Sadie Sherran, 32, Louise Deason, 26, and Sheree Atcheson, 23, all work in the UK digital sector. From physical harassment to sexist slurs and “brogrammer” jokes, they explain why sexism is still prominent in tech and what can be done to reduce its prevalence.
“In tech we are the minority and it is always the minority that gets the hard time,” says Deason, a software engineer at Duedil and a student of BSc Computing at Birkbeck College.
It is fairly evident that if only 245 girls chose A-Level computing across England last year (compared to 3513 boys) then that will have a knock-on effect on the gender-balance of the industry. Indeed, as Atcheson, a software engineer and the founder ofWomen Who Code, points out: just 19 percent of software engineers are women.
For Atcheson, even minor grievances add up in a male-dominated industry: “If your boss keeps saying he’s looking for a ‘great guy’ to fill a role, then that is going to put women off, and when men keep making comments about or scrutinising your appearance, that will make women feel uncomfortable and tempted to leave.”
Sherran, the director of Falkon Digital, agrees that in a bigger group of men — like in the digital sector — there is “a greater danger for women”. “Sexism kicks off a chain reaction between certain people,” she explains, “when one man is loud and dominant it sets of a domino effect.”
The pack mentality present in tech has been studied by Dr Thomas Ford, a psychology expert from Western Carolina University. “Men who have sexist attitudes typically go around life suppressing those sexist attitudes,” he explains. “They don’t behave in sexist ways because cultural norms suggest that they shouldn’t, and that if they do, they run the risk of all sorts of social sanctions.”
However, in groups where men outnumber women they can change the norms of acceptable behaviour, says Ford. Under these new redefined rules they are able to grant each other permission to act on sexist feelings “without fear of reprisal or criticism”.
GENDER INEQUALITY AS THE CULTURAL NORM
The problem in the developer community is that for some, gender inequality has become the cultural norm. Atcheson says casual sexism has become “second nature” to many of her colleagues: “It’s like whenever a man explicitly refers to me as a woman,” she says, “… and that happens a lot.”
For Sherran, sexism has become so commonplace that even women fail to notice it. “I feel like I am becoming blinkered to it,” she explains. “A lot of women in tech have become numbed, they just accept that this is the way the industry is, and that is obviously a huge issue.”
This desensitisation means that even socially aware women feel inclined to belittle their experiences. Even though all three women spoke lucidly about inequality in the industry Atcheson also said she hadn’t experienced sexism in a “major” way; Sherran says her experiences weren’t “anywhere near as bad” as her colleagues; while Deason said that she had “no experience of sexism at all” before describing a damaging “brogrammer” culture.
“It’s about the British stiff upper lip,” acknowledges Sherran, “the idea of ‘we are just going to ignore it and get on with it’.”
This, says Ford, only exacerbates the problem: “It acts to downplay the seriousness of the sexist behaviour and helps to redefine, or define cultural norms,” he warns.
For many women who code, conferences and out-of-office work do’s are hotspots for prejudice and harassment.
“My employers saw me as an object and I felt like I was their property to show off,” recalls Sherran. In her experience, verbal slurs and “grabs on the dancefloor” are commonplace, and, on one occasion her bosses even tried to ply a colleague with drugs: “What do you do when you are sat in a little corner with them and they are saying, ‘do it with us’, all hands on legs?” she asks. “It was like she was fair game because they paid her wages – it was like she was their property.”
Sherran is not alone in her experience of feeling like the token woman — “not to be valued, not to be respected”. Even though Atcheson is a relative newcomer to the industry she is already wary of this prejudice: “One colleague went to a conference and found that she was the only woman there” she explains, “a senior manager turned around and basically asked her: ‘Why are you here?'”
It is a story that rings true with Deason also. Two of her colleagues were shocked by their treatment at a conference just last year: “They were getting whispers and funny looks,” she recalls, “people saying ‘why are the girls here? Who invited them? Girls can’t code, girls are rubbish programmers’.”
According to Ford, the reason that sexism outside the office is worse is because “the cultural norms are less clear”. “In the work place setting, codes of conduct are very explicit,” he explains, “things like [the idea that] you’re not supposed to make remarks about someone’s appearance, or you’re not supposed to make offensive jokes… in a social setting the codes of conduct are not as clearly defined.”
One of the most detrimental aspects of sexism at conferences is that women are now choosing to avoid external work functions, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage to their male counterparts. Deason’s colleagues said that they “would never go to a conference again if they had known how it was going to be”, while Sherran says she will only mix with other companies on a professional level: “I definitely don’t go drinks after,” she adds. These women know they are potentially missing out on opportunities to learn and advance but feel forced out by the behaviour of some men.
Away from the conferences and in the relative safety of the office a ‘brogrammer’ lads’ culture is also still thriving.
Deason describes brogrammer culture as: “the guys who hide in the corner of the office and don’t let other people into their conversations — who joke, ‘oh don’t give that to Louise she can’t code, she’s a woman’.
“I’m a bit of a tom boy,” she explains, “and I’m not easily offended, which helps… but equally if you were a shy girl, or you were quite sensitive, I can see very quickly why you would feel offended and not welcome.”
What’s worse is that, unlike at conferences, in-office sexism is difficult to avoid. Even Sherran, the director of her own company, knows that her colleagues make sexist quips: “I work with only men and my husband, and I think it can be a bit all-boys-together, even though they are well meaning,” she explains. “I know it can become a bit of a frat space when I am not there.”
However, even if sexist humour is intended to be light-hearted, it have can have a really demoralising effect says Atcheson: “I have seen it myself when people have been talking about a particular women and someone has said, ‘Oh she is only getting that attention because she is a woman’ … that kind of comment can have a huge impact and really undermine your confidence.”
And, if these brogrammer jokes weren’t harmful enough in their own right, Ford says that sexist humour is “a powerful enabler of sexist behaviour”: in effect, sexist jokes increase real-life gender inequality.
“Sexist humour doesn’t create sexism where it didn’t exist, but it allows for the release of sexism where it does,” he explains, “it allows men to distinguish themselves positively from women to give them feelings of superiority.”
As Atcheson observes: “It’s quite common that you hear of women being told to sit in the corner and do something easy by men who essentially say ‘you are not good enough to do this’ just because you are a woman.”
WOMEN VS OTHER WOMEN
Whether they are defending sexist humour, joining in, or simply staying silent, too often women are not supporting each other, says Deason. “When women are dismissive of other women, that’s almost as damaging as the guys doing it in the first place,” she explains.
Indeed, taking the sexist side can be extremely damaging says Sherran: “When men are held to account, they can admit their behaviour and change, but when women say there isn’t a problem then they don’t. It is very dangerous when men hear women backing them up, saying ‘they were only having a laugh’.”
According to Ford, the psychological reason women participate in, and dismiss accusations of sexist behaviour, is for self-preservation. “There are roles women implicitly take on to cope with things like sexist joking and a variety of other forms of belittlement,” he explains. “One way of coping is to take on a role of the ‘Iron Maiden’ — someone who takes cares of herself, perhaps even at the expense of other women.”
But being the ‘Iron Maiden’ only cements the view that sexism is acceptable: “When women laugh along or participate in the telling of sexist jokes then it further creates the climate that it’s okay to express sexism without fears of social sanctions,” says Ford. “To say ‘this is what boys do’ is a very dangerous territory to go into; it allows men to treat discrimination against women in a very light-hearted playful manner, giving them license to let their guard down and express whatever sexism they have.”
REPORTING THE PROBLEM
“More support inside and outside of the office” is needed to ensure a positive working environment for all women in tech, concludes Sherran.
In her experience many women fail to report sexist behaviour because they are afraid they won’t be listened to, or because they are worried about the prospect of negative repercussions. She made a number of complaints to HR during a previous employment and found that they weren’t supportive: “I felt that they had heard about these people, but thought they couldn’t do anything about it. Even when I had grounds for constructive dismissal I didn’t follow through, I was worried I would never get a job afterwards,” she adds.
But as Ford says, “If women don’t make complaints then the belittlement will continue.”
Deason and Acheson suggest that if women feel that they can’t speak out at work then they should contact a women’s tech group. “The chances are that someone else has had the same problem and can help you address it,” says Deason.
Men, adds Ford, also hold to power to prevent sexist behaviour emerging from sexist humour in the first instance — “If they simply confront it and acknowledge it as inappropriate.”
“Someone might just say ‘that’s not funny’ he explains, “what that does is it prevents sexist humour from creating a tolerance of discrimination against women; Simply challenging, and rejecting sexist humour itself would go quite a long way.”
Some conferences, like SMX London and Brighton SEO, have also shown that sexism is unacceptable by drawing up codes of conduct, a step that Acheson, Sherran and Deason all support.
“It’s about setting ground rules,” says Deason, “it is important that women know that if guys start trolling them, they will get thrown out of the conference — that doesn’t just show the guy who is doing it, but the whole group, that that behaviour is unacceptable.”
While Ford agrees that codes of conduct are a “very, very good” way to curb sexist behaviour, he also says that events must “do away with the hostess practise completely” if they want to support gender equality.
MEN AND WOMEN: SPEAK UP
“It has taken a lot of people speaking out to get this far, but I think it is slowly getting better,” says Sherran. “A lot of the guys I don’t think initially realised what was going on, or how their behaviour made women feel. People just need to keep speaking up and supporting each other.”
Acheson says that both women — and men — in tech have a duty to fix the industry “for the generations of young girls to come”. “I want them to be able to come and know they can achieve as much as they possibly can, and not worry about sexism stopping them from working their way up.”
It is as Deason says: “It feels awful when you’ve worked just as hard as a man to get to where you are and you’re faced with prejudice. Things have definitely got better, but there is still a long way to go.”