A few months ago, I stared out of the window, wondering whether to change my name. I’d been advised I “might consider” doing so if I wanted to report on video gaming. It was hard to imagine a cacophony of hate in a silent house under the quiet shade of 100-year-old chestnut trees.
But women in tech, such as games developer Zoe Quinn, had told me about being terrorised or “screamed at by a Nazi” over the phone, at night. Quinn was targeted by groups – mostly of young men – who saw her as a symbol of anti-misogynist gaming, to which they objected.
It was threats such as these that prompted the SXSW tech conference to cancel panels on women in gaming and online harrassment early this week.
Abuse is now “a job hazard for all female writers”, according to United States journalist and author Nina Burleigh, who’s been “threatened and trolled”. Those writing about technology, from games to gadgets, draw the most venom.
I wondered whether women were having to hide their identity, not to work in tech, but just to write about it. Research I conducted for Nottingham Trent University found one in five female journalists covering technology has disguised her gender to avoid sexist abuse, and nearly 40% have changed working practices for fear of being targeted.
Female writers disguising their gender is not new. “We had a vague impression that authoresses are likely to be looked on with prejudice,” wrote Charlotte Brontë in 1846 to explain why she and her sisters (aka Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell) had used male noms de plume.
But of the female tech journalists who replied to the survey, 62% said they had experienced sexist abuse, compared with 50% of female journalists who reported similar attacks to the Women’s Media Foundation.
What comes across in the hundreds of anonymous comments is a chilling normality: “Insults about my knowledge, rape threats, the usual,” writes one. “Commenters routinely call me names when I write about topics like bitcoin and diversity in tech,” says another.
The 100 respondents also describe a plague of face-to-face incidents, from “sexist views” in the newsroom to being “hit on” and “stalked”. Four out of 10 said fear of attack has altered their writing. One woman reveals: “I’ve learned how to keep quiet so as to reduce abuse.”
Another recounts giving her article to a male colleague to file, to escape attacks. And: “I avoid topics I really want to speak about because I know I can’t handle the backlash.”
Like Brontë, George Eliot and Harper Lee before them, 20% disguise their femaleness by writing anonymously or under a non-gender-specific name.
“For years, I used the byline LA Lorek instead of Laura Lorek to avoid criticism as a female business writer,” the chief executive at SiliconHillsNews.com says.
Only 35% of tech journalists are female, according to a Colombia Journalism Review report. Now some are putting down their pens for good: “The other female journalists I know are brave and strong,” one told me, “but they shouldn’t have to be.”
And in the masked ball that is social media, the actual number of women denying their gender could be far higher. I only contacted those currently identifying as female.
To put it in some context, 73% of US male science and technology journalists surveyed by University of Wisconsin-Madison students last year reported “no gender-related experiences”, compared with 19% of females. “We’re seen as interlopers,” says Quinn.
There are rays of hope: only a third of women I surveyed think abuse is getting worse in the long term.
Nikki Moore, founder of GirlGeekChic.com, says: “It’s got a lot better over the years. In part [because of] the increase in the number of women who now work in tech and awareness around this.”
Nevertheless, an overwhelming 86% surveyed agreed that “more should be done to stop sexist abuse”.
The Nottingham Trent University study is “an important step”, believes Professor Carolyn Byerly, coauthor of the Women and Media report. “More and more women must speak, write, organise against men’s violence and other wrongdoing and bring these out into the open and develop ways to address and stop them,” she said.
Yet, a recent report claimed women are currently leaving Silicon Valley “in droves”. It’s now clear that they are abandoning technology journalism too. One wonders how long women will have to go on clamouring for change, many hiding their gender as they do so. – © Guardian News & Media 2015