TV & Movies

Breaking the Code: Tech's Sexism Problem

Spat on, threatened or ignored—women in tech have had a very bad year. Lauren McKeon asks what it takes to transform a sexist culture

Real women in tech

(Photo: Getty Images)

As a kid growing up in Nanaimo, B.C., Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch spent all her babysitting money at the arcade. Together with a crowd of boys and girls, she played Centipede, Astroids and Pac-​Man. Now, Bailey Gershkovitch, 47, is the co-​founder and CEO of Vancouver-​based Silicon Sisters Interactive, a studio that designs video games specifically for girls and women. Its first game, School 26, which stars a teen named Kate who negotiates the moral dilemmas of high school, is a worldwide bestseller, with more than one million downloads in 36 countries. Bailey Gershkovitch remembers the ’80s as an important time in tech history—before games were aggressively macho, before the industry decided that girls don’t like them and started designing them only for boys. “Girls have always loved technology,” she says. “We just got shut out.”

The stats back up Bailey Gershkovitch’s statement. Across Canadian universities, only 27 percent of math, computer science and information science grads are women, and jobs at the top tech firms are overwhelmingly taken by men: according to Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 rankings, only two Canadian tech companies on their list have female CEOs, only six have female founders or co-founders and only eight have more than one woman in leadership or management positions. Moreover, females make up only 30 percent of Twitter’s and Google’s staff and 31 percent of Facebook’s. As a result, horror stories of nerd-​bro, frat-​pack culture and deep-​running sexism abound.

This past June, Whitney Wolfe, then a 24-​year-​old Tinder vice-president, filed a discrimination, sexual harassment and defamation suit against the dating app company. Her case was rife with allegations of sexual harassment on the part of Tinder chief marketing officer Justin Mateen, whom Wolfe dated briefly. (Lowlights include being spat on at a work party.) She alleges the company stripped her of her co-​founder title, claiming that having a female co-​founder devalued Tinder; the suit has since been dropped without admission of wrongdoing.

In August, an Internet army of male gamers on Reddit, 4chan and various other online communities rallied against independent game developer Zoe Quinn for allegedly cheating on her boyfriend, a blogger and gamer who posted a chronicle of their relationship on a website he created for the purpose of bashing her. They accused Quinn of sleeping her way to good reviews and, ironically, setting back the cause of women in gaming. The incident incited an online war between gamers and the gaming media, which has since been dubbed GamerGate. The virtual conflict reached fever pitch after the Toronto-​born media and game critic Anita Sarkeesian posted YouTube commentary highlighting demeaning images of women in games. In October, Sarkeesian was targeted with death threats, including one from a man who vowed to carry out a mass shooting at Utah State University, where she was scheduled to give a talk.

Meanwhile, another controversy broke, centred on Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, who told a predominately female audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Phoenix not to ask for raises. Instead, he encouraged them to, as he tactlessly put it, have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises.” Women could be forgiven for having little faith in the tech system. That’s why many are working to change it.

Kirstine Stewart, 46, Twitter’s vice-​president of media for North America, is set to release a book about female leadership called Our Turn: Time for a New Kind of Leader, which will be published by Random House Canada in fall 2015. The book is a sort of Canadian follow-​up to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. In it, Stewart argues that millennial companies must embrace a new type of leadership based on multi­tasking, good listening, flexibility and stellar communication—all skills typically held by women. Whereas once, we were expected to act like men—to wear pantsuits, to refrain from showing emotion, to act tough—now we’re free to communicate and lead in a style that’s more natural to us, she argues.

Stewart tells me the tech industry may actually be the best place for women as the corporate world shifts to this more social model. “For one, it’s probably the most pioneering field out there,” she says. “It has to be adaptive, reflective and fast.” That means the gender imbalance could change quickly. Plus, the traditional male “suits,” adds Stewart, have never really been in power in the tech industry—a woman in heels can thrive just as well as a nerd in a hoodie. But can that same woman thrive in a sea of hoodied nerds? When I push her on the perception of a new boys’ club in tech, she acknowledges it’s a problem. “I get those challenges, but I don’t think you can change that culture unless there are more of us. We need to make sure there are more of us,” she says, outlining a chicken-egg situation. She urges women to enter the field and mentor young female upstarts.

Jade Raymond, the founder and former managing director for the gaming firm Ubisoft Toronto, is arguably the most successful female game developer in the world (she’s responsible for the multi-​million-​dollar Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II). I spoke to her this past summer, before she stepped down from her post in October, and she echoed Stewart’s sentiment. “If you look at a team of people who are making these games and they’re all white dudes in their 20s wearing the same Gap T-​shirt and baseball cap,” she says, “you kind of wonder, how are we going to end up with something that appeals to a broad demographic and worldwide market?” By the end of her tenure, the number of female employees at Ubisoft Toronto’s 340-​staff office sat at 20 percent, and half of the leadership team was women (these numbers remain since she left). She feels that if the industry fosters a culture that is only representative of a tiny, specific portion of the population, it will continue to make products for that same, small consumer base—an unprofitable proposition, given that in 2013, 46 percent of game players in Canada were women. Raymond is known for imbuing her games with uncommon moral complexity—a quality some critics see as both a product of her female perspective and an appeal to female gamers. I asked her if there’s anything she’d like to change about the industry. She lets loose a short laugh, then fixes me with a sudden, serious look: “Well, I would like to see more women.” If she has two equal candidates, she confesses, and one is a man and the other is a woman, she’ll hire the woman.


(Photo: Getty Images)

Although Raymond and Stewart acknowledge the need for more women in tech, they’re both reluctant to talk about sexism directly. It’s easy to understand why. For all its supposed progressiveness, the technology community—and I’m not just talking about poorly socialized gamers—moves swiftly against women it deems too loud or too visible. In July, Lindsay Kirkham, a Toronto English prof and part-time website designer, overheard two male IBM executives discuss female hires. She live-​tweeted the exchange: “Apparently IBM doesn’t like hiring young women because they are ‘just going to get themselves pregnant again and again and again’” and “They went on to say that they only look at ‘mature women’ who aren’t likely to have kids. Absolutely awful.”

Many women—and men—in the Twittersphere cheered Kirkham for highlighting the prevalent sexist attitudes in the industry, and shared similar conversations they’d witnessed. One woman wrote, “As I sit here reading this my 10yo daughter is on computer learning to code. ::sigh:: this has to get better.”

Meanwhile, other Internet commenters accused Kirkham of lying for 15 minutes of fame. She even received rape threats—an unfortunately common trend among women who speak out in the tech world.

Bailey Gershkovitch received her first rape and death threat as she and her fellow co-​founder, Kirsten Forbes, prepared to launch Silicon Sisters in 2010. She says the trolls focused on her simply because she wanted to build games for girls. It’s not something she likes talking about. “I didn’t show anybody. I took the don’t-feed-the-trolls approach,” she says, “and it worked for me.” She’s careful to say it’s not the right approach for everyone; she has tremendous respect for women who’ve stood up amid the GamerGate onslaught.

I also spoke to three Toronto women, Shauna Roe, Rachel Kennedy and Monica Remba (aged 23, 25 and 32, respectively), who launched a social media boycott called Swipe Strike in response to the Tinder scandal this past summer. Furious that a dating company could fail to recognize the value of women, they asked users to replace their Tinder profile photos with giant Xs in support of Wolfe. How would a company based largely on hetero matchmaking survive without one half of its clientele? Would Tinder realize it needed women then? But even these outspoken advocates have asked me to make it clear the project is their own. Kennedy is worried about offending clients in the tech industry. As Roe says, it’s natural to assume that things could go wrong when they speak up. At the same time, she adds, more women need to think about what could go right. By creating a movement where women can unite, the pressure of being singled out lessens. “Someone has to open the door,” adds Remba. “Women do need to band together, but with men as well.”

Many women are doing exactly as Roe and Remba suggest. In the past three years, female-​led technology organizations have sprung up in Canada. Among the most prominent and successful are Ladies Learning Code and Girls in Tech Toronto, a local offshoot of the global GIT organization. When Ladies Learning Code launched in 2011, its founders were astounded at how fast the monthly workshops, which cover things like HTML fundamentals, sold out: 80 spots gone in 30 seconds. It was like a rock concert. Co-founder and co–executive director Laura Plant, 32, told me she remembers thinking, What have we gotten ourselves into? Sensing they were on to something—that it wasn’t a small group of women who wanted more tech learning opportunities, but a super​sized one—three of the four founders quit their jobs and incorporated Ladies Learning Code as a not-​for-​profit. In just a few years, the organization expanded to 18 cities across Canada, and it’s still growing.

Girls in Tech Toronto rose from a similar need to fill a gap. In 2011, Neha Khera, 32, and Lucia Mariani, 37, the GIT Toronto founders, were both looking for, as Mariani puts it, “a community that didn’t exist.” They wanted women with whom they could network and commiserate. Now, every couple of months, they host an event called the Power Hour Social, which is designed to give women in tech a platform to show off, the idea being that the more women see others in tech doing cool, inspiring things, the more they’ll want to do them too. The group has organized about 15 events at which women share their experiences at such companies as Wattpad, the wildly popular site for fiction writers and readers. The talks are also attracting men who realize they can learn something from the industry’s most talented women.

The biggest names in the tech world have started similar initiatives within their companies to encourage and support women. Melissa Dominguez, 39, is a senior software engineer at Google in Waterloo, Ont., who also heads the Kitchener-Waterloo region’s chapter of Google Women in Engineering. The group’s mission, she says, is to make sure women know they’re never alone, but also to ensure Google is a good place for them to work. Still, Dominguez says one of the biggest factors that holds women back isn’t just workplace culture, but lack of self-​confidence. Or, as Stewart says, “women almost just need to get over their insecurities.” At some point, she continues, lacking confidence is a luxury we have to overcome if we’re going to step up and contribute. Dominguez adds that Google encourages female employees to apply for available promotions—research found they weren’t self-​nominating as much as men.

Yet, even if Canadian tech culture isn’t Tinder-​level sexist, it remains a sausage fest. While researching this piece, I came to realize that what concerns women in tech most isn’t necessarily the working environment, but the daunting fact the scales may never tip closer to 50-50—that girls and women will continue to see technology as a place that is not for them. In answer to this problem, Ladies Learning Code has also launched Girls Learning Code and Kids Learning Code. Plant is the youth program director at Ladies Learning Code. When I visit the Toronto office, the place is buzzing with kid energy. It’s the first day of an entrepreneurship-​themed Girls Learning Code camp. Over the course of the week, the girls build their own start-​ups and learn a vast range of skills, like how to design a business plan. Ideas so far include a wearable app that identifies the fabric of a person’s clothing and another that helps teenagers find their first job. Girl Guides of Canada has also stepped up to promote technology with engineering and computer skills badges.

Plant believes the way technology is positioned to younger girls right now is a huge problem—in that it’s hardly positioned to them at all. There is still a dominant mentality that boys are better at those things, she says, exclaiming, “How ridiculous!” Girls Learning Code offers young women an alternative story: that technology is exciting, infinitely useful and empowering. It is for them because it is for everybody. In 2014, the organization also launched a co-​ed class (although it never lets boys become the majority). On a practical level, Plant and the other founders want to give boys the opportunity to learn the same fun, cutting-​edge skills they’re teaching girls. They also hope it will help normalize a gender-​diverse working environment—to squash the boys’ club before it can even begin.

Code Breakers
A brief history of women in tech

Ada LovelaceCirca 1842
Ada Lovelace
An English mathematician known as the world’s first-​ever computer programmer writes an algorithm on a mechanical proto-​computer called the Analytical Engine.

Edith Clarke
The first woman to earn a master of science in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clarke invents an early graphic calculator.

The electronic numerical integrator and computer programmers1946
The electronic numerical integrator and computer pro​grammers

Six women manually run the first all-​electronic programmable computer, composed of approximately ​18,000 vacuum tubes, 40 eight-​foot panels and 3,000 switches.

Grace Hopper1969
Grace Hopper
The Yale-​educated math PhD invents the first computer compiler, a code-​translating tool that helped make the PC revolution possible. (Our cover star Gillian Jacobs directed a documentary short on Hopper that will be released early this year.)

Karen Spärck Jones
A British programmer who refines the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF), on which modern search engines are based.

Radia Perlman
An MIT-​educated software designer often called “the mother of the Internet” develops the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which made today’s Internet possible.

Ginni Rometty
A computer scientist and electrical engineer turned business exec becomes IBM’s first female CEO.

Marissa Mayer2012
Marissa Mayer
A Stanford computer science grad who became Google’s first female engineer back in 1999 becomes CEO of Yahoo and also acquires Tumblr.