Unmasking the Prevalence of Sexism in Tech

by Nayantara Bhat | Photo credits: NBC Universal and TecHKU | 21 May 2015

There’s always someone watching.

Picture this. Picture yourself walking down an average street in Hong Kong. There are local stores with blinding neon signs twined around perfumed brand-name stores and quaint coffee shops. You’re walking, pausing to window shop perhaps. Stopping, perhaps, at a café to enjoy a quick cup of coffee.

Now imagine there’s someone looking at you. Not coming any closer, just… staring. Judging. Assessing.

You don’t realise. You continue to sip your coffee.

The person takes out their phone. They open an app. They systematically list out every physical characteristic they find attractive about you. Hot. Tall. Sexy. Brunette. They indicate whether you’re staying in one place or on the move.

They tag your location.

Now everyone using the app and within a certain radius knows where you are. Some of them will be interested enough to come around and look at you. Multiple people, watching you, reducing you to nothing more than your physical assets, and all the while, you’re sipping your coffee, oblivious.

One of them could follow you home.

Scared yet? You should be. Spots, one of the winning apps pitched at Startup Weekend HKU in March, was designed to be an app for geo-tagging the locations of attractive people, primarily women, according to the all-male development team. If the app is produced and introduced to consumers, the scene described above could very much become a reality.

Perhaps it’s my fault. Perhaps I expected too much from the contestants. Perhaps I expected too much from the judges.

“Here’s the thing: from a panel of seven judges, only two were women. That’s just under 30% – which seems to be a prevailing statistic when it comes to women employed in tech. This meant that when it came down to the wire, and if it came down to a battle of the sexes, the ladies of NEST.vc would have been outvoted anyway.

Picture a class of computer engineering students: you’re probably seeing an army of scrawny guys with glasses. Unless you’re exceptionally unaffected by stereotypes, there are probably no girls in your mental classroom. Again, you would be right. HKU’s male-female enrolment ratio for engineering in 2011 was 4:1.

Technology is aimed at improving people’s lives, not propagating a social mind-set that is already damaging to women, who are objectified and marginalised on a daily basis. Technology isn’t supposed to worsen an already flawed system. It’s likely that the creators of Spots didn’t objectively consider the repercussions of their creation. I fail to see, however, how the judges could possibly let something like this win a prize.

People often forget to consider other people when making decisions. Everyone has been guilty of this at some point or another, whether something as simple as forgetting to hold a door for someone or, well, creating an app that enables stalkers and perverts. Or allowing that app to win a prize. Or forgetting that technology used to be women’s forte and constantly underestimating the thousands of brilliant women working with science.

Yes, programming used to be women’s work. Most people don’t know that working with computers used to be the premier job for smart young women. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe The Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and Stanford. (There’s a link to Women’s eNews too, but if you’re shaking your head as you’re reading this, there’s a 90% chance that including that link will lead to you dismissing this article completely.)

Around 1967, male programmers wanted to improve the prestige associated with their profession by making programming more specialised… and also by discouraging the hiring of women. Media around this time period began linking women to error and inefficiency, despite the fact that the six people considered to be the world’s first computer programmers are all women.

Being good at something is awesome, and I’m not denying that the majority of the most incredible pieces of technology were developed by men. It’s when one gender claims an exclusive right to be good at something that the problems start. Women have the potential to create great things just as much as men do, but tech work has become stereotypically male, to the point where not only are women pushed out of tech-related activities (see GamerGate) but apps like Spots are created to further constrain women and reduce us to a list of physical attributes.

Hot. Tall. Sexy. Brunette. I want to be more than a list. Women want to be more than what society tries to restrict them to.

The lack of women in science-related fields has created several practical problems too. Many women reported problems when it came to using the voice recognition software in their cars, a problem faced by many users with any vocal tone or accent other than North American male. This could have led to car collisions, and is clearly a danger to everyone on the road. Tom Schalk, VP of a major auto supplier, was quoted as saying, “…many issues with women’s voices could be fixed if female drivers were willing to sit through lengthy training… Women could be taught to speak louder, and direct their voices towards the microphone”.

The ‘issue’ in question being, of course, that women only produce a fraction of the testosterone that men do, and it is physically and genetically impossible for a woman to emulate the frequency of a man’s voice.

Balancing work and life is another struggle entirely for women, especially in areas like software development where teams often pull all-nighters to finish the job. This is even more of a problem for women who may need to take care of children. The very fact that women may have care-giving duties has led to discrimination from many employers when it comes to hiring or promotions.

According to studies like this one from MIT, diversity can boost the morale of a team as well as improve the quality of the end product. For example, if there were girls on the Spots team, perhaps their app would have been less of a sexist catastrophe. Perhaps if Apple had more women in decision-making positions, I wouldn’t have to feel awkward wearing a skirt when walking up those aesthetically appealing but pragmatically idiotic glass stairs.

More women in tech also means more tech! The industry is always on the hunt for more talent, and if women are encouraged to pursue careers in the field, that means double the workforce, and definitely more products being released. Additionally, women make up half the world’s population. From a business standpoint, targeting more apps at a unisex or female audience will mean much more revenue for companies, and a more diverse product line.

Allowing things to continue the way they are means a few things to me as a woman. It means that I can expect workplace discrimination and harassment. It means I will have to adapt to male corporate culture in order to advance in my career, as many women have been forced to do. I will be required to give up a family life in favour of a career, and constantly walk a fine line between being aggressive and being ‘feminine’ enough to avoid garnering a negative reputation.

It means that I am obliged to suffer through objectification and degradation via generic media and technology. Want an example of why we need more women in tech, more women in general? This advertisement from Alibaba (taken down a day after it was released) is proposing the recruitment of a ‘Programmer Encouragement Specialist’, i.e. a beautiful woman to motivate what I can only assume is an entirely male workforce (a workforce whose productivity is apparently dependent on the presence of beautiful women. They really must not get much work done.)

Eliminate gender stereotypes. Eliminate the idea that women are restricted by our hormones and body parts and periods.

For young, science-minded girls like the ones in this Microsoft advertisement, and the others like them who have abandoned their dreams due to stereotyping. For girls like Alice Zielinski, an MIT engineering student who wrote in her blog posts about constantly being belittled for her gender and her blonde hair and then was further belittled and trivialised by readers of the article. For girls who struggle every day to prove that they can succeed in a male-dominated profession.

Sexism is everywhere, and it’s prevalent in tech and science related jobs. Despite the statistics, HKU is a place of learning and growth, which is why I believe it definitely has the potential for change. After all, we’re not asking for much. Just some respect, faith, and the reversal of a sexist stereotype.

hit me up

Nayantara Bhat

Second-year journalism student at HKU. Book-lover. Food-lover. Music-lover. Chronic procrastinator.
hit me up

The opinion and views in this article are that of the authors and do not reflect the opinion or views of The HKU Journal of Technology, or the TecHKU Editorial Team. You can comment below to let the authors know what you think.
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Author: Nayantara Bhat

Second-year journalism student at HKU. Book-lover. Food-lover. Music-lover. Chronic procrastinator.

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