It’s time to stop the culture of online harassment and “networked misogyny” (because let’s face it, these online attacks are disproportionately gendered). While increasing the number of women in leadership roles is a necessary condition for effecting cultural change, it is by no means sufficient. Assuming we want to foster diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace, having more women and minorities in leadership positions is just common sense. However, it is less clear how this diversity trickles down to those responsible for developing online technologies. Although there are many programs and initiatives to get more women and girls into the boardroom and into the computer science classroom, are we just training some women and girls to be more like the men who dominate and run Silicon Valley? Or are we actually pushing for a cultural change in Silicon Valley?
For many, Sheryl Sandberg is a symbol of Silicon Valley feminism. Sandberg has become infamous for her Lean In philosophy, which presents feminism in an easily digestible format and is directed at those already in corporate high positions. Sandberg’s idea of feminism gives us quick, clear solutions and encourages women to work the system for their benefit rather than try to change it for the benefit of everyone else. It does not account for the way women have learned to lean back where men have been encouraged to lean in. As Bell Hooks’ bright critique of the Lean In philosophy, who are the men that she wants to be equal with? And where is the discussion of a movement to end sexist oppression that infiltrates these toxic technocultures? Sandberg’s feminism only really affects the woman who wants to lean in, not so much for anyone else. Corporate feminism benefits those in power still.
But a revolution is about changing the system so that other women and marginalized folks, those who are disproportionately misrepresented in the tech culture, can benefit, as opposed to an individual approach that privileges the power and status many (white) women in tech benefit from. I want more Ellen Pao and less Sheryl Sandberg.
Ellen Pao flipped the table in Silicon Valley beginning with the widespread coverage of her $16 million lawsuit of gender discrimination and sexual harassment against former employer Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers. Her push for change was to help all women, not just herself. Pao’s actions affected all those around her. Her trial cost her and employer money and positive reputations in Silicon Valley. During her time as CEO of reddit, she dismantled salary negotiations to combat gender pay equality, was the public face of the company’s anti-harassment policies, and managed to shake up Silicon Valley despite the significant resistance she faced by the reddit community. While Pao battled in court against Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, female employees from Twitter and Facebook also filed lawsuits for gender, racial and sexual harassment. Following the lawsuit, a group of women and men in tech took out a full page ad in the Palo Alto Daily thanking Ellen Pao for her work to help bring other women up.
I don’t want to compare women or pin two ideas of feminism against each other – that’s not productive. Instead, my goal is to continue being critical and to pivot our understanding of the women in tech problem by paying attention to those people who have dared to make structural changes to benefit other women. Said differently, not one type of feminism is more “legitimate” than another, though the iterations less likely to affect cultural change (e.g., Lean In) have to date been better received by mainstream media and to the tech culture.
Making space for women and minorities on the internet is so important, although we can’t just add women of color and feminists to top spots “and stir.” There are many people who benefit from keeping these spaces as they are, and at times, those voices are still stronger and louder than ours.