By Rhona MaCracken
I am writing this as a response to a blog post written by Ian Gent, a professor in the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews. In his post Why an Attack on Sexism in Tech is NOT an Attack on Men, Ian described a thought experiment for a mathematical model that found the number of sexist remarks experienced by women in a minority in a population as being the square of the gender ratio compared to men. In other words, if the ratio is 4 men to 1 woman in tech, the women will experience 16 times more sexist comments than men. However, this model relies on an over-simplified assumption: that there is an equal amount of sexist comments being made from men to women and women to men.
The model described in this post has been the topic of several talks at WICS events in the five years that I have studied here. Despite the author’s best intentions, as a female student in Computer Science, I feel like this model fails to address the real issues with sexism and is not the most important message to discuss at events to empower women in our community. I truly agree with the point being made - we shouldn’t turn a conversation about sexism and creating an inclusive culture into a blame game. I also believe that we all collectively have a responsibility to change the culture of sexism in tech and aim to change our own stigmas and biases (especially those that are unconscious!). However, I think it's time for us to start giving talks to the women in the room, rather than trying to appease the men who have already stepped up to support the issue.
This model takes an incredibly complex social issue and boils it down to an intuitive statistical model based on an unfounded assumption. The assumption that there is an equal proportion of sexism from men to women and women to men is entirely unrealistic in the present-day situation. I understand the author’s point that from this baseline we can demonstrate an inherent increase in sexism experienced by each individual woman when in a minority in the population compared to their male counterparts. However, I don’t believe this is a useful point to make in the real world when the model is based on an unrealistic assumption.
To illustrate my point - let's consider a scenario where the gender roles are flipped. Zooming out from the specific case of the tech industry, it is generally accepted that women face more sexism than men in daily life. Take the example of a population of students in a biology class at a University where there are often more women than men. According to this model, we must assume that the men in biology classes have a worse experience of sexism than the women. It may be true that by nature of being in the minority; men experience more imposter syndrome or sexism in these classes. However, I presume if you asked men and women in this scenario in the real world, you would not find much support for a new movement in STEM supporting marginalised men in Biology. The point is not to say that men cannot experience sexism, the point is that sexism is a wider issue than the number of direct individualised comments a person receives on a day-to-day basis. Sexism towards women is systemic in academia and professional workplaces, often unconscious and can be internalised by women as imposter syndrome because they feel out of place. This issue cannot and should not be simplified - it should be discussed with real-world statistics and real-world accounts from women in our workplaces and classes.
In case this example has not convinced you - let me present a more controversial example. Imagine we apply the same model to racism between black people and white people. Imagine first, a population where black people are in the minority - our own University’s induction course on inclusivity requires students to agree to the statement “acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful starting point in overcoming unconscious bias”. Whether or not you agree with this statement is subject to a different conversation, but it still seems fair to say that white people should take responsibility for correcting their own unconscious bias. The really interesting argument comes when we flip the model on its head and imagine a community where white people were in the minority of the population - I don’t think anyone would be happy if I concluded that the outcome of that scenario would be to pity white people for receiving a larger proportion of racist comments than black people. It is simply inherent that racism or sexism in our community is not reversed simply because we flip the group of people in the minority in a given example.
This critique is not intended as an “attack on men” or an attack on the author of the original blog, it simply aims to point out that this model is inappropriate in the real-world scenario of sexism in tech. I think it would be valuable to give a platform to more women to share their experiences instead. Women face bias and discrimination in this industry and internalised stigma is known to be linked with imposter syndrome which can make it even more challenging for women to take confidence in their skills and stand up for equal pay and leadership opportunities. I hope that the conversation around sexism can continue to be inclusive, allowing everyone to come together to create a supportive atmosphere for people of all genders in tech (and all backgrounds/races/religions etc). I believe the culture is changing for the better - let's not lose momentum and make sure we are all working together for important change!