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For Women in Tech, Sexual Harassment Is Part of the Job

New data shows that 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley have experienced sexual harassment. We spoke with an industry insider to understand why gender inequity is rampant in tech.

Diana Tourjée

Diana Tourjée

Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

A recent report finds that 60 percent of women working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley have experienced sexual harassment. A staggering 90 percent of the women interviewed in the study, which was titled Elephant in the Valley, reportedly "witnessed sexist behavior at company offsites and/or industry conferences." In other cases, the sexism women face was less direct: For instance, 88 percent of respondents said they'd had clients or colleagues direct a question to a male peer when the question should have been directed to them.

Women comprise a disproportionately small number of tech jobs, and that number is shrinking. In early 2015, The Huffington Post reported on a study by the American Association of University Women, which shows that the "percentage of computing jobs held by women has actually fallen over the past 23 years." When we compare this with the continued reports of inequity and harassment in the tech industry, it seems clear that the tech world—like many male-dominated industries—is rife with sexism.

The fact that men make up the majority of tech doesn't reflect women's ability and interest in the industry. Amelie is a cybersecurity professional for the federal government; she formerly worked for a multinational entertainment conglomerate. As a trans woman, she has a unique perspective on the gender dynamics in the tech industry.

As female, yes, my voice is often spoken over.

Ever since she transitioned from male to female, Amelie says that she noticed a marked difference in the way her colleagues behave toward her. "I've been told that I'm too aggressive and intimidating, and this is by men," she explains, adding that the criticism is ironic. Her male colleagues are themselves exceedingly aggressive, she notes. Amelie is a senior staffer, and yet she finds that she's the one asked to take sandwich orders, make copies, and take notes during small group projects—tasks typically designated to lower level individuals.

"As female, yes, my voice is often spoken over," she says, explaining that men will purposefully ignore her. She's also experienced male coworkers who "mansplained a topic [that] I'm actually an expert in." That occured in a meeting just last week, she says.

Despite there being just a handful of women leaders in the tech industry, "little is done to foster and develop females, namely because there's little to no role models or mentoring," Amelie explains. "When you go to panels on gender diversity in federal leadership, it's always the same four or five folks, as if there aren't any others." At two hacker conventions this year, Blackhat and DefCon, she says, special requests were made for diverse speakers and papers, but the selection panels oddly rejected the majority of proposals by women and LGBT people. "A number of us flooded [them] with ideas, [but] all of them were struck down."

"There were heavily allegations of sexism on the selection panel," Amelie says. "Once speakers were announced I did a 'back of napkin' analysis of how many women were on or led talks, and it was, like, 10 percent."

Sexist jokes and attitudes in the workplace get a pass because there's no critical mass in the other direction trying to correct it.

To explain how the tech industry has become inundated with men, Amelie draws a line back in time and into academia. She attended one of the top tech and Computer Engineering (CE) universities in the United States. "There were less than 6 women in the freshman class for CE," Amelie says. This, she explains, is an aspect of systemic sexism, which ultimately discourages and prevents women from mastering technology fields en masse. "In a formal education sense, women are not exactly welcome, or made to feel welcome, in those degrees." Most of the professors, of course, are all men, Amelie explains. "In fact, none of my CS or CE professors were women." This directly translates to the workforce, where men dominate the jobs.

"You can be at a job for 30 years," she says. "Keep loading that environment with over 75 percent men [and], over time, the stats will never change and the attrition rate will be the same." According to Amelie, the industry is infested with sexism, both because it reflects a gender disparity in a larger cultural sense and because of "majority rule." If one group significantly overwhelms another, then a culture that favors the majority is likely to be considered acceptable and normal even if—as in the case of the tech industry—the conditions are openly grim and abusive. "Sexist jokes and attitudes in the workplace get a pass because there's no critical mass in the other direction trying to correct it."

Not only is it a woman's right to be free of sexual harassment at work, it is ultimately in the tech industry's best interest to eradicate male supremacy. "The female decision making process should be valued in tech," Amelie says. "It supports inclusion and diversity, which leads to better solutions, tech or otherwise."