Women and minorities in tech have a special responsibility. In an industry built by and for men—in which only 26 percent of jobs are held by women—pattern recognition plays a strong role. The face of tech entrepreneurship and of computing is, it seems, pale-skinned, beady-eyed, and male. On top of 14-hour days composing code, minorities in tech are otherwise employed as demographic icons. In that capacity, they often must defend their identity against an culturally-sanctioned exclusivity. That job never pays.
Why suffer the indignity of being systemically undervalued, underpaid, and underestimated when you can, instead, gracefully opt out?
It's hard to be a feminist in tech, as countless horse-beating articles have confirmed over the last few years. It can feel like you're ride-or-die with women or you're just another complicit brogrammer. Potential whistleblowers weigh being tolerant of abuse or out of a job. Harassment happens, startlingly often and unprovoked, and it can feel it comes with the territory of tech jobs—just like a signed contract and a fridge stuffed with craft beer. "Lean in" all you like, but in an industry where women largely lack the structural support to remain happy and healthy, there's an underrated third option: "leaning out."Elissa Shevinsky, editor of Lean Out (O/R books, out 9/3/2015), did not used to care about feminism. There was a time when, she admits, she just wanted to code all day and, afterward, down Scotch with her (mostly male) colleagues. Shevinsky garnered attention after 2013's TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon when two Australian men debuted Titstare, which, as founder David Boulton explained, "is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits." (A month earlier at DefCon, "Hacker Jeopardy," as it always did, showcased a stripper named "Vinyl Vanna," who would remove clothes as the crowd chanted correct jeopardy answers.) Shevinsky was horrified, but Pax Dickinson, her business partner at startup Glimpse Labs was not: "It's not misogyny," the aptly-named Dickinson tweeted, "to tell a sexist joke, or to fail to take a woman seriously, or to enjoy boobies." Shevinsky quit Glimpse.
In Lean Out, current and former techies argue that blame shouldn't be placed on them for not measuring up, or for dipping out of a toxic work environment. Studies show that girls and boys from a young age don't differ in an aptitude for math; girls, because of a variety of social pressures, "lack self-confidence" in those fields. Those who do blossom into hackers and entrepreneurs are inundated with stories about rape threats, workplace sexual harassment and unequal pay. A staggering 72 percent of women in tech feel their performance evaluations are biased. Say you pursue the dream and make it to CEO. Good luck—female-headed companies receive only 3% of venture capital funding. These women are often caught in the crosshairs of opposing forces: feminism and misogyny, success and failure.
Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can't breathe, saying 'Lean in, canary. Lean in!' When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.
"If I could take every nervous breakdown [I had] and stack them up," she writes in her Lean Out essay "But What If It's Killing You?", "I would build letters a mile high that say 'THEY DON'T DESERVE YOU.'"In Lean Out , anthropy calls for an end to passion: passion that pushes malnourished bodies through "crunch time," demands continued work when the boys are out drinking, and worst, begs for silence in the face of misogyny. Passion rockets you to the top, but it can also keep you there for far longer than is healthy."But anna," she asks herself, "what if that's just giving them what they want?" Half of women in technology, science or engineering leave because of hostile workplace environments - twice that of men. There's a even term for this: the "leaky pipeline," or the tendency for discrimination and harassment to force women out of STEM fields. The number of female computer science majors has actually decreased by 19 percent since the mid-80s.
There's no shame in taking your hand off of something poison.
In Lean Out, Joy composed 11 bullet-points detailing why being a black woman in corporate tech was not working for her. Items like "I feel like my presence makes others uncomfortable" and "I feel like I have to walk a tightrope to avoid reinforcing stereotypes while still being heard" are clearly disconcerting. But Joy suffered even more steadfast ghosts attached to her identity in a tech context: "I feel a constant low level of stress every day, just by virtue of existing in my environment," she says. "I feel like I've lost my entire cultural identity." After a few years, Joy acquired heart problems. Acne, too.In 2011, CNN filed Freedom of Information requests probing America's most prominent tech companies for their diversity data. For Dell, Ingram Micro, Intel, Ebay and Cisco, the only companies that abided, the highest number of black women in managerial positions was one. Apple, IBM, Google, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard stonewalled requests for data with written petitions (many have since increased transparency). There is even a reality show in development about black women in tech. Tellingly, it seems that the program is based around the same stereotypes that haunted Joy: "Are you known in your industry for your over-the-top personality and unconventional approach to business?" the show's producer asked startup founder and developer Kathryn Finney.
I feel a constant low level of stress every day, just by virtue of existing in my environment.
Joy peaced out. Hack the Hood, Black Girls Code, and other justice-minded tech organizations are now benefitting from her tech savviness. She's currently in the process of regenerating parts of herself that the tech industry snatched from her."This seat comes at what cost?" Krys Freeman, entrepreneur and Lean Out contributor, questions. "Does that seat require our silence and deference, in exchange for validation of 'cultural fit?'"Not all tech companies are rife with misogyny. Not all tech employees are misogynists. "Leaning out" worked for many of the book's contributors, but others are still diligently cutting their teeth on the industry to pave the way for more women entering the field. Although only 4.2 percent of investing VCs are women, female-led venture firms are over 50 percent more likely than male-led ones to invest in startups with lady execs. Likewise, female-led initiatives like Lesbians Who Tech and Girls Who Tech are cultivating safe environments for minorities to develop marketable skills in tech.There is movement toward organizing a mafia of disenfranchised folk in tech. The fact is that, the more minorities enter the field, the more minorities are in the field. The more minorities in the field, the more who enter. "Leaning out" can immediately benefit those who will no longer tolerate being both a demographic emblem and a tireless, silent workhorse in tech. But those who accept the heightened responsibility will be the ones to explode the white, male pattern recognition that pushes women away and out.FAKEGRIMLOCK, the most famous robot dinosaur on the internet and Lean Out's opening essayist, begins the book with a firm message apparently addressing its contributors: "IF YOU LET SOMEONE ELSE BUILD TOMORROW, TOMORROW WILL BELONG TO SOMEONE ELSE. THEY WILL BUILD A BETTER TOMORROW FOR EVERYONE LIKE THEM."
This seat comes at what cost? Does that seat require our silence and deference?