Women in Tech: How Anonymity Contributes to the Problem
Like Michael Arrington, I too have sat on the sidelines of the debate on women in tech. Unlike Michael Arrington, I did so because nobody asked for my opinion. There is, however, one aspect of the debate that I’m qualified to comment on.
The central issue seems to be whether the low participation rate of women in technology is due to a hostile environment in the tech industry (e.g., sexism, overt or covert) or due to external factors, whether genetic or social, that influence women to pick career paths other than technology without even giving it a shot.
Arrington thinks it’s the latter, and makes a strong case for his position. In response, many have pointed out various behaviors common in the tech industry that make it unappealing to women. Jessica B. Hamrick talks about rampant elitism which affects women disproportionately. What I’m more interested in today is Michelle Greer’s account of being viciously attacked for a relatively innocuous comment on Arrington’s post.
Let me come right out and say it: while I am a defender of the right to anonymous speech, I believe it has no place whatsoever in the vast majority of discussion forums. The reason is simple: there is something about anonymity that completely dismantles our evolved social norms and civility and makes us behave like apes. Not all of us, to be sure, but it only takes a few to ruin it for everyone. Or to put it in plainer terms:
There is no doubt that sexist comments online — the vast majority of them anonymous — contribute hugely to the problem of tech being a hostile environment for women. While there are rude comments directed at everyone, just look around if you need convincing that the ones that attack someone specifically for being female tend to be much more depraved. It is also true that rude behavior online is not limited to tech fields, but it creates more of a barrier there because online participation is essential for being relevant.
Here’s my suggestion to everyone who’d like to do something to make tech less hostile to women: perhaps the best return on your time that you can get is by making anonymous, unmoderated comments a thing of the past. Abolish it on your own sites, and write to other site admins and educate them about the importance of this issue. And when you see an uncivil comment, either educate or ignore the person, but try not to get enraged — you’d be feeding the troll.
Thanks to Ann Kilzer for reviewing a draft.