Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Aren't More Women in Tech? Here's One Thought...

If you need a reminder just how bad misogynistic behavior can be in our current culture, there is news this week to remind you.

Anita Sarkeesian is someone you should know. Her vlog series "Tropes vs. Women" has over the last few years dissected and explained the sexism of the video gaming world. Her videos are thoughtful and scholarly. Situated on the website Feminist Frequency, they provide an intelligent, considered look at how the tropes and traditions of video games reinforce some of the worst sexist attitudes of the culture. Sarkeesian's presentations are calm, clear, and non-ranty; were it not for the subject matter, you could easily imagine her videos running on PBS.

So, of course, she has received constant threats. The level of harassment is stunning, a degree of ugliness that makes you want to just powerwash your computer after you look at it. Beyond the standard fare of trolling (known in the meat world as Being an Asshole) Sarkeesian has been the threatened with violence, rape and death. Trolls created a video game "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" and sent her screen shots of herself being assaulted. All this, I'll remind you, because she is a woman daring to point out sexism in video games. Video games.

Sarkeesian has put up with this since Day One, but last week, things took a turn for the even worse when someone let her know that they had tracked down her home address, as well as the names and address of her parents, and threatened to kill them all. Sarkeesian called the police and moved out of her home.

When discussing the shortage of women in the tech industry, it's standard to observe that the frat boy atmosphere can make them feel unwelcome. Frankly, saying that the tech industry makes women feel unwelcome is like saying being mugged makes people feel uncomfortable. We have example after example-- the launching of the app "titstare," the tinder lawsuit, the endless tales of Comic Con misbehavior. And every example of tech world sexism and harassment comes with its own second helping of "How dare you call us sexist, you ugly woman who probably can't get laid."

The culture in general and teachers in particular have got to update our image of what sexism looks like. The classic sexist stereotype (macho, strutting, physically powerful and confident) is being replaced by a new harasser-- the smart guy using his techy device to blast his ideas and images out into the world, never having to even look his victim in the face, and demanding that no women enter his domain without submitting to him.

It doesn't have to be that way. My son-in-law works in the tech industry, and he and my daughter make a fine feminist couple. But somehow we've raised a whole host of young men who think that it's okay to threaten women with rape and death.

I've taught Kate Chopin's The Awakening for years, and it always sparks some important and revealing conversations among my students. But lately I'm feeling that a discussion of the subtle and powerful ways in which society can pressure women into certain roles hardly prepares us for a world in which women who dare to call out little boys for their misogyny can expect relentless threats of death and rape-- how the hell did we end up with that world?? I should have done it before now, but this year we'll be upping our game when it comes to talking about gender in American lit.

One thing's for sure-- in that world, providing women with access to STEM education is only a tiny part of the solution. We like to think of ourselves as far more advanced than countries where women are threatened, harassed and assaulted for trying to get an education. I wish we were separated from that kind of thinking by a far larger gulf than we apparently are.


  1. This leads to a discussion of teacher training and recruitment. 85% of teachers and probably 95% in elementary, are females. There was no technology classes in my coursework but I jut happened to have started in Engineering and took lots of computer classes. So at school, now that we have no librarians (who were defacto tech person), many teachers come to the few of us who understand computers. Parents obviously have the most influence over their kids however, more schools need the resources and technology teachers to encourage more girls to go into computer field. Our computer labs for the last 10-15 years have been taken over with all the testing; especially schools with large ESL and high poverty students that take more time and more opportunities to pass. Furthermore, this seems to be the treatment of teachers overall, because teaching is seen mainly as a "womans" job; what other explanation is there of the maltreatment and utter contempt by the deformers in education? Thoughts?