When Apple and Facebook announced an egg-freezing programme for women employees, the immediate response from the people I respect was that this is creepy corporatism gone even creepier – nasty and essentialist, breaking employees down to discrete biological functions, trying to control each one that we might work better, harder, more consistently.
Though I have sympathy with the dystopian view, I would also take a moment to congratulate these companies on doing something that feels very 1990s: seeing their staff as valuable, irreplaceable assets.
This might lead them down some intrusive alleys as they seek to find innovative, “techie” ways to retain their people, but at least they discuss them as people. I like companies that can still say “human capital” without smirking over the word “human”.
But they are making two major mistakes, aside from the fact that the whole thing sounds like something from the sci-fi film Gattaca. The first is a general error, not limited to the tech industry: if you want to persuade a woman that her work is compatible with having a family, the first thing you must accept is that it’s none of your business whether she wants a family or not.
A company that could take on a woman as they would a man – someone who may have people they care about more than their job – would illustrate that by not referencing her ovaries at all.
Then, if a woman announces a pregnancy to her employer, the employer should throw maternity leave, money and flexibility at her. This is “continuing professional development” and an investment in the future. Not seeing it as a problem would solve almost all of the problem.
If you had told me in the 1990s that we would still be having to point this stuff out, I would have gone back to bed and just slept through the intervening two decades.
Particular to the tech industry, though, is a bald sexism that can make your eyes pop out. I first heard this from two seismically impressive young women: Anne-Marie Imafidon, who runs Stemettes, to champion women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and Cate Huston, who used to work for a large tech company and now co-runs her own business. Huston remarked dryly on Twitter: “Spending day surrounded by tech dudes annihilated my desire/ability to date. If I wanted kids that would have worried me.”
I was astonished. Last time I wrote about these women I got complaints from feminists: “How am I supposed to get my daughters interested in tech if you keep pedalling these stories?” As if the best way to attract women was to misinform them by omission.
Huston had told me about casual sexual harassment, knee-jerk assumptions about the inferiority of female engineers and coders, and workplace exclusion. Such attitudes would, even in the financial sector, land you in a tribunal. It looks to me like a classic diversity paradox: just as giving the police the power to stop and search indiscriminately results in discriminatory behaviour, so the “new frontier, new rules” atmosphere around tech leads to behaviour that is not new at all but that is Neanderthal.
Last week it was the Grace Hopper Celebration 2014 (GCH14), an annual conference of women in computing. The backdrop to this year’s event was “gamergate”, in which Zoe Quinn, having designed a game in August that some men thought had displaced a man-created game, had to leave her house in fear for her life.
For women in this industry, visibility is accompanied by the spectre of violence, which hovers until they take steps to make themselves invisible.
In quotidian computing work, women are few: 31% of Facebook’s workforce, but only 15% of its technical workforce. More than 50% of women in technical positions drop out within 10 years, but because of motherhood. Many leave for a career where they are not treated as second class.
At the GHC14 – a conference to celebrate women, remember – the keynote speaker was Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, who stood up and told women not to ask for a pay rise because, if they were any good, the money would be delivered to them by “karma”. A “male allies” panel comprised Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, whose line was “the best thing you can do is excel”.
Female attendees tweeted openly that they had been driven to despair by this.
These thickets of misogyny are the bits of Planet Tech that you can see from space. Egg-freezing isn’t the half of it, but it provides a window to the way women are perceived – valuable as brains, but also instrumental, inconvenient, biddable, lesser. – © Guardian News & Media 2014
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist