Oh, women in tech are subject to sexism, they just don’t tell you

In January of this year, an explosive report hit the deck: Elephant in the Valley, an evaluation of gendered problems in the technology industry, drawing upon the input of women in tech to develop a better idea of their experiences in the workplace. We know of high profile cases of harassment and their results, and we know about anecdotal reporting, but what’s it really like for 15 percent of the tech industry? What happens behind closed doors, in research labs, at all hands meetings? The results of the study were extensive, and for women, they weren’t terribly surprising.

Roughly 200 women participated in the study, and some of the key findings were pretty stark:

  • 70 percent were explicitly asked about marital and family status in their interviews, which is illegal
  • Over 80 percent were told they were ‘too aggressive,’ often on multiple occasions
  • Two thirds reported that they felt excluded from events, including social activities and networking opportunities, because of their gender
  • 60 percent said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances — and in two thirds of those cases, the person responsible was a supervisor
  • 30 percent didn’t feel safe at work
  • 90 percent witnessed sexist behaviors at work, conferences, and social settings
  • Almost half said they’d been given low-level tasks that were never assigned to men at the same skill and seniority level

Women in tech are all nodding their heads, as are those who have been covering the tech industry for years. This information, while depressing, is not new or surprising — every single woman in tech I’ve ever interviewed has reported gendered treatment and has said the same of her colleagues. Many have reported additional issues like racism and transphobia on the job that have contributed to their sense of discomfort at work. Tech is not a safe place for women, even in companies that pride themselves on progressivism.

Men seemed genuinely surprised by the findings, and that’s also reflective of what’s happening in tech. When I’ve discussed these issues with men, many have been resistant and sometimes hostile — some have even dismissively commented that none of the women they know have told them about incidents like these, that they’ve never been called out on sexism, or that they’ve never witnessed it, so it doesn’t happen. It really doesn’t occur to them that sexism is often invisible, or that women don’t feel safe or comfortable reporting it, something borne out in the results of the study as well.

  • 70 percent of women who reported harassment said they didn’t do anything about it because they were afraid of being penalised for it
  • Of those who did report, 60 percent weren’t satisfied with the outcome
  • Nearly 30 percent had signed non-disparagement agreements, which forbid them from speaking out publicly about problems at their companies, making it nearly impossible to tell which companies are and aren’t safe for women without knowing who to talk to and how to bring the issue up
  • Half cut down on family leave and conversations about their families because they feared it might affect their careers

Women in tech experience systemic discrimination and it’s heavily invisibilised because of the endless cycle of sexism. They don’t want to talk about sexism for fear of being targeted for it, which means it’s a silent subject in the workplace, which means there’s little substantive movement on it, despite the efforts of women across the industry who are taking on a variety of issues surrounding their treatment by male colleagues, supervisors, and cohorts. Women have spoken out about harassment at conferences, not being listened to in meetings, being harassed by supervisors, disrespect in social settings, and so much more, and no one has paid attention.

Many men in tech are perfectly reasonable people who believe at least on some level in gender equality and they would undoubtedly be upset to hear that women feel unsafe or incapable of reporting sexism — though those who interact with women might want to consider the incredibly high statistics reported for things like making disparaging comments about women, because there’s a high probability they’re engaging in problem behaviours too. However, men in tech aren’t paying attention to women, taking cues from women, or taking the initiative to make their workplaces better, whether that’s shutting down sexist comments, building up mentoring programmes for women, equalising hiring practices, being transparent about salaries, or taking other steps to explicitly welcome and support women.

They might, however, want to start by not denying that this is a serious problem. It’s not just shrill feminist harpies who are saying that discrimination on the basis of sex and hostility towards women are problems in tech. It’s women from all paths of life and all range of experiences. It’s the woman who keeps her face politely controlled at a meeting while people speak over her even though it’s her project and she’s actually the expert. It’s the programmer who patiently performs tasks that a lower-level employee should be doing, wasting her valuable time and experience. It’s the developer who’s sent to fetch coffee ‘real quick’ for a meeting. It’s the woman who says nothing when people make derisive comments about women, because she doesn’t want to be labeled difficult or oversensitive. It’s the women who cry in bathrooms after being sexually assaulted by supervisors, knowing that they can’t report it. It’s the women who weigh the risks of reporting against the knowledge that a serial abuser might go on to hurt other people in the office.

Sexism. In. Tech. Is. A. Problem.

Maybe it’s not visible to those in positions of gendered privilege, but they should start looking for it.

Image: Asian Development Bank, Flickr