Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It's Hard Being a Short Woman in Tech

In The New Statesman, Laurie Penny argues that tech is inhospitable to women because it’s run by resentful nerds, “some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least.” She’s responding to a piece of writing by Scott Aaronson reflecting on how his painful nerdolescence makes it hard to identify with being called privileged. Penny’s piece is an attempt to set Aaronson straight. Nerds’ childhood trauma, she argues, is nothing compared to the “structural oppression” experienced by women and ethnic minorities:
Scott, imagine what it's like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that. Or how about a triple whammy: you have to go through your entire school years again but this time you're a lonely nerd who also faces sexism and racism.
She says that Aaronson’s writing is “painfully honest, but also flawed” because his childhood suffering blinds him to others' suffering and oppression:

“…I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright.

The structural oppression faced by women and the individual hardship faced by nerds are different beasts, no doubt, but I’m not sure it’s possible to compare them in the way that Penny does. For one thing, structural oppression is a lot easier to measure, since by definition it impacts clearly defined demographic groups. But when it comes to teenage nerdishness and the loneliness and bullying that go along with it, we don’t have as clear a sense of the impact. There’s no way of knowing who was a teenaged nerd and who wasn’t without asking each person individually, and even if you do, most men probably don't want to reveal that they spent their virile youth as Starcraft-playing virgins.

Since we don’t know who the nerds are, it's hard to say how their nerdiness impacted them. And it certainly doesn't make sense to demand, as Penny does, that Aaronson identify as privileged, when we can’t accurately assess how much nerds like him have struggled. Maybe nerd-boys' feelings of sexual rejection, combined with living in a culture that measures manliness in terms of sexual prowess, translates to lifelong feelings of loneliness and a higher risk of depression and suicide, and maybe these feelings of inadequacy have professional as well as emotional repercussions. For all we know, male nerds could be worse off than female nerds in this regard.

Penny seems to believe that the male-skewed gender ratio in Silicon Valley is proof enough of the superior life outcomes of nerds. But that’s not fair, because successful Silicon Valley nerds are a tiny minority of all the male nerds in the world. What about nerds who don’t have a good work ethic, or simply aren’t that smart? Penny talks about how, when she tried to escape from her teenaged loneliness into the heady abstraction of science, she was met with gender discrimination. But that’s not necessarily worse than a male nerd who can’t escape into science at all, because he doesn’t have the intellect for it. 

I'm not suggesting that social scientists start asking men if they used to be nerds so we can more precisely compare the relative struggles of different demographic groups. Different groups struggle in different ways, and there’s something unseemly about arguing over who has it worse.  There are so many ways to slice privilege; it’s not a linear scale, with white males +1, gay men and women -1, black gay men and women at, I don't know, -2. Struggling is everyone’s birthright. Penny reminds Scott that he doesnt know what it’s like to put up with “structural misogyny,” but neither does Penny know what it’s like to put up with being a nerdy, bullied teenage boy (which is not the same thing as being a nerdy teenage girl, like she was). 

Ethnicity and gender don’t tell the full story when it comes to life struggles. You could be a white guy with mental health issues, a black lesbian with a trust fund and low self-esteem. You could be me: I’m 4’10", and everywhere I go, people mistake me for a child. When I’m out with a group of colleagues, all of them younger than me, some of whom I manage, I’m the only one who gets carded. Waiting in line at the butcher counter, the butcher ignores me because he doesn’t see me over the counter. Once, when I walked into the conference room to present my work, the client asked if I was the boss’s daughter. 

I assume that this bias against me has also affected me in ways I’m not aware of. This pisses me off. I’m outside the normal range for height and there’s nothing I can do about it. (Even trying to look professional is hard, since grown-up clothes don’t always come in my size!) But it’s okay, because everyone is outside the normal range for something. Right now, being a women in tech means you’re "outside the normal range" for gender in your field. That means that sometimes people assume that you work in marketing or HR, and while this is infuriating, it’s no more sexist than assuming I’m a kid is height-ist. Of course people aren’t accustomed to meeting female engineers; there simply aren’t that many of them. 

All of this is to say, maybe the whole women in tech conversation sometimes mixes up cause and effect. It’s not that gender discrimination keeps women out of tech, it’s that too few women in tech leads to gender discrimination. In other words, it’s not an ideological problem, it’s a practical one. The way to solve it is not by asking men to do more soul searching about their male privilege; it’s by working to get more women in tech through practical means like mentoring programs, exposing more kids to computer science, etc. As more women enter tech, people will get used to seeing female engineers, start-ups won’t feel like fraternities, and sexism will fade to the background on its own. 

If only my condition offered the same such hope! My only solace is that eventually I’ll reach an age when getting handed kids menus is more flattering than infuriating. Either that, or I’ll have to move to Asia.