October 17, 2021

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How we’re silencing women in tech, one tweet at a time

Commentary: In a series of conversations, women explain how online trolls are demotivating them from talking tech.

Woman annoyed with her computer

Image: Fizkes/Shutterstock

If you’ve been to a virtual conference lately or hung out on Twitter, you might not realize what you’re missing: women. Hopefully, the conference has a healthy roster of women speakers. And, just as hopefully, you follow women on Twitter. But in both places, you’re almost certainly not getting a high-fidelity version of women’s voices. Instead, you’re almost certainly hearing or reading a dumbed-down version of what they could share if only we’d stop shouting them down.

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In a series of conversations with a number of high-profile women in tech, each told me how online abuse has pushed them to retreat. They talk on Twitter, but rarely share insights into hard technical problems. As one senior developer said, “I’m not even able to share 1-2% of the depth of my knowledge on a medium like Twitter.” Why? According to another, “It’s such a headache dealing with the comments on technical tweets.” 

And so we get less technical insight from these and other women, effectively turning them into 1950s American housewives who can talk about their pets but not the distributed server farms they may build and manage. What is wrong with us?

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: Why women are leaving their jobs and how to get them back to work. (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“I can’t do it anymore”

The tech world, and critical communities therein like open source, has never done particularly well with diversity. According to US Bureau of Labor data, just 21.2% of professional developers are women. That’s bad enough, but the relative dearth of women in tech is exacerbated by their relative silence. 

Though I talked with several women in researching this article, each asked that I not reveal their names. Why? They already deal with near-constant abuse online. They wanted to highlight the problem without inviting further abuse. 

SEE: Sexual Harassment Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

But my first conversation wasn’t about online abuse at all. It was the public speaking experience for women.

“I can’t do it anymore,” she told me. “My confidence is not there, even though everyone tells me, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ The reason being is the comments, feedback scores are just horrible, absolutely horrible.” It’s very possible that her feedback scores are low because she might not be a good speaker, right? Sure, possibly. But when the feedback has more to do with her appearance (“she’s hot”, “she should lose weight,” etc.) than what she said, it’s hard to know how to gauge the value of the feedback. This is doubly true in her case when she’s the subject matter expert who develops the content (talk track, trained other presenters, etc.), and then gets graded 20% points below men who delivered her content. 

But, sure, maybe the problem is her. But then it’s a little harder to explain why her scores jumped more than 10% points when she dressed less traditional, less feminine, if you will, and wore jeans and a t-shirt. Suddenly, she seemed smarter. Same content. Same delivery. Different attire. I get criticism on a regular basis for things I write or during public talks–exactly none of it relates to how well my jeans fit. 

“When you are constantly getting these comments, you start to think, ‘Okay. Maybe they are true,'” she told me. “You question yourself and you doubt yourself like, ‘Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.'” So women like her are speaking less or not at all. 

This includes Twitter.

Silencing women one tweet at a time

One woman with whom I spoke, a senior leader at one of the FAANG companies, related how women may start with a “honeymoon phase” on Twitter, but it invariably ends in divorce. Speaking of someone new to Twitter, she said:  

She’s in the honeymoon phase of Twitter. She’s learning and everyone wants to help, to prove how smart they are, but once she’s confident and has hard opinions, then the same people who were so eager to help, to teach her, will be the same ones to tear her down. I found that Twitter was much more peaceful when I kept my tech opinions to myself. I can barely post about management without having to mute the thread.

It’s much the same for others and, perversely, even their demonstrable, superior expertise gets shouted down, as another senior developer related:

I don’t want to talk about the nifty details online [of my work] because random people are trying to teach the basics to me because they don’t understand how much depth I have about the subject already. Then I’m put in a position to [defend] myself or look stupid for not responding to some of the obviously basic questions. There are people who legit still can’t believe some women can be the inventors of what they use day to day even though there are so many examples (current and historical) to refute that.

And so, she continued, “They think they are doing us a ‘service’ by schooling women.” This despite those same women are building the services, or writing the books, upon which these same men depend. 

SEE: Diversity and Inclusion Policy (TechRepublic)

For many of these women, they choose to stay on Twitter and other social platforms, but dumb down the topics they’ll address publicly. I’d noticed that some of the women I most admire in tech rarely talk about tech. I’d thought that was personal preference but in these conversations, each told me it was a deliberate choice to mute their tech voice to make it bearable to be online. 

We have few enough women voices in tech. We can’t afford to silence them. It’s not clear what the ideal solution to the problem is, but one thing we can all do: speak up when we see women getting shouted down, thereby creating safe places for women (and other underrepresented voices) to be heard.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB but the views expressed herein are mine.

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