Why TechCrunch Should Write Articles About Women [part 1]by samgimbel on 01/12/2012
[Author's note]: I wrote this post just as this story broke. I feel very strongly that it is still a relevant topic, and I will make good on my promise to build this into a multi-part series.
This is part one of a longer series on the technology industry’s (and specifically start ups) attitude towards women.
To dedicated readers of any periodical publication, nothing is more frustrating than feeling like the writers have abandoned you by writing about things that don’t seem to matter. And when a publication with as much popularity as TechCrunch frustrates its audience, you had better expect some backlash.
Such was the case a month ago when one Penelope Trunk had her article “Stop Telling Women To Do Startups” selected for publication as a contributor. She was swiftly rebuffed by Alexia Tsotsis’ (staff writer at TechCrunch) article titled “Stop Telling Women Not To Do Startups.” The former, which details the annoyance Trunk feels at the emphasis put on forcing women into the male-dominated field of tech startups (her main reason: women choose to stay home with their children), was utter drivel. But that’s not the point. There was some measured debate in the comments regarding the validity of her points, as well as the usual irrelevant YouTube-style personal attacks. On the other hand, Tsotsis’ article, a somewhat rant-y call-to-action for women to disprove Trunk’s thesis, featured a multitude of confusing and damning comments regarding the relevance of the article to the audience of TechCrunch. These ran the gamut from “Can TechCrunch please go back to reporting tech news?” to the much more pointed “Way to miss the point of the original article!” Neither article was particularly outstanding as a piece of tech coverage, but together they highlight an important point: despite their presence and the categorical inequity extended to them, most people don’t think that the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry is worth talking about.
Why so many TechCrunch readers found the article to be off-topic was confusing considering the complexity of the issue itself, but perhaps not so confusing considering the average reader of TechCrunch. Most participants in the start up community are male, and most of them are doing really damn well due to the smashing economic success all of us in the industry have enjoyed over the last few years. Unbeknownst to these readers and aided by the fact that TechCrunch does not frequently report on it, there are many people to whom tech is off limits due to such choices as having children, being not white, or being not male. Shoot, even the “self-made” heroes of tech were almost overwhelmingly white, middle class men. (See: Apple, Microsoft, Fairchild, Intel, Google, Facebook, GroupMe, and yes, my own company, Hashable).
But these commenters are also partially correct in their annoyance. Because the tech industry IS so overwhelmingly white and male, there is little discussion and even less advocacy regarding the underemployment of women and people of color in the sector. It’s a very simple power structure to understand, and one that has repeated itself throughout history (see: all religions, all national-level politics, modern warfare, The Cult of Domesticity, etc.). To put it bluntly, male leaders feel secure in their power and their bias towards others who hold similar power (also male) and thus feel little incentive or necessity to cede power to those who do not have it.
The most effective tool of this power structure in modern years has been the myth of meritocracy. It goes like this: if a population is downtrodden, unsuccessful, riddled with crime or malnutrition or poor education/cultural values, then as a whole they don’t work hard enough to rise above their situation. In the case of start ups, meritocracy manifests itself with some specific talking points: if you aren’t a founder or can’t find a job in the industry then you are not working hard enough and therefore do not deserve to be in this world. The attitude of most people in the industry is much less explicitly exclusionary, but those are nuances to be discussed in depth in a later article.
There are a lot of major problems with this view, number one among them being that “merit” is always defined by those in power. And if you believe you got to your place of power through exercising said merit, why would you try to define it in a way that included others at your expense? We’ll look at this in more depth in another article, but suffice it to say that this is a potent philosophy when applied to a booming economy such as that of the tech industry.
So when Trunk stated that Business As Usual is A-OK in her Certified Female view, the community took it as an affirmation of their industry-disrupting abilities and nothing more. The boat was not rocked. However, when Tsotsis took a swing at Trunk for speaking for her entire gender, the response was much more hostile and overwhelmingly negative, especially amongst male commenters. The perspective highlighted by Trunk and these commenters is overtly hostile to all women interested in tech, and it’s time that male allies spoke out on their behalf as well. With that premise, I’d like to begin my discussion of women in technology. It’s going to take multiple posts, and it will be educational. Sorry about that.
Let’s start with some numbers. In 2009, the number of tech start ups majority-owned by women was 8% of the total. This is in comparison to 40% of all companies in the U.S. Keep in mind that women represent 54% of the population of the nation (stats from ncwt.org). Similarly, only 5% of the most active Venture Capital firms had any female partners. Of the newest 50 VC firms, 10% had female partners. However, these two categories overlap only in a minority of cases. In the case of large hackathon events like TechCrunch Disrupt, the vast, vast majority of speakers (we’re talking orders of magnitude) are men. And all of this makes a little more sense when graduation rates are examined, as for the past 9 years as tech was booming more than 70% of computer science/IT graduates were men.
So here we are in a world where women are represented in lower ratios than made available by our education system, and well-respected bloggers like Michael Arrington are getting away with articles titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men.” Arrington is no stranger to controversy, of course, but frankly I’m surprised we let this one slide. To her credit, Rachel Sklar, founder of Change The Ratio, did respond, but there was little lasting reaction to his comments. It’s no wonder the TechCrunch commenters were confused–their favorite writers are products of a system that has very little to do with women, and they expect everyone in the industry to have arrived in the same mythical way, through pure merit and hard work. The result is a situation in which women are rarely seen in tech and their absence is rationalized as a natural effect of their choices or lack of proper motivation.
This is not a situation that can continue. In the following parts of this series I will examine the ways in which women and other underrepresented populations are categorically denied access to the resources they need to compete effectively in the heady world of technology start ups. Because talk without action is akin to a virgin daiquiri at happy hour, I will also make damn sure to give strategies and talking points to all those male allies out there. Women, like men, children, and all the other wonderful types of people out there, are supremely relevant to our lives. And who knows, perhaps 2012 will be the year that tech itself gets disrupted.