Sexism in tech
Earlier this year, the co-founder of the games producer Atari, Nolan Bushnell, was blacklisted from a prestigious industry award. The Pioneer Award, given each year at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), recognises individuals who have developed a breakthrough technology, game design or concept. As a leading developer of home video games in the 1970s to 1980s, few would contest Bushnell’s merit for the award on technological grounds. His behaviour towards women, on the other hand, tells a different story.
In his autobiography, Bushnell openly recounted behaving in an inappropriate way towards female employees, and encouraging a sexually aggressive culture at Atari. When the GDC announced their intent to award the Pioneer accolade to Bushnell, an outcry went up on social media, and the decision was overturned. Many have applauded the GDC for taking this action, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to the current state of the technology world.
Young, white and male
Take a look at the profiles of any of the world’s technology businesses, startups, or entrepreneurs and you’ll find something they all have in common. They are overwhelmingly male. This is a trend found not only in Silicon Valley, whose inhabitants have become famous for their misogynistic behaviour, but around the world. For the most part, these tech moguls are young too – 16 members of Forbes’ richest 100 in tech from 2017 were under 40. Consider Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, who first published his white paper on the technology at the age of 19. Now, at 24, he is the golden boy of blockchain, and his name has become a seal of success for any cryptocurrency project. But boy wonders like Buterin are far from an anomaly. When we think of the biggest players in tech – Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel, Elon Musk – we are mostly confronted with young, white males. Their success is great news for these men as individuals, but what does this trend say about the wider technology sector?
Addressing the problem of diversity
Diversity is strength in the technology industry for two distinct reasons. Firstly, tech companies, like all businesses, are more profitable if they have diverse workforces. According to a 2017 study by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to experience above average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. It isn’t difficult to work out why. Diversity brings different ideas to business, helping to foster innovation. By employing workers of different genders, from different backgrounds, and with different talents, companies can stimulate debate, target diverse market sectors, and avoid the dreaded existence of the boardroom as an echo chamber.
Secondly, diversity in tech is of crucial importance because of the way that new technologies are shaping the world’s institutions. In the past, women have faced exclusion from the public sphere because its organisations were created for and around the needs of men. Such structural bias is extremely difficult to redress when it pervades everything from government to private business – a fact that is borne out by the inequalities women still face in the public sphere today. In the modern age, when disruptive technology is changing the way that the world operates, we could have the chance to create a more equal society for everyone. When the majority of the world’s technology workers come from the same demographic, however, this becomes a difficult feat.
It is an increasingly known fact that computer programmes reflect human bias. If technology developers are all similar in profile, then they are likely to produce the same kinds of products. This is of particular concern when we consider the growing influence of AI. When AI eventually gains control of greater functions in our everyday lives, we will be ruled by the bias inherent in its coding. If we want our future society to reflect the needs of all of its members, then we need to make sure that the technology which supports it isn’t overly influenced by one kind of person.
In the technology sector, as in the rest of life, women’s issues are everyone’s issues. Beyond repulsive cultures of sexual harassment in the workplace, the exclusion of certain demographics from tech is having a knock on effect on the fabric of our future society. Technology companies need to become more inclusive now before it is too late.
What can companies do to improve diversity in the technology sector? Are quotas a viable solution to the male dominated world of tech? How can we best tackle misogynistic attitudes in the workplace? Share your thoughts and opinions.