Northern Sprites: The real problem with women in tech

By Sean Willett

Women are vastly underrepresented in the tech industry, making up only about 25 per cent of the information and communications technology employees in Canada — even though over half of the country’s workforce are women. This disparity has been noted by The Chic Geek, a new Calgarian organization that aims to increase the number of women in the tech industry.

While this in itself is a noble goal, one of the ways The Chic Geek is aiming to attract more women to the tech industry is a little off the mark. According to its website, one of the problems the organization hopes to address is the way tech startups are perceived as “nerdy” as well as “difficult, complex and uncool.” The Chic Geek claims this reputation keeps women away from the tech industry, and that removing this stigma is an important step to encouraging more women to enter ICT jobs.

The problem with this attitude is that it places the blame for the lack of diversity in the tech industry onto women. Tech jobs are often seen as difficult and complex for a very good reason: they most often require years of higher education and practical experience to handle, which would be a daunting prospect to both men and women. Assuming that women are choosing not to enter this field because the work is challenging — or even worse, because it is “uncool” — is both insulting and rather nonsensical, since there are plenty of women in other fields traditionally viewed as difficult. A significantly larger proportion of scientists, doctors and lawyers are women, even though all of these professions are generally considered to be quite challenging.

Rather than blaming women for the tech industry’s lack of diversity, The Chic Geek should be taking a critical look at the tech industry itself. Sexism has long run rampant in the tech community, creating a male-dominated environment where women are either unwelcome or unappreciated. Examples of this misogyny surface at an alarmingly regular rate — one only needs to look at the endless list of tech companies that use exclusively male pronouns in job postings, which are featured on the blog Tech Companies That Only Hire Men, or the amount of rape threats and hate speech that was directed at software developer Adria Richards for what has been known as ‘Donglegate.’ During this incident, Richards was violently harassed by thousands of people over the Internet after publicly complaining on Twitter about a sexist joke she overheard at a tech conference.

This attitude also extends into higher education, where women are often discouraged from taking tech-related degrees due to both prevailing cultural attitudes about which programs women are expected to take and the exclusionary ‘brogrammer’ culture that is fostered within such communities. If there is a stigma surrounding the tech industry that is keeping women away it isn’t that ICT jobs are “uncool’ or “difficult” as The Chic Geek claims. Rather, it would be the the hostile and unfriendly environment associated with these careers.

The Chic Geek has its heart in the right place, and many of its events — such as programming workshops and film screenings — will almost certainly benefit Calgarian women interested in the tech industry. But in order to really make a change, this organization needs to shift its focus. The real problem is not that women don’t want to get into the tech industry — the problem is that the tech industry doesn’t want women.

Northern Sprites is a bi-monthly column looking at video games and technology in Canada.

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