Why (white) men should not (mostly) write about gender disparity in technology

Dear Internet,

In 1994 or ’95, I started getting interested in computing and even more specifically, the INTERNET. This all stemmed from a class I took at the time  (taught by a woman) succinctly titled, “An Introduction to the Internet”; which would be all command line interface until the college installed Netscape .9 in the open computer lab later that year. Color. Photos. From. Finland. WOW.

That class changed my entire life.

I got my first paid gig doing tech support at a local ISP in 1996, which lead to another gig in San Francisco, which lead to other gigs that took me around the country. My last pure tech job was as an Senior Internet Systems engineer at UUNet/Worldcom, which I spent my days configuring routers, studying for the CCIE, and other network engineering fun things. As WorldCom was going through a bit of a rough patch, I took this as a sign to head back to university, finish my undergrad in English (where I had started nearly a decade prior) and figure out the rest of my life. I moved back to Michigan and started classes at Aquinas in January of 2003.

I completed my undergrad in the spring of 2005, my first masters in the spring of 2008, and my second masters in the spring of 2010.

None of my degrees have anything to do with computing or technology, which was very much on purpose. My creative brain needs a lot of hand holding while my technology brain does not. While there were gaps between my technology jobs (school and all that rot),  I’ve always kept my head wet by keeping up my interests. My current position is the perfect job for me since it combines my education AND my experience: I’m a systems and web librarian at a local college. All of my senses are tingly.

I’m giving you this background not because I think I’m unique in my education or my foray into technology, but to illustrate that I’ve been in the technological world for a very long time and I have very rich experience of being a woman in a man’s world. I knew getting into tech back in the early ’90s  women were not as dominant and they were just starting to get into the peripheral of the scene. When I went to Def Con in 1997, the number of women who were hackers at the time were just beginning to be as dominant as the ones who came along to support their partners. In the next couple of years, the more cons I visited, the more women were becoming an integral part of the scene and less like visitors from another planet.

As this is such a male dominated landscape, I’m no stranger to sexism or sexual harrassment that was and still is clearly abundant in the world of technology. This is the one constant that has not changed since that first class I took in 1994.

To wit, within the last week alone, two seperate vendors did the following:

  • One sent an email explaining that to turn on the server I had just received by documenting I had to push the big green blinky button
  • After explaining to the vendor I was going to use sudo for installation of Enterprise backup and walked him through the steps, he still explained what sudo was and why I needed to use it

This is in addition to my day to day life where sexism runs rampart, whether it is intended or not. Last week, the beer guy who kept talking to TheHusband about the deliciousness of beer when we picked up a bottle of Guinness Black even after I pointed out it was for me; the car sales people who kept approaching TheHusband when we were shopping for cars even after we pointed out I was not only the primary person driving but also the purchaser. The comic book store clerks (5 out 6 we’ve visited) who kept trying to suggest titles to TheHusband even when it was I asking to buy such and such issues. So forth, and so on.

For many men, most I would think, don’t even think they are being sexist. Some even think they are being helpful. Our culture is so ingrained that something designed as being very male (beer, car shopping, computers, comics) belongs to the male of the party, they  without thinking about it direct all conversation to the male even if it is the female who is inquiring. I’m betting that 9 out of 10 men do this unintentionally and subconsciously, there is no thought that what they are doing is sexist.

I’ve long come to accept this is part of my life, as my interests in male dominated areas (comics, technology, sci-fi/fantasy) continues to grow, so too will the sexism (unintended or not) continue on. I’ve developed a thick skin to the daily sexisms because fighting each and every turn is exhausting, and often futile. So I pick my battles when I can and fight on like a good warrior for these battles.

This is one of those battles.

Ealier this week, Roy Tennant, who writes at Library Journal’s The Digital Shift, published an article called Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

I’ll wait while you go read.
I’m going to go make some tea while you’re going through the comments.
I may also start a new cross-stitch pattern while you’re going through that.

Are you back? Good.

Here are the problems I have with Roy’s article, and later his comments.

  • When pointing out his suggestions were just as sexist, or at the very least patronizing to the very people he was trying to help, he told me, the very type of person he was trying to help, I was wrong.
  • When giving him suggestions on how better to further the action or dialogue, he ignored them.
  • When several of us pointed out that as a white man, he had the utmost of privilege and that his suggestions were born from that privilege, unintentional or not, and ergo why his suggestions sounded patronizing even when he thought they were’t, he took that to mean we were attacking him personally even though we were attacking his argument.
  • Ditto for the number of times he keeps discussing how much of a feminist he is on this site and other social media as well as alluding his critics are off the mark. Let me point out once more  the criticisms have come from the very people he’s trying to help. No one is disputing your feminism Roy, we’re critiquing your proposed solutions and your dismissiveness of our experiences in your follow up commentary.
  • When I disputed that the experiences he was writing about were not the same I experienced, so he should not generalize, he said, “yet I’ve heard the opposite from other female colleagues — that such jokes create a hostile environment for women. For now, I’m still with them.”  The problem with this is you cannot expect special treatment for women (tampering down of jokes/commentary  in the work place) if you want to be equal. You can’t have it both ways. It has to apply to EVERYONE or apply to NO ONE. It is not equality if special considerations are made. This was the huge problem I had with this list, because tampering down jokes and being respectful to a woman should not just about women, it should be for all humans.

What really gets my goat, however, is Roy’s apparent ignorance of his own privilege on this matter as he keeps beating it around social media how much of a feminist he is, so he’s right and we’re wrong. It was pointed out to him in the comments that as a white male, he enjoys specialized treatment, which he may not even be aware of but as a white male he does certainly enjoy. He told the person,

Karen, the fact that you think you know me is laughable. Indeed I have “given up privilege” as you put it. For but one example, I voluntarily left the LITA Top Tech Trends panel to make way for the committee to add more women, a number of whom I nominated in the process, and subsequently when the panel at one conference was again male-heavy I complained about at the session. I notice that they’ve largely been better about it since.

So. Giving up privilege, to him, means he left a panel on a professional association. And then complained about it’s male dominatedness later on? And that’s it? This is supposed to make me feel better? Nothing here about his personal life. Nothing here about what he is doing at his own company to promote women in technology or in other very public spheres he’s active in. Because an empty seat on a panel for a small subset of the profession is so helpful to the rest of the female gender in getting them into technology?


Ultimately what is causing me the most frustration is what also makes me the most depressed. Here is someone who has power, who is known on a large scale in the profession, who can’t even acknowledge that his approach to this very worthwhile topic is perhaps not the way that it should be? That maybe, instead of labeling myself and others critical of his approach (again, the very same marginalized group he is attempting to promote) as his “attackers,” he could step back for a moment and at least acknowledge our commentary might have some substance?

(Bears repeating: No one is disagreeing this topic isn’t worthwhile. I am disagreeing with this execution.)

This fight for equality is not even close to being over yet, nor will it be even in my lifetime. However, the unfortunate part is that it is people like Roy, self-styled (white) male femimists, who have solidarity for our cause, who want to be supportive of our needs, are the very same ones who are often our worst detractors. I believe Roy genuinely thinks that he’s doing a very good thing by writing about this topic, even if I disagree with what he wrote. I also think this is why he’s so defensive of any critique of his actions because he thinks he’s doing something to help the downtrodden, how on earth can this even be remotely bad?

Do not ever be afraid to be critical of anyone, regardless of who they are, when they start discussing means and ways of experiences and feelings when it is clear they have no experience in what they are discussing. You, and only you, can own your experiences and feelings. Do not let others dictate how you should live.

Roy asked for ways to change this, which I gave him a list which was ignored. Here is more to add to that list if you want to support women in technology:

  • Donate to the Ada Intiative.
  • Start/chair an interest group for women in technology in LITA, the technology arm of ALA
  • Start a GeekGirl Dinner in your area.
  • Use Meetup.com to start/find groups in your interests (there were loads of Women in Technology interest groups on MeetUp).
  • Depending on where you work, what you do; start off-site initiative for women to have a hack-a-thon
  • Find local hacker space communities to start a women’s initiative
  • Use professional conferences to propose panels / groups / discussions to get more people aware but also to pay it forward
  • Create a women in tech book club at local bar/ coffee house
  • Donate time to do mentoring to high school and middle school girls
  • Donate to or become a sponsor for a nearby women’s conference, like GeekGirlCon

Wanting to bring a voice to a marginalized group is a very good thing, but dismissing the concerns or critiques of that same group when brought up to you is bad. Do not generalize your assumptions of women as a whole in a particular area (in this case, technology) because your sample of that experience will be small and it will not be representative of all voices. Do not presume, as a male, to know my experiences and also, to dictate how I should feel about them. I can only speak of my experiences in my life, I cannot speak for other women, but the broader, much larger vile act of sexism is very, very real. Everyday Sexism is documenting this in spades.

Once this is posted, I’m donating to the Ada Initiative. I welcome any civil, commentary on this topic but keep in mind any obnoxious trolling will be deleted.

Fight the good fight,

Edited: Nov 4: Added link to start a SIG at LITA in the to-do list

  • Ryan

    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for writing this post. I have read your comments on the blog post that started all this and I was confused on why you seemed-well, angry-at the author of the post. I read the post as a call to focus on the disparity in a particular field in this profession, but based on what you and others were saying in the comments it seemed like he was making the issue even worse. To be honest, while this post helped me to understand a bit more, I am still confused.

    Full disclosure: I am a white male. For me to say that I understand the plights of any minority are laughable at best and probably closer to insulting. Yet, I know that, by sheer luck, I was born into the most privileged class in history. It reminds me of a bit by Louis CK where he points out, rather accurately, that he can go into a time machine and go back to any point in history and be fine because he is a white male.

    But I do understand that I can’t understand what it is others go through; I can’t walk a mile in their shoes or see things through their eyes. This is impossible. However, I can want things to change. I am a firm believer in equality across the board, and I read that post as a start for others to look at that disparity in the work place and be conscious of it. Be aware. Understand that it should be different, and do what you can to bring about that equality. I am sure many people read the article and thought, “duh,” but there are probably some who never fully realized what goes on.

    So…I say that and yet I am confused by how wanting to help is actually not helping? You gave some great ideas on how one can help this issue, but they seem very specific (which is good) and the ones in the original post seemed very non-specific; they seemed to say, “look, there’s an issue here and you can help by realizing there is an issue and be supportive to anyone that asks for help while trying to make the environment neutral.” I have a feeling that there must be some ignorance on my part why I can’t understand why there are these comments being directed at the author. I don’t know the man. Never spoke to him or know his whole story, but I actually agree with him in the comments that it isn’t necessarily about him, as the subject of the post was not originally his ordeal with it, but that here is an issue and, hey, do your best to change it.

    I feel this is starting to ramble. I think that I’m being defensive, but again I think it’s because I’m unsure what to do in this case. I’ve talked to others about the dominance of males in upper level library positions (managers, directors, etc.) and i believe it is fundamentally wrong. I feel that part of the solution, arguably a small part, is to talk about it and raise awareness. Based on what I’m hearing, I should do no such thing as I would come across as “the great white male hero,” which does not help the problem and in fact creates a whole new problem.

    Again, thank you for your post. I feel that the issue is one that does need to be addressed, but it is obviously much more complex than I originally thought. I am glad you shared your viewpoint as it has forced me to question how I personally should approach the subject. I can only view the problem from my perspective, and if I have been seeing things falsely I hope to remedy that as soon as possible.


  • Was talking about this phenomenon with a friend recently – “cover sexism” was the label. Thanks for continuing to fight, Lisa.

  • Kate

    So I’m a woman. I read the original article that Lisa is responding to, and while I felt the author had valid points (women should have as much opportunity in the IT field as men) his methods were a bit condescending. The part about “Be verbose and inclusive with explanations” I found to be especially sexist. Why do I as a woman need more “inclusive” explanations than a man would need? What does he even mean by “inclusive”? I have worked in the IT field for 16 years, and have always done jobs more traditionally male (unix admin, storage admin). I have worked with a lot of people, mostly men, and none of them have ever acted like they needed to “help me” to let me get ahead in my career. Then this guy comes along with his article and I get the impression he feels that women are poor not-so-smart creatures who need men’s help to get good jobs in IT. I call bull.

  • As a female who has worked in the tech industry for the last 7 – 8 years, I can honestly say I’ve only noticed outright sexism twice in that time, both when I was a secondline helpdesk analyst.

    Once, a male engineer who called my helpdesk and ask to speak to “one of the guys in the team”. The other was when I asked a woman to do something simple, like unplug something. She told me “we’re all girls here, so we can’t really do that” without seeming a bit ashamed, even though she was talking to a female.

    I’m not sure if I’m lucky, blind, unwilling to take shit, or something else entirely…

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  • “When several of us pointed out that as a white man, he had the utmost of privilege” <- I take exception to statements like this. Everything I have is due to hard work not because I've got a "white guy card"

  • biblyotheke

    I would never question someone’s integrity or their work ethic. However, if you and I were competing for the same tech job, and had equal qualifications, I’ll bet you a dozen pints *you* would be chosen over me for the same position, because as a man, you are going to seem more qualified simply by being male.

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  • julia_disqus

    Ryan, can you try empathy? Try to put yourself into other people’s shoes, even though those people are not the same gender/skin color as you. If people constantly treat you as incapable, don’t listen to you, ignore your experiences and opinions, and if you insist you’re labeled as “angry” or “emotional”, how does it feel like? Just reread the piece starting “To wit, within the last week alone” and ending “This is one of those battles” (yes, this just within one week) and imagine yourself being treated the same way, week after week. THIS would be help. If every privileged person learns empathy, then there would be no need for discussions like this anymore.

    What I noticed about typical “white males” (as a privilege, not skin color/gender) is that they automatically put themselves into a center, without even realizing it. “Let me explain it for you”, “let me fix it for you”, “I will do it better then you”, “I don’t need your comments/criticism”, “let *me* help you, I know better what you need” (i.e. it’s all about *me*, who cares about the other person). If you’re on the receiving end, it feels condescending and not really helpful, doesn’t it?

  • AlwaysPartOfTheProblem

    I don’t think Ryan really needs to use empathy. I know as a white man I don’t need to empathize to know how it feels when “people constantly treat you as incapable, don’t listen to you, ignore your experiences and opinions, and if you insist you’re labeled as “angry” or “emotional”.” all I have to do is come here or to any other discussion like this one. If this feeling of being completely marginalized, dismissed, incapable and vilified is in fact what oppressed classes feel all the time, then frankly I don’t know how you have the strength to face it. Nor can I help in any way, even after (occasionally, briefly) experiencing it for myself, because for me, the answer is clear. I just click the mouse, go elsewhere and let this remain someone else’s problem. That strategy probably doesn’t map well to other areas.

    My question then becomes: Can an oppressed class justify perpetuating the same kind of abuse they suffer onto another group? In an ethical sense, given the trauma of being incessantly marginalized, how do you justify marginalizing others who presumably just want to participate and help? And in a tactical sense if the group you’re choosing to dismiss is the one you claim currently holds all the power can you afford to do so?

  • John Pappas

    It is almost impossible to talk about privilege while in a position of privilege. And even when it is possible it is a hard, terse and often defensive conversation. I’ve been there and have come to the conclusion that acts themselves do not alleviate privilege. Only an ongoing reflection of and personal conversation about it will. That is what Tennant missed in his post. But I suppose that talking about privilege from a position of privilege is better than not talking about it at all.

    If he really wanted to hear about privilege he could have done what privilege people never do – shut up and let someone else speak. He could open his post to someone that actually experienced the things he was talking about. He could allow the solution to be presented by the same people. He could respect and not contradict the non-privileged view.

    Instead he did what most white hetero males do when confrontingtheir own privilege – they deny it while stating that they get it.

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