement and onto a political construct. We all deserve better than that.
The most disappointing part of this post is that I don’t have any better solutions to society’s ongoing sexism or, even, how to ensure women in tech get the recognition and the roles they deserve. The best I can offer is that men in leadership should acknowledge their own shortcomings, confront their biases, admit that the opposite sex can do their jobs better than they can, and then hire and promote accordingly.
And women? Well, as Ashley Judd has pointed out, they should reject the institutionalized trivialization of their sex perpetuated by “women’s” magazines and other media, which demand no more of women than that they lose 15 pounds for summer so they look good in their bikinis. And they should reject the notion that success among their sex is to be celebrated as some sort of freak of happenstance or superhuman achievement. Instead, they should be disgusted that the idea of women in leadership is not just the status quo.
What we don’t need is more lip service and platitudes. We need less fretting and hand-waving. We need less talk of empowerment and glass ceilings. We need, in other words, fewer articles like this one.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]