Sexism in the Technology Industry
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Sexism in the Technology Industry

Sexism in the technology industry is occupational sexism in the technology industry. It has been variously argued in the media that a high ratio of men to women, graduation rates for engineering degrees, and the culture of the industry itself are the cause of sexism in the technology industry.


In 1997, Anita Borg, then senior researcher at Digital Equipment Corporation, complained that women "run into subtle sexism every day". At the time, only 5.6% of Silicon Valley technology companies were represented by women.[1]

The Athena Factor is a research report that the Harvard Business Review published in June 2008 to address the future of the technology industry in the United States. The report proposed solutions to a looming shortage in workers in the science, engineering, and technology field. The report suggested that rather than hiring immigrants, there are many women native to the United States to fill the positions.[2]


In 1970, 13.6% of U.S. computer science and information science bachelor's degrees were awarded to women. By 1984, that number rose to 37.1%. In 2011, however, only 17.6% of undergraduate computer science degrees went to women.[3]

In May 2014, Google posted on its official blog that only 30 percent of its employees globally were women.[4][5]

In January 2015, the New York Times said "the largest technology companies have released reports showing that only 30% of their employees are women",[6] with the percentage of technical employees being even lower.

A Fortune Magazine review of data available for the 92 US-based venture capital firms which had raised "at least one fund of $200 million or more" between 2009-2014 found "only 17 had even one senior female partner", and 4.2% of "partner level VCs" were female.[7]

An Open Diversity Data website has been created to provide access to diversity data for specific companies.[8]

Only 11% of Silicon Valley executives and about 20% of software developers are women.[9] At Google, only 18% of technical employees are women.[10] On Forbes' 2015 Top Tech Investors list, of 100 investors, only 5% are women.[11] Women in technology earn less than men, with men earning up to 61% more than women.[9] "Bias against women in tech is pervasive", according to an October 2014 op-ed in The New York Times.[12]

Media reports

In 1997, Anita Borg, then a senior researcher at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) complained that women "run into subtle sexism every day." At the time only one woman, Carol Bartz of Autodesk, was a chief executive officer (CEO) among the largest Silicon Valley technology companies, and only 5.6% of the area's 1,686 major tech firms were run by women. It was even harder for female entrepreneurs. Of the $33.5 billion in venture capital invested in tech from 1991 through the second quarter of 1996, only 1.6% went to companies launched or headed by women.[1]

The 2015 Crunchies award event, organized by Silicon Valley tech industry blogs, was criticized for its use of derogatory language towards women.[13]

Multiple gender harassment and discrimination lawsuits in Silicon Valley have received media attention. One of the most widely reported was Pao v. Kleiner Perkins, a discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins by then Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao, which went to trial in 2015.[14][15] Pao's lawsuit, which alleged that Kleiner Perkins indulged in double standards and denied her the senior partner position, resulted in a verdict for the defendant. Three jurors cited Pao's "increasingly negative performance reviews" as the primary reason.[16]

Possible causes

There are several possible causes and theories behind sexism in the technology industry.

Investment of grants and conscious belief in intellectual sex differences

Some scholars studying discrimination in the tech industry argue that since decision-makers in the tech industry often believe that men are inherently more technically competent than women, they think that it is economically a better investment to employ male tech personnel and to give higher budgets to the male staff than to the female staff. According to this model, those investments lead to more opportunities for male staff to produce high quality results, which in turn reinforces the statistical bias and is used as an argument for male technical superiority, causing a self-fulfilling prophecy. These scholars argue that the main problem is not unconscious bias, but conscious belief in allegedly scientific notions of sex differences, citing that the percentage of women in the highest quality tech work have decreased despite a decline in traditional and unconscious gender bias and quotas of women at lower levels of tech (though supposedly scientific claims of sex differences have increased and can account for the increased discrimination at top tech). While this model states that there is systematic discrimination towards women in tech, it explains it as a result of specific economical investment issues and does not presume a society-wide patriarchal structure nor even that discrimination must necessarily favor men in all aspects of society.[17][18]

Gender stereotypes

Men are typically more authoritative[19] and influential than women. In tasks that are perceived as masculine by society, women have less influence and are not considered experts. Only when a task is stereotyped as feminine will a women have more influence or authority than a man.[20] Violating gender-stereotypic norms results in social penalties.[21][22]

Men are believed to be more self-assertive and motivated to master their environment [while] women are believed to be more selfless and concerned with others.[19]

No sexism exists at all

According to studies of human children in their pre-socialization stage the boys prefer technical toys (e.g. wheeled vehicles) while girls prefer social toys (e.g. furry animals).[23][24][25] The same obtains for non-human children: rhesus and vervet monkeys,[26][27] who cannot be said to be "socialized". Thus sex-based preferences for STEM subjects are innate and assuming third-party bias is wrong in itself.[28]

There are various criticisms of these claims however. One is citing that since infants interact with other humans from birth, if only their parents, and rapidly absorb accents, the concept of a pre-socialized stage is spurious. These critics argue that the monkeys that have been studied in primatology are ones that have lived close to human settlements and imitated human habits, and are therefore not non-socialized either.[29][30] Other critics buy the existence of a pre-socialized stage, though they argue that there would be no evolutionary function for a brain mechanism that starts to distinguish social phenomena from other phenomena before socialization starts. Therefore, these authors argue, distinctions between toys that predate socialization are unrelated to interests later in life.[31][32]

There are primatologists who argue that since female chimpanzees in some groups hunt and use tools at least as much as the males, there is no innate universal primate bias towards technology being male.[33]

Science, engineering and technology (SET) culture

According to a 2006 project run and sponsored by private sector (and thus not peer-reviewed by academia), the "Hidden Brain Drain", analyzed the careers of women in SET industries. According to the authors of the post-project review,[note 1] the following characteristic of the SET culture, sometimes called the "Athena Effect" may exclude women workers:

  • Masculine communication style
  • Working outside of business hours
  • Difficulty when giving birth and having children
  • Masculine group activities
  • Women's fear of taking indefensible risks

According to this paper, the SET culture has three subcultures:

  1. Lab Coat Culture, where scientists are expected to work long hours that often extend outside a normal 40-hour work week. Women find this environment particularly hostile because it would require them to compete with others who choose to work longer hours.
  2. Hard Hat Culture, primarily obtaining in engineering, where women feel uncomfortable because of "vulgarities and sexual 'humor' permeate these places".
  3. Geek Culture is believed to be a product of engineering schools whereby arrogant "alpha males" with poor interpersonal skills avoid women.[2]

Despite the satisfaction that many women find in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers[], studies show that a main reason young women do not engage in STEM from an early age may be cultural messages inclining them to other subjects.[34] Women be uncomfortable engaging in STEM.[35] However, the technology industry itself is not solely responsible for the lack of women in STEM careers. According to Brown and Leaper, "Many parents tend to have higher expectations of sons over daughters in math, science, computers, and sports".[36] Therefore, childhood upbringing may also contribute to the alleged gender bias in the technology industry.

Male dominated environment

According to an essay in The Atlantic, women leave the tech industry at twice the rate men do. Since men are a majority in the industry, corporate events and industry conferences tend to cater to their taste, occasionally in ways which some women perceive as hostile, such as by hiring sexually provocative female performers and product promoters. Instances of sexual harassment at such events are also widely reported. This along with more subtle hostility such as offensive male humor can turn women away from the industry, further exacerbating the demographic imbalance already present.[37]


As of 2004, only 4% of the engineering workforce in the UK were women.[38] In information technology (IT), the Dice Salary Survey estimated that between 2008 and 2009, women earned an average of 12.43% less in salary than males.[39] However, it is unclear if the Dice survey specifically addresses sexist discrimination as a possible cause for women to earn lower average salaries in technology, or if the pay gap between men and women can be accounted for by differences in training, seniority, competence, overtime, or other variables that can effect salary. In addition to unequal pay, one study suggests that women are often excluded from informal work networks and become targets of bullying such as sexual harassment.[40]

Proposed solutions

Current gender roles and expectations may hold back women from entering, sustaining, and advancing in the technology field.[41] To combat sexism in technology, researchers have suggested that companies take responsibility and change their organizational structure issues instead of expecting women to adapt to the current state of the work environment.[42] One proposed change would be to have more than simple diversity programs; companies need to ensure that their work environments allow people with various backgrounds and thought processes to work collaboratively to achieve organizational objectives.[42] According to Schiebinger, women should not assimilate to the profession, they should modify it; increased minorities in IT means nothing if there is an unaccommodating industry.[42] Ray McCarthy, a Middle School technology education teacher, believes that schools have a role to play in the solution to sexism in technology industry. He suggests classrooms have a welcoming feel that engages all students, validate their interests, and support positive inquiry.[43]


In July 2014, a young, male computer science major at Yale College wrote in Forbes that although women only constitute 16% of the tech workforce, they also only account for 18% of computer science undergraduate degrees awarded to U.S. residents. He opined that the low numbers boiled down to "ultra-capable, math-savvy women" having "a different profile of interests, on average, than their male counterparts."[44]

Forbes columnist Joseph Steinberg wrote of witnessing multiple sexist situations, including a technology company founder referred to as a "Booth Babe" at a trade show. He blamed disproportionate technology-industry sexism, and a low number of females in the field, on a large number of computing-related startup companies hiring primarily young workers, thereby creating "an environment in which many firms' technical teams consist largely of workers who are just out of college, sometimes giving the businesses fraternity-like cultures, leading to sexism that discourages female participation."[45] Douglas Macmillan of Bloomberg Businessweek has referred to this phenomenon as "brogrammer culture".[46]

A cover story appearing on the January 15, 2015 issue of Newsweek magazine, titled What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women proved controversial, both due to its illustration, described as "the cartoon of a faceless female in spiky red heels, having her dress lifted up by a cursor arrow", and its content, described as "a 5,000-word article on the creepy, sexist culture of the tech industry".[47][48] Among those offended by the cover were Today Show co-host Tamron Hall, who commented "I think it's obscene and just despicable, honestly." Newsweek editor in chief James Impoco explained "We came up with an image that we felt represented what that story said about Silicon Valley ... If people get angry, they should be angry."[48] The article's author, Nina Burleigh commented, "Where were all these offended people when women like Heidi Roizen published accounts of having a venture capitalist stick her hand in his pants under a table while a deal was being discussed?"[49]


In 2012, women created "creeper move" cards, in red, yellow, and green, to hand out at the DEF CON security conference as an indication of what they perceived to be inappropriate behavior from men.[50] The conference in 2013 featured a game show called "Hacker Jeopardy" (a spoof of Jeopardy!), in which hostess Vinyl Vanna presided by removing an article of clothing with each correct answer.[51]

In March 2013 at PyCon, attendee Adria Richards overheard a conversation by two men where they joked about a "dongle" as well as saying they'd "like to fork his [the speaker's] repo" (a non-sexual phrase meaning they'd like to build on the speaker's code). She photographed the men and Tweeted their photo to complain to the Pycon staff. This led to a controversy that came to be known as Donglegate, which included counterpoints that Richards herself had recently made jokes online about the penis size of a man.[52] As a result, one of the men was fired along with Richards herself.[53]

In September 2013, an application called Titstare made its debut at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Its subject, men staring at women's breasts, proved too much for several commentators. After he defended the app against allegations of misogyny on Twitter, Business Insider Chief technology officer Pax Dickinson was forced to resign. Dickinson later wrote an apology, which was published on VentureBeat.[54] His cofounder and former business partner, Elissa Shevinsky, wrote an article titled That's It -- I'm Finished Defending Sexism In Tech, and said "I had defended DefCon's right to do whatever they want. I had suggested on Twitter that Women 2.0 and the Hacker Dojo start an alternative security conference. I was wrong. I take this back. We shouldn't have to."[54][55] Much of the criticism appeared on Twitter, with one representative tweet stating, "There goes my attempt to teach my 9 [year old] girl how welcoming tech industry is to women."[56]

At the 2015 SXSW festival, White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith was interrupted multiple times by Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt during a panel discussion on "Sexism in Technology". The head of Google's Unconscious Bias program pointed this out during the discussion and received applause from the audience.[57]

On October 5, 2015, software developer Sarah Sharp, known for contributing USB3 support to Linux and coordinating Outreachy, revealed that she had stopped writing kernel patches after feeling antagonized and seeing what she called "subtle sexist or homophobic jokes" on the mailing list.[58] Although noting that the community's lack of resources was partially to blame, she referred to past discussions in which she sharply criticized the attitudes of Linus Torvalds and Ingo Molnár.[59] The following day, Matthew Garrett stated that he would also leave kernel development and agreed with Sharp's assessment of Torvalds' communication style.[60] One kernel developer, James Bottomley, urged them to reconsider and stated that the mailing list had made efforts to increase civility in the two years since the most vocal clashes involving Sharp.[61]

One month after the posts by Sarah Sharp, Eric S. Raymond addressed readers to claim that women's advocacy groups were looking for opportunities to accuse Linus Torvalds and other open source figures of sexual assault at technical conferences.[62] The post contained logs of an IRC chat with an anonymized contact who claimed that the Ada Initiative had such goals. The source claimed that "They have made multiple runs at him.", and as a result he was no longer willing to risk mentoring women who are already in the technology industry. He then elaborated that Linus Torvalds no longer spends any time alone at conferences, to which Eric S. Raymond responded by stating that he would take his source's implied advice.

Nadella controversy

While speaking at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing on 9 October 2014, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella responded to a request for what his advice would be for women who are uncomfortable asking for a raise. Nadella stated: "It's not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along," Nadella said,[63] according to a recording on the website of the event.

"Because that's good karma," Nadella continued. "It'll come back because somebody's going to know that's the kind of person that I want to trust."[64]

After the comments produced a strong backlash in the media and in social media,[65] Nadella issued an apology, "Was inarticulate re how women should ask for raise. Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias" he tweeted several hours after his remarks.[66][67]

Microsoft also issued a memo on its website in which Nadella wrote: "I answered that question completely wrong," said the memo. "I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it's deserved, Maria's advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask."[68]


In November 2013, a HASTAC user named Arielle Schlesinger, studying the relation between feminist theory and programming paradigms, made a post soliciting feedback on the creation of a feminist programming language.[69] Referring to her statements on paraconsistent logic and the principle of explosion, most software developers who responded, questioned her understanding of the subject.

Later that year, a group calling itself the Feminist Software Foundation released a language called C Plus Equality with syntax similar to C++. Although announced as the type of feminist programming language that Schlesinger had in mind, the alleged purpose of the code was satirizing the social justice-oriented part of Internet culture and included numerous references to rape, boogeyman and trigger warnings.[70]

C+= was originally posted to GitHub but was removed on December 14 after numerous complaints of sexism.[71][72] The repository was moved to Bitbucket but after a debate with the legal team, it was removed on December 19.[73] The code is currently hosted on Gitorious and has since reappeared on GitHub.

"Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" memo

An internal memo on Google's ideological stance toward diversity, where it is argued that Google had shut down the conversation about diversity, and suggested that gender inequality in the technology industry was, in part, due to biological differences between men and women.

See also


  1. ^ The authors of this report were six women and one man: Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, Lisa J. Servon, Laura Sherbin, Peggy Shiller, Eytan Sosnovich and Karen Sumberg[2]:4


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Further reading

External links

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