The Pie is Rotten: Re-Evaluating Tech Feminism in 2016

If we reach our numerical goals only to look in the mirror and see all the corruption that already existed, we will have failed.

by Amy Nguyen on December 14th, 2015

Feminism is multi-faceted: to reduce it to “believing in equality for men and women” is to strip it of much of its meaningful, actionable, critical thought. We must ask ourselves which groups are helped by our advocacy and which are undermined. A feminism that upholds the toxic, oppressive practices of the tech industry and only uplifts privileged women is not one that will bring about true equality. As Bonnie Kreps explains, many feminists “do not believe that the oppression of women will be ended by giving them a bigger piece of the pie… We believe that the pie itself is rotten.”

So many of our diversity efforts in tech encourage marginalized people to seek the same positions, power, and personality traits as people in the dominant group — primarily white men. Consider what we idolize in tech culture now: the 10x engineer, the company built on exploitation, the abusive yet lucrative CEO. These are the roles and patterns we’re encouraging minorities to emulate. Instead, I argue that we should both embrace the characteristics and values that minorities bring to the table, and question the behaviors of our industry that are typically praised.

Take our recruiting practices. Studies show that employers seek to promote those who display overwhelming confidence and narcissistic tendencies, rather than those who are competent while humble. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes, “…so much of the recent debate over getting women to ‘lean in’ has focused on getting them to adopt more of these dysfunctional leadership traits. Yes, these are the people we often choose as our leaders — but should they be?” As he explains in the Harvard Business Review, women in management tend to outperform men in emotional intelligence, are more humble and considerate of their employees, and are more effective leaders in a variety of other categories. The Lean In argument focuses on encouraging women to be more like the men already in power with aphorisms like “fake it until you make it,” but why is it so bad to be realistic instead of overconfident? Why do we want minorities to assimilate into the existing corporate culture when we have evidence that that culture is neither healthy nor optimal?

On a larger scale, our diversity efforts are not improving the most important social issues in the industry. Tech’s racism will not be solved just through throwing in a few more people of color, and it certainly will not end just because white women are better represented. Adding more minorities won’t address our abusive manufacturing processes in other countries, gentrification in tech-heavy cities, or income disparity in the United States.

A cherry pie made out of Legos.

Photo CC-BY Bill Ward, filtered.

The current feminist landscape puts so much focus on getting women into positions of power, but those positions of power still serve to marginalize and harm others. We share article after article about how to get women promoted into leadership positions, but we don’t ask why women should want to lead an unethical corporation. We idolize unicorn startups making life easier for the millennial with disposable income, but we rarely ask where the startups focused on empowering marginalized people are. This isn’t the industry we should want to inherit. More privileged women can join the elite inner circle of tech, but that can hardly be considered a win when so many others are still disadvantaged.

It’s no coincidence that the people who question our values as an industry are people from minority groups. Minorities don’t have the luxury of automatically fitting the stereotypes we’ve laid out for people in tech, so they are more inclined to question whether those stereotypes are actually helpful. It’s possible for people in minority groups to try to gain status by assimilating into the existing culture – that is, playing down their otherness, behaving like white people, and avoiding the topic of diversity. But that strategy often fails to yield long-term satisfaction, as Leslie Miley discovered during his time at Twitter. After realizing the lack of support for racial minorities at Twitter, he asked, “had I unwittingly erased the importance of maintaining my blackness in a sea of white faces?” Miley got a taste of what it means to gain status in this rotten pie industry. It means a sacrifice of our values and assimilation into a culture that will never accept us. This is not something we have to stand for.

That’s why, in 2015, my appreciation goes to the people of color who have pointed out the racial homogeneity of mainstream, corporate diversity efforts. As Erica Joy pointed out, “[White women] rarely, if ever, make the decision to cede the privileges, power, or space granted to them by dint of their whiteness to a person of color.” Tech feminism, up until this past year, has largely been synonymous with white feminism. This is a holdover from the society we’ve all been raised in, but it doesn’t have to be a part of our feminism just because it’s a part of society as a whole.

A person pressing their face into a light-rimmed mirror.

Photo CC-BY Kevin Jaako.

2015 was a year of self-reflection for diversity advocates. At first, it was enough to get people to hear our message and to acknowledge that there was a gender problem at all. We’ve matured since then, and it’s time to envision the future we really want to participate in. The industry doesn’t have to become “corrupt and uncaring – but with more women!” As outsiders, we have the power to question the antiquated traditions we’ve been holding onto.

Towards the end of this year, we started to see more people criticize the harmful attitudes prevalent in the tech industry. Elea Chang criticized the way we built a work culture obsessed with a perfect employee who doesn’t exist, with their complete focus on technology as a way of life. An anonymous writer related her experience with abuse and how the technology we build enables that abuse. Another woman wrote an open letter to Facebook on how painful it is when their services dredge up the past. A study published earlier this month quantified the cost of hiring a toxic employee. And a memo from the Internet Engineering Task Force argued against the aggressive, hostile culture rampant in their community.

Tweet from user @paulg reading: "When you accuse Silicon Valley of x, you're implicitly saying x works well, which doesn't seem smart if you're against x."

Tweet source

This introspection is healthy for our industry. We’ve spent so much energy telling women to “fix themselves” to conform to the existing culture. This kind of feminism assumes that what already exists is what is best. That’s an incredibly naive perspective to take for an industry that prides itself on being innovative and disruptive. It might be easier to just accept that it’s fine for marginalized people to become as toxic and greedy and selfish as their oppressors, but I don’t want to be a part of that future. If we reach our numerical goals only to look in the mirror and see all the corruption that already existed, we will have failed.

Looking forward to 2016 and beyond, I want intersectional feminism to become a major theme. It should no longer be enough to say that we need more women. It should no longer even be enough to say that we need more women and people of color. Our time, thoughts, and money should not go to token efforts for encouraging marginalized people to take on the toxic behaviors and attitudes that permeate the majority.

Rather than focusing solely on increasing diversity numbers, we also need to take a long, hard look at the practices and behaviors we promote. We can have a more sensitive, empathetic, and intersectional industry… as long as we are thoughtful in our efforts now. Social justice is not achieved when we get an equal share of the pie: the pie is rotten, and we should aspire to be better.