Toxic environments:
inequality in tech is a symptom of something worse

The absence of women in tech is a symptom of a systemic problem in the industry. But what exactly is the problem?

The accomplishments of women in tech certainly aren’t lacking.

The 1st text-mode browser was written by a woman. Think about it before making sexist jokes about Moms and computers. (@jpetazzo)

And if that’s not enough, let me remind you that the first CLI shell ever was also written by a woman. (@jpetazzo)

You want more? The first router ever was co-invented by a woman. (Who then went on and co-founded Cisco systems.) (@jpetazzo)

Most writing on gender in tech focuses on the gender skew in tech education—specifically programming education. After all, it stands to reason that if we aren’t training women programmers, we won’t be employing women programmers.

But the tech industry’s problems go deeper than that because the gender bias in tech goes well beyond programming. Every position that has power in the business overwhelmingly skews male, even beyond the usual glass ceiling you see in other industries.

The majority of VCs don’t know how to code but have financial or business backgrounds, yet only 4.2% of US partner-level VCs are female. And still, VCs blame the absence of female board members on the lack of women graduating from engineering programs.

The Pipeline Isn’t The Problem: Dissecting The Real Gender Bias In Tech Positions by Jennifer Elias (1390 words).

And, before you start wondering what might be the cause of this bias, it doesn’t take much research to find out that it’s caused by assholes.

Shortly after Kathryn Tucker started RedRover, an app that showcases local events for kids, she pitched the idea to an angel investor at a New York tech event. But it didn’t go over well. When she finished her pitch, the investor said he didn’t invest in women.

When she asked why, he told her. “I don’t like the way women think,” he said. “They haven’t mastered linear thinking.” To prove his point, he explained that his wife could never prioritize her to-do lists properly. And then, as if he was trying to compliment her, he told Tucker she was different. “You’re more male,” he said.

This Is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like by Issie Lapowsky (1857 words).

Turns out the tech industry has an asshole problem.

Here’s the problem. Every venture capitalist, in every interview they’ve ever done will tell you the same casual lie: That they invest in people first and ideas second. They’ll tell you they invest only in people they’d want to work with. They’ll tell you that they have the luxury to say no to companies that don’t do things in line with the way they like to work, the way they like to treat people.

You don’t have to look too far into this year’s frenzied pace of dealmaking, and at the price tags of those deals to know that’s complete bullshit. In all too many cases, what venture capitalists are investing in is assholes.

Venture capital and the great big Silicon Valley asshole game by Sarah Lacy (6047 words).

It goes even beyond that. There’s a dark, empty pit where Silicon Valley’s soul should be.

But the problem runs much deeper, because Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the implicit and explicit narrative of progress companies use for marketing and that people use to find meaning in their work. By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection. Put simply, the progress narrative short-circuits moral reflection on the consequences of new technologies.

Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley by Eric Giannella (4333 words).

The tech industry is a business that consists mostly of assholes giving money to other assholes to make morally dubious and exploitative businesses. (Sharing economy. Bitcoin. Deregulation. Etc. Etc.)

Which leads us to one of the best posts on gender inequality in tech I’ve read in recent years. One that pinpoints precisely what is going on.

Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn’t enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.

How Our Engineering Environments are Killing Diversity: Introduction by Kate Heddleston (1476 words).

And that toxicity goes all the way down into the culture that dominates day to day interactions in many tech companies. Arguments and aggressive language rule the day.

An argument culture creates an environment where winning is paramount. As we’ve talked about, when winning is the goal people can start to cross ethical boundaries. Crossing boundaries and using aggression to win an argument includes making personal remarks, interrupting, speaking much more loudly than an opponent, or entering someone’s personal space. Instead of staying on topic and trying to find the best solution, people might use personal attacks to undermine their opponent in order to win. Size and loudness are also ways to make another person back off in a disagreement, leaving the louder, larger person the winner regardless of the content of their argument [6].

Argument Cultures and Unregulated Aggression by Kate Heddleston (2001 words).

Criticism is used to manipulate and tear down colleagues, not to further the work or the project. Which is counter-productive, obviously. You may think that criticism is an essential part of doing something well, but it isn’t.

Criticism is ineffective because it rarely makes the receiver change their behavior in any positive or constructive way. As Dale Carnegie puts it, “criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes [them] strive to justify [themselves]” [1]. When people receive criticism, they perceive it as an attack and their gut reaction is to defend themselves.

Criticism and Ineffective Feedback by Kate Heddleston (2548 words).

What you want is feedback, not criticism (and, no, they aren’t the same).

In fact, just the opposite. Employees should get feedback early and often. But the feedback should be about how to improve performance instead of what that person isn’t doing well. In other words, tell people what you want them to do instead of detailing what they’re doing wrong. If you want someone to do things the right way then you have to tell them what the right way is.

Criticism and Ineffective Feedback by Kate Heddleston (2548 words).

If the industry is as toxic as this, then why don’t people leave?

Well, as the gender breakdown shows us, a lot of them do. They arrive in the industry hopeful, burn out, then flee to safer pastures.

And those that remain probably aren’t staying for healthy reasons. Some of them have been conned into thinking that tech will make them rich (odds are it won’t, especially if you’re just a regular employee). And many feel compelled to stay because some of what passes as standard practice in the tech industry (startups especially) is psychologically manipulative. Their loyalty has been induced through emotional abuse.

So you want to keep your lover or your employee close. Bound to you, even. You have a few options. You could be the best lover they’ve ever had, kind, charming, thoughtful, competent, witty, and a tiger in bed. You could be the best workplace they’ve ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But both of those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as she wants to under those systems, and you want to keep her even when she doesn’t want to stay. How do you pin her to your side, irrevocably, permanently, and perfectly legally?

You create a sick system.


Eventually you’re so crazy that you can’t interact with anyone who isn’t equally crazy. Normal people have either fled, or told you once too often that you’re being stupid and you need to leave. So now you’ve lost all your reality checks. You’re surrounded by people who also live in the crazy and can’t see a way out. You spend your time telling one another that it’s too bad, but that’s how it is, there’s no fixing it, and everything will get better when ______ happens. If anyone does get a little better and says, “Hey, guys, this is crazy, we can all stop now,” they’ve become a stuck cog in the machine. They quickly realize that there’s nothing they can do, and they pull out, leaving you alone with your crazy friends.

Finally you think it’s ordinary.

How to Keep Someone With You Forever by (2783 words).

When an entire ecosystem has become toxic, mere rehabilitation will not work. It doesn’t matter how many women you put in the ‘pipeline’ when you are burning out the men and women you already have. The only way to win is to create safe havens, make sure that your company opts out of these behaviours completely, that your culture and communications are sane and safe from the ground up.

Unfortunately, since it seems that tech’s asshole problem is the clearest evidence of a ‘trickle down economy’ yet, one where the bullshit toxicity flows down from the top, the only surefire way to opt out of a toxic culture looks to be opting out of Silicon Valley Venture Capital entirely.

Updated 16:50 BST

I’d like to end this on a note from Carolyn Jewel’s excellent post on social media. (Read it!)

Media has a hugely flawed view of the world. They’re so male-oriented that they have absolutely no ability to grok that women have a fundamentally different experience of social media, and the world, than men. And yes, the same is true for many many other classifications (Color, ethnicty, non-cis, not heterosexual and so on.) It’s why we see policies that actively endanger women and a big old “Huh?”  when women complain. Real Name policies endanger women. Until these companies understand WHY that is, it’s not possible for the policy to be crafted in a way that reduces the danger. There’s a flip side to everything. Not having Real Names can also endanger women. Understand what’s going on, and there’s a chance you might have a more effective policy instead of one that serves the few with real harm to many.

Why Social Media is Failing Creative Women by Carolyn Jewel (1763 words).