According to the New York Times, the world of computer engineering is a sexist one, where women are disparaged and made to feel like pariahs. The Times tells the story of Elissa Shevinsky, 35, who was outraged because her business partner in a start-up called Glimpse Labs defended a sexist demonstration on the live stream of the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon last September.
In the demonstration, two young Australian men, David Boulton and Jethro Batts, stood behind the podium selling their product, while photos of woman’s chests were shown on a screen behind them. Boulton said, “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” and was followed by Batts joking, “This is the breast hack ever.” The next day, Pax Dickinson, her business partner and the chief technology officer of the news site Business Insider, defended the Australian duo from the numerous attacks on twitter. Dickinson tweeted, “It is not misogyny to tell a sexist joke, or to fail to take a woman seriously, or to enjoy boobies.” Dickinson was forced to resign by Business Insider two days later.
Shevinsky had noted that Dickinson had tweeted other sexist remarks, including “Women’s suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. How’s that for an unpopular truth?” A few days after his defense of the Australian duo, she quit. She said later, “For years, all I wanted to do was work and code and make software. That’s why I didn’t care about feminism. I just wanted to build stuff. But Titstare showed me that was no longer a viable option. We had to address our culture, because something was really not working.”
Later in the fall, flying back with Shevinsky from a tech conference, Dickinson wrote her an apology, writing, “It was a lapse in judgment and I’m entirely responsible for that. I sincerely and unreservedly apologize to anyone I offended.” Shevinsky noted, “The biggest thing was Pax realizing he was a public figure and the responsibilities that came with that. He wrote the apology letter, and it was very genuine and moving and impactful for me.” Mr. Dickinson even published the letter in the tech blog VentureBeat. Shevinsky returned to Glimpse at the end of the year with the proviso that she would be the chief executive and the public face of the company, any public comment by Dickinson would go through her, and the company would amend its mission statement to support the hiring of women.
The Times notes that 525 of female computer engineers leave by mid-career, and postulates that the reason is a sexist, alpha-male culture. Ashe Dryden, a female engineer, stated:
It’s a thousand tiny paper cuts. I’ve been a programmer for 13 years, and I’ve always been one of the only women and queer people in the room. I’ve been harassed, I’ve had people make suggestive comments to me, I’ve had people basically dismiss my expertise. I’ve gotten rape and death threats just for speaking out about this stuff. A lot of times that makes me want to leave. But it’s hard, because this is basically the only field that I’ve ever known. And is it right for me to have to leave when I’m not creating the problem?
Lauren Weinstein, a male engineer for Google, concurred, saying,
We see these stories, “Why aren’t there more women in computer science and engineering?” and there’s all these complicated answers like, “School advisers don’t have them take math and physics,” and it’s probably true. But I think there’s probably a simpler reason, which is these guys are just jerks, and women know it.
Larry Page, the chief executive of Google, said hiring women is quite important: “If we do that, there’s no question we’ll more than double the rate of technology output in the world.” Less than 20% of Google’s engineers are female. The Labor Department says only 20% of software developers are women.
Julie Horvath, who worked at GitHub, and was the only female developer when she started, said, “It’s just unprofessional. Tech needs to grow up in a lot of ways.” One time, a code she wrote disappeared because a man ripped it out. She commented, “It makes a hostile environment for me. But I don’t want to raise my hand and call negative attention toward myself, and become the woman who is the problem — ‘that woman.’ In start-up culture they protect their own tribe, so by putting my hand up, I’m saying I’m an ‘other,’ I shouldn’t be there, so for me that’s an economic threat.” She wound up quitting.
Ephrat Bitton, the director of algorithms at FutureAdvisor, echoed, “It’s a boys’ club, and you have to try to get into it, and they’re trying as hard as they can to prove you can’t.” “I’ve been doing this 10 years, and myself and everyone I’ve spoken to who’s a female developer has had an amazing experience in the developer community.”
Yet Sara Chipps, chief technology officer of the Flatiron School, a coding school, mildly disagreed, She said, “People should say something if something bad happens, but I also want people to know that doesn’t have to be the case.”