So I’ve been mulling over how to respond to Astra and Joanne’s piece in the Baffler called “The Dads of Tech.” I live in that very world of tech punditry the sexism of which is called out, and I think highly of Astra and her work, and I co-write with Joanne who I also like, so you’d think I’d find myself agreeing more and applauding the piece.
Instead, the piece bothered me at many levels and I pondered what to do. I communicated privately with Astra, but I wanted to share what bothered me in broad terms.
First, I disagree with the "master's tools will never dismantle the master’s house" framing as interpreted broadly. It’s poetic but it is false. Historically, all progress has been made as a combination of insider and outsider pressure. Besides, almost anything can be portrayed as a master’s tool since all struggle takes place in this world hence everything we use is of this world.
Second, more importantly, I vehemently object to portraying Clay’s “rant” telling women to be more assertive as a sexist, patriarchal move. As a teacher, I constantly encounter women who are truly and vastly underselling themselves, misrepresenting their talents, stepping down when they should step up in a sea of (partially) patriarchy-induced insecurity. I think it is a fundamentally human--and anti-sexist--reaction to want to say that women can and should stop selling themselves so short and speak up more about their capabilities. I would not necessarily put it in Clay's wording (which I agree was a little gyrating) but it is impossible to be a professor in a university and not be reduced to real frustration over this.
Just recently, I counseled a super-smart, ambitious, brave journalist, who worked under fairly difficult conditions in the Middle East and who is now switching to analyst track because of the repression. What did she leave off her CV? That she understands Arabic. Why? "She only understands 80%." A man who could ask the way to the bathroom would be putting down basic proficiency. If he could order hummus for lunch, he'd be "advanced proficiency." This woman, nearly fluent, would not even mention it on the most important document out there.
This is a constant stream for anyone who teaches talented women, and this is where I see as Clay as coming from. One may disagree what one should tell these women ("put all your career, options for making money, surviving or realizing things you say you want aside till patriarchy is completely and thoroughly smashed"?). But I strongly object to putting this much bad faith interpretation to a (four year old?) piece.
Third, the point may well be that Clay should tell the men in power in technology to understand that women are underselling themselves and that should fight their sexism. Bu here's the thing! He does, and I know he does. I've known him for maybe about five years and I have constantly and persistently encountered his attempts to use his visibility to promote women--asking to leave his seat for women, inviting women, promoting women, advising women, objecting to lack of women, bringing up the topic, etc. etc.. It wasn’t a rare thing and most of what I witnessed wasn’t in public view, and I never discussed this with him. I just saw him do this again and again.
So, to be honest, in this world of real problems and sexism and patriarchy and all of that, and especially in the technology world, if Clay is the biggest enemy we can find, I will retire from feminism. It’s not because he is perfect, and one guy asking to step down in favor of women will solve the problem, or that he should get extra cookies for doing the decent thing, which he (and others in his position) obviously should as baseline behavior from a successful man in the tech pundit world, but because if all men did more of what I saw him try more often, there would be so many more women at so many more ranks in the tech world, and the fight would be much easier.
I was also bothered by the "Dad's of Tech" piece because if we are going to name someone as emblematic of sexism, and hence make their public persona a target, there should be more reflection on how this person actually behaves. Otherwise, what ends up happening is people often pick those who stick their necks out in an issue, and we have a blood bath of criticism among people who are actually not that far apart in thinking or behavior, while men who ignore all this, never say a word, and behave atrociously have nothing to fear, and structural problems remain unexamined.
So, the best way to avoid being called out as a sexist happens to be continue to be as sexist as it goes, but avoiding the topic. There is something wrong with this.
I’m speaking up here because what is Clay (or someone like him) supposed to do? Pat himself in the back for baseline decent behavior and publicly announce every time he does the right thing and tries to either promote women or step down in favor of a woman speaker? Hah! Obviously, doing the right thing should be no cause of self-congratulation (now, that would be height of male arrogance that Astra and Joanne want to take on) but it’s also not fair that there is no trace of the person I actually know in that Baffler piece.
It’s a dilemma, hence this post.
I also have a disagreement that Silicon Valley sexism is a “dad” or authority type of sexism: I think it is geek sexism, which is different than hegemonic masculinity. I've written about it here: https://medium.com/technology-and-society/no-nate-brogrammers-may-not-be-macho-but-thats-not-all-there-is-to-it-2f1fe84c5c9b and Arthur Chu is a great spokesperson for how it works (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/27/your-princess-is-in-another-castle-misogyny-entitlement-and-nerds.html and http://www.salon.com/2014/10/30/that_creepy_guy_from_the_internet_how_gamergate_shattered_faith_in_the_geek_community/ .
Finally, given the incredibly screwed up politics around the world, and given where things are going, I'm profoundly and passionately in favor of coalition building. I'm all for confronting sexism in the tech industry (and the tech pundit world where I live) and I am a great fan of much of Astra’s work and Joanne’s writings. I take the point that Astra and Joanne make that women are penalized disproportionately for self-promotion but that is the world as it is.
This goes for everything. Women are disproportionately judged for writing, too. Should we never write?
The argument against sexism cannot be: therefore women should never take ownership of their talents and their work publicly and loudly.
Also, the depth of “selling oneself short” I see every day among women—while loud, bellicose and aggressive men take their work, plagiarize it, run with it, and get away with it—is disturbing. Bright, talented women need to be encouraged to speak up EVEN AS we hold men (and women) in positions of power accountable for sexism. I may not have put it all the way Clay put it in his post (I don’t like the phrases or the exact framing) but I recognize the sentiment as one I share.
I said I don’t like broad slogans but I like this one I like: power never concedes without demand.
I also want the feminist project to be one of redefining masculinity and femininity include coalition building rather than putting distances with those often closest to us.
So, to sum up, I am of the opinion that some of master's tools will be part of any project of tearing down those houses; that I think it is a human and reasonable response to not want female students and mentees to drown in this insecurity and make claim to their well-earned talents; that I agree that women cannot be as pushy as men without penalty but based on what I see there is so much room to that for so many amazing women who are languishing and drowning in this (partially) patriarchy-induced insecurity. And finally I was saddened that Clay is not recognized for his persistent feminism—we are not just stand-ins and symbols of structures, we are human beings as well.
As a former programmer (almost always the only technical woman in the room) current academic and a tech pundit (where I have been at so many panels that I call the “Saudi panels” where I gender-“integrated” the panel, if not the room as the only woman), I appreciate efforts to call out sexist culture in tech. I don’t disagree with everything in Astra and Joanne’s piece, and the problem is real. Finally, I think there are a lot of instances where assumptions of good faith and conversation are warranted, at least attempted. It is in that spirit I wanted to outline out my disagreement in public.