Getting it off my chest, IT in Africa

On why language is important when talking about women in tech

This is the second in a series of posts where I address technology, women in technology, and women in technology in Benin. *

Accompanying the recent spate of questions about how to find more and better women speakers for tech conferences, the general lack of women in technology, and a lot of comments about women’s capabilities and skills, has been a dreadful abuse of the English language hinting that women just don’t hack it in the technology sphere.

Why is okay to say that Mike Arrington is an asshole, but calling Sarah Lacey a princess is off limits? Why is making snarky comments about Xeni’s good looks bad, but saying that Stii is adorable okay?

In a word, privilege. What? What’s privilege, you say? It’s being the default (male) and benefiting from living in a patriarchal society that is institutionally sexist. It’s not intentional and it is not the same thing as being sexist or misogynist. If you have privilege, you can’t help it, and you can’t get rid of it. But you should realize it exists. Here’s a great list of privileges men have that women don’t. It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’m excerpting items that are particularly relevant to this discussion.

If I am male …

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

41. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

So what does this all mean, and how does it apply to talking about women in tech?

There are a lot of snotty jerks who think they’re smarter than everyone else in the tech sphere. There are a lot of pundits whose qualifications are doubtful at best. But singling out women as being particularly unqualified is unfair and contributes to the “boys club” feeling that tech often has. When you call a man an asshole, that man is an asshole. When you say that there are too many princesses writing about tech, you’re making a point about women, not just that woman.

In a male dominated sphere, especially one as related to show biz as the start-up scene, women get farther by being beautiful, charming, and having a larger than life personality. This is not any particular woman’s fault. It’s the fault of a patriarchal system that makes women sex objects first and entrepreneurs second.

In “Technology, the African women in it, and beer”, Miquel said:

For women (again in North America and Europe) the focus is usually on being some cutesy girl who does the occasional special interest piece, but who has no idea which end of a conditional statement is up. The worst of this type are the Sarah Laceys and Xeni Jardins of the world because they create a perception that if you’re a cute, sexy girl, then that’s all that matters. In other words, style and appearance far outweigh the substance of what they write.

Sure, their good looks might be what appeals to a lot of misogynist geeks, but the reality is that these women write very competently about technology. You don’t have to be a programmer to write about tech. Mike Arrington and Corey Doctorow aren’t techies, but nobody runs around questioning their right to write about technology.

Using words like “princess” and “diva” to negatively class women participating in the tech scene reinforces privilege by reinforcing the idea that a woman has to work twice as hard to prove herself, especially if she is beautiful. It’s not enough that she’s participating. Now, she has to participate in exactly the way and manner that men want her to. She has to be conscious of the image she projects, not simply for her own good, but because for many readers, she represents her entire gender.

There are many kinds of women. Happy women. Sad women. Beautiful women. Ugly women. Smart women. Technical women. Nice women. Mean women. We want more women in tech. We want more woman programmers, more woman pundits, more woman critics, more woman writers, more woman presenters, more woman everything. And that means welcoming everyone, whether you feel like you can take them out for a beer or not.

Both Africa and the West need more women in tech. Continuing to stereotype western women in tech as princesses and divas only worsens the problem, instead of fixing it. Certainly, it gives no credit to the thousands of women that spend their entire lives developing new and exciting technologies.

* Parts of this post are excerpted from an email that I sent to Miquel before picking on him in public.

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