The Year Tech Admitted It Had a Gender Problem

Diversity statistics to Silicon Valley scandals: This year there was no denying the tech world’s problem with women.

Dec 26 2014, 3:00pm

​Image: ​hjl/Flickr

From statistics to scandals and hacks to harassment, 2014 offered a clearer glimpse than ever into the misogynistic undercurrents that bubble beneath various aspects of the tech world. Whether in Silicon Valley offices or hashtag-coordinated Twitter communities, it became indisputable: tech has a gender issue.

Several tech giants released diversity reports for the first time this year, proving with statistics that men held a major privilege at tech companies. The percentage of female employees at Goo​gleA​ppleTwi​tter, and Facebo​ok was about 30, worldwide—and even fewer are actually employed in actual tech jobs (ranging from 10 percent at Twitter to 20 percent at Apple).

Lin​kedIn and Ya​hoo fared slightly better. There, women respectively make up 39 and 37 percent of overall global employees, though they still comprised less than 20 percent of those actually working in tech. Ethnic diversity was also severely lacking, with white employees in the majority at each workplace.

But getting the job isn't the only barrier. We already knew about the pay gap (though Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella seemed to forg​et this for a brief moment)—and a few individual incidents this year highlighted frictions between men and women working in the male-dominated sector.

In March, GitHub developer Julie Ann Horvath left the company with allegations of a sexist culture and other complaints; after an investigation, founder Tom Pr​eston-Werner resigned. In June, Tinder's former vice president for marketing Whitney Wolfe—originally a co-founder—sued her former peers for sexual harassment with a slew of allegations; the case was settled in​ September.

If the whole scene seemed, at the very least, rather frat party-ish, that's probably about right: In another incident earlier this year, Vall​eywag unearthed a bunch of emails from Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel's college days where he was apparently all about "fucking bitches" and getting "leid." At least he acknowledged that he was a ​jerk.

Don't even get me started on taxi app company Uber ("Boob-er" to its ​CEO), whose executive Emil Michael recently sugges​ted digging up private information on a female journalist who dared write a column about misogyny at the company.

Could it be that, like taking the first stride in a 12-step recovery program, the tech world is recognising that it has a problem?

But you don't have to work in the tech industry to be effected; there's plenty of misogyny to go around. Just look at some of the year's social media viral hits. We had #NotAllMen, which resurged to variously collate and mock this unhelpful response in relation to the Isla Vista shootings, #Shirtgate, in which one woman's tweet about a scientist's shirt spi​ralled into an almighty furore over women in science, and of course the sexism-fuelled sprawl that was #Gamergate. That last one got particularly out of control, with female game developers and critics harassed, doxed, and threatened with terror ​attacks.

Indeed, this year saw a certain kind of online attack become synonymous with slut-shaming—the start of Gamergate controversy in August focused heavily on the alleged sexual exploits of game developer Zoe Quinn. The same month saw the leak of hundreds of pri​vate nude photos of mainly female celebrities, colloquially dubbed "the fappening."

As recently as this month, an online account associating itself with hacker collective Anonymous threatened to le​ak explicit photos of rapper Iggy Azalea after she'd had a Twitter feud with Azealia Banks.

I'm straining with effort not to roll my eyes at every incident I include here, but if we're being really charitable—it is Christmas, after all—maybe this year's gender scandals can offer some distant glimmer of hope. By making headlines, these incidents have raised awareness of the barriers women face in the tech world, whether they're actively part of the scene or just regular digital citizens.

In releasing their dismal diversity stats, tech companies at least acknowledged a need to change. In making their specific complaints public, female employees brought real voices to an often unspoken male-dominated culture. I won't say Gamergaters helped anything, but the attention around the controversy finally made undeniable what many already knew: in so many places, women aren't welcom​e online.

Could it be that, like taking the first stride in a 12-step recovery program, the tech world is officially recognising that it has a problem?

Unfortunately the analogy doesn't stretch much further, because no greater power is going to help level the playing field and build solutions. That one's on us.