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The Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab at the University of Washington is now a member of the blogging community! We will be using Decoded as a forum for disseminating our research on women and computer science and discussing current issues related to the field of computer science including: women's involvement and how computer science is changing the way we live. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments on our posts.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Why We've Been Responding Wrong to the Google Manifesto

James Damore’s “Google Manifesto” has been taking the Internet by storm. Officially titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo spells out Damore’s position on gender inclusion in the workplace. The real reason more women aren’t in tech, Damore says, is that they are biologically different from men in ways that predispose them to struggle in highly competitive and analytical fields. The backlash from Damore’s treatise was swift -- Google fired him, and the Internet exploded with everything from gut reactions to carefully articulated responses. To combat Damore’s limited view of gender, many commentators emphasized that men and women are really not all that different.

But even though Damore’s argument perpetuates inequality, so does the opposite extreme. The idea that men and women are identical implies that all genders should be equally capable of succeeding without any intervention. Responses to Damore that depicted gender differences as largely arbitrary, like this one, run the risk of pressuring women to transform themselves (“With some practice playing the right sort of video game, women can boost their spatial reasoning skills to match those of boys.”) It’s an argument that ends up placing the responsibility on women to change their behavior, instead of indicting company culture.

While the article linked above isn’t wrong, it’s also not working to transform the tech world for women. By only telling part of the story, simplified arguments about how the genders are indistinguishable from one another might be taken to mean that culture change is unnecessary. As a result, women may be pressured to interrupt more, be more assertive, prioritize work over family … in short, to become more masculine. Emphasizing sameness begins in a well-intentioned effort to promote equality, but it eventually glorifies whatever culture already exists in the environment. In tech, that culture is overwhelmingly masculine.

Of course, Damore’s original argument also minimizes the importance of company change by placing the blame on biology. As many commentators have pointed out, his ideas about biologically gendered predispositions are flawed. Columbia University professor Adam Galinsky wrote that Google made the right call in firing Damore because “Biological explanations for sex differences create a clear and present danger to inclusion,” a danger that overrides Damore’s appeal to freedom of speech. 

On the scientific side of things, we don’t have good evidence that gender preferences are innate, but we have plenty of evidence that interests change when the environment shifts. In other words, a person’s surroundings have more power to drive their preferences than the gender they were assigned at birth. Northwestern University professor Alice Eagly pointed out that while early androgen exposure can foster some differences, “biology has multiple pathways by which its influence may be exerted on human psychology … There are many unknowns.” In this article on Damore’s manifesto, Wired argued that Damore’s evidence centers on evolutionary psychology, a problematic field that leverages the idea of evolutionary pressures to explain all sorts of “essential” gender differences. It’s too easy to use evolution as an excuse for lack of evidence, starting with an idea about gender roles and theorizing backwards until you hit something that sounds like science.

Gender differences are real. But instead of the simple biological affair Damore makes them out to be, they are a complex combination of nature and nurture. Our culture’s tendency to promote masculine traits and disadvantage feminine ones means that we have to acknowledge the current differences between men and women if we want to implement real change. Damore’s insistence that programs geared toward helping women succeed are “discriminatory” against men doesn’t bring us any closer to a solution. Neither does the idea that empowerment requires women to become more like men. Both of those positions let company culture off the hook and reinforce a strong preference for masculinity. Instead, we need to rebalance the tech environment so that all genders can be feminine, masculine, or any combination of the two without fear of negative repercussions.

Posted by Ella J. Lombard
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Sexual Harassment in Silicon Valley Reveals About Tech Culture

Silicon Valley usually attracts media attention for technological innovation, but recently, sexual harassment allegations against prominent male investors have exposed the darker side of America’s tech hub. First, six women reported that venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck had subjected them to inappropriate encounters, from late-night texts to groping. Then a Facebook message to a potential employee written by 500 Startups founder Dave McClure went public: “I didn’t know whether to hire you or hit on you.” In the wake of the scandals, both Caldbeck and McClure resigned, and more than two dozen women came forward to share their experiences.
At the Stereotypes, Identity, & Belonging Lab, we see the prevalence of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley as confirmation that blatant gendered behaviors still affect women in computer science. While some venture capitalists have signed a “decency pledge” drafted by LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman, our research shows that attempting to reform individuals’ behavior is not enough to fix an environment that promotes inequality. The sexual harassment scandals are a symptom of a much larger problem, and in order to solve it, Silicon Valley’s culture needs an upgrade.

Sexual harassment thrives in systems with high power differentials and a lack of external accountability. Silicon Valley, with its wealthy investors and skewed gender ratio, fits those criteria to a T: this article from The Guardian described Silicon Valley as “an industry where money rules and male investors are treated like demigods.Because entrepreneurs work in an incredibly high-stakes environment -- about 90% of startups fail -- they are often desperate for money and publicity. Investors are perfectly positioned to exploit entrepreneurs, and because the negotiations lack regulations, there’s nothing to stop them.
The prevalence of “frat boy culture” and harassment in Silicon Valley are part of a larger pattern of gender inequality in computer science and technology. Women are less likely to pursue computer science than men, and female innovators are underrepresented in leadership positions and in the media. Our research has shown that even subtly masculine cues (like stereotypically geeky office decor) can create a pervasive sense of unbelonging for women who don’t fit programmer stereotypes. From inconspicuous cues to blatant harassment, women in computer science experience disadvantage at every level of interaction.
Unfortunately, most proposed “solutions” to Silicon Valley’s sexual harassment problem only operate on one or two of those levels. For instance, Hoffman’s decency pledge encourages male investors to maintain professional relationships with entrepreneurs and avoid crossing boundaries, but it does not address the larger culture of gender inequality. Even when workplaces try to dispel inequalities by closing the gender gap, they often adopt a quick-fix approach -- putting the pressure on women to change, for example, or hosting workshops on gender bias and assuming that their job is done. While well-intentioned, these attempts often fail to produce any meaningful results.
Aileen Lee, who left the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2012 to found Cowboy Ventures, told The Mercury News that she thinks the answer is to get more high-level women into venture capital firms. “We need to figure out how to double the number of women partners at VC firms from 5 percent to 10 percent,” she said, emphasizing what the change would take: “That means a lot more women would have to enter the industry, and 50 to 100 more women have to become general partner level -- that’s sadly not a thing that can happen overnight.”
Lee is right; change isn’t easy, especially when patterns of masculine privilege are deeply entrenched. The problem with her solution is that we can’t simply recruit more women to venture capital firms. Instead, we have to address the underlying culture that discouraged women from getting involved in venture capitalism in the first place. The bottom line? Whether we’re trying to curtail investors’ inappropriate behavior or encourage more women to choose careers in currently male-dominated fields, shifting the culture is a necessary prerequisite. As long as Silicon Valley is routinely described as a fraternity-like world where “brogrammers” wield fortune and fame, the sexual harassment is unlikely to stop.
How do you think we can promote a culture shift in the tech community? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and like us on Facebook to stay up to date on research insights.

Posted by Ella Lombard