On how to get more Women in Tech or, why Language and Power is still worth thinking about

Sometime last week the video of my ignite talk went live on youtube. It’s had over 21.000 views at the time of me writing this, been shared by the likes of Gina Trapani, Anil Dash and Guy Kawasaki. I’ve even been congratulated once on my TED talk. But most importantly, it’s sparked a lot of debate.

Ignite talks are tough - it’s an incredibly rigid format which forces the speaker to concentrate an argument, each point or collection of points pinned to a series of fifteen second slides. There is no room for lengthy explanations, it’s a fast paced show-and-tell aimed at getting people thinking. Going into it I felt a little uncomfortable, knowing that there were elements of the argument that I left out. However I also had to know my audience, a few of whom are immersed in current discourse about gender, but most of whom are not.

One critique was my “definition” of women. It was by no means a philosophical definition on womanhood but a snappy way to denote physical and societal maturity in a single slide that would hopefully make people laugh and get them listening. Menstruating and paying taxes was not meant to exclude those who define themselves as women but don’t menstruate, or as I’ve learned, don’t pay taxes (many students in European countries don’t pay taxes). A more important point in my talk was that “You define the woman that you are” - I hope that that was a bigger takeaway. I’d like to apologise to anyone who felt slighted.

On Gina Patrani’s G+ page, one comment stood out. John Jainschigg wrote:

"I’m missing, I guess, a sense of where that transgressive reappropriation got forgotten (along with the whole terminology question and its long history … or herstory … grin) and we came back around to the non-reappropriative first use, with all its negatives. Could an entire generation or two of young women have lost the thread of where we actually are with this stuff?"

I’m missing that too. If I felt as though “girl” was being widely used as to challenge patriarchic power structures I would have never done this talk.

I am bewildered at the number of women who don’t consider themselves feminists, deny the existence of the glass ceiling, such as Sheryl Sandberg and others who claim that discussing sexism diverts from the fact “that we’re just all people” and from “doing a good job” (not quotes from Sandberg but from many discussions that I’ve had). The myth of the level playing-field stems in part I would suggest from the neo-libertarianism that the tech world is awash with, a mindset that lauds the exceedingly problematic Ayn Rand and has an unwavering belief in the existence of a true meritocracy. I understand feminism as an inclusive movement with a broad spectrum of beliefs and tactics that can be used to create an equal society. Just because you disagree with one feminist doesn’t mean that you aren’t one. Yet today many women I meet, especially those working on the business side of tech, refuse to call themselves feminists (even though they wholeheartedly support getting more women in tech), equating the movement with unproductive whining and unfairness.

Yet there is no denying the salary gap between women and men, the harassment women face online chronicled by Sady Doyle with #MenCallMeThings as well as in the workplace and at conferences, leading to Tim O’Reilly having to explicitly state that sexual harassment at tech conferences is “a big No-No.” Seriously? My work recently hosted a party for a tech event and one of our team was actually asked by a visitor from another company “Where the bitches at?” (Our team member now knows to answer that statement in future with: “where they should be, far away from you”) Despite these blaring examples of inequality, it seems that many of the people working in tech think that we exist in a utopian meritocracy and that “just doing a good job” is somehow an adequate defence for women against earning less, harassment and assault.

Today the word ‘girl’ feels a long way away from Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl. For me the Spice Girls’ appropriation of “girl power” was the zenith of the commodification that robbed the cause of young female emancipation from the world of the righteous ass-kicking of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and sent it off to the realm of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a cinematic trope created to serve the needs of the male hero) incidentally, whose outfit you can buy at Hot Topic, for only $24.99, just kidding, sort of. Like pornography, you know “the revolutionary use of the word girl” when you see it. And in most contexts, I don’t see it very often any more.

The debate surrounding calling yourself a woman, while a hallmark of second-wave feminism, is still relevant today. A lot of the women who I’ve personally spoken to about the issue (before and after the video went live) told me that they’ve never thought about the meaning of ‘girl’ or ‘woman’, or even gender equality, before. Some women have told me that calling themselves a woman feels like feminism, which they don’t believe in. Many women have said they call themselves girl because calling themselves a woman feels strange. What on earth has happened in our society to make woman a word that makes people uncomfortable? While I find it incredibly depressing that many women choose not to call themselves feminists, refusing to call yourself something which you undoubtably are because it makes you uncomfortable terrifies me. Feminism may have been horrifically obfuscated, but I’ll be damned if we lose woman too.

I’d like to be clear that I don’t blame women who call themselves a girl in the workplace - I wonder if they’ve ever had the chance to think about the issue or are free to call themselves how they choose? If women disagree with me and don’t find the word ‘girl’ (without the intent to invert power structures) problematic, that’s their choice and they should not be condemned. Additionally, Geek Girl events are important regardless of the feminist views of the individual organisers; they create spaces for women to congregate, share knowledge and a build a supportive community. I wish they had a different name, but the events themselves, their leaders and their output should not be derided, but supported.

In Germany, there was a discussion about my talk on feminist blog Maedchenmannschaft. The writer felt that it totally ignored attempts to use ‘girl’ in an emancipatory fashion and that I am blaming the victims of sexism and homophobia. I hope this post makes it clear that that was not my intention - it was my goal to get people thinking about language and power, a discussion that isn’t ever present in the wider tech community, a community that where as I’ve discussed many assume equality just already exists. One comment hit the nail on the head - I’ve done my best to translate the end of it, though if you speak German I encourage you to read the whole comment and the surrounding discussion:

Thinkpunk wrote:

"The video makes it clear that calling yourself one thing doesn’t automatically make it a label which others may call you. This is pretty basic stuff for feminists and people who have studied similar topics, however for people who haven’t had that privilege, it’s a demanding concept. …. I would like it if the world was critical of (hetero/cis)sexism… Our reality is different and we therefore sometimes need strategic discussions and suggestions for action that reduce the complexity of the issue."

If tech is going to truly become a meritocracy, women and other minorities will have to take the lead. Being cognisant of the connection between language and power is by no means a sufficient or ultimate answer, but it’s something that anyone contemplating positive social change must consider in order to have any chance of effecting any. I hope that I was able to introduce new ideas to people watching the talk and inspire some to think more critically about how they define and value themselves, others and their communities. At the very least, it’s got people talking.