Since the 1970s, the gender imbalance in technology has been in an embarrassing, mystifying holding pattern.
In IT and in computing degrees the gender split remains roughly 4/1––the same as four decades ago. Only 3 per cent of tech startups are founded by women.
In the meantime, the percentage of women grads in law and medicine has almost reached parity (up from around 10 per cent in 1970), and the number of women in the US military has quintupled.
So why does a discipline so boastful of its impact on the future seem to live so firmly in the past?
In the rush to decipher this problem, serious people have tried to blame the unreconstructed teenage misogyny of rich nerds, the surfeit of male math teachers and subtle gender biases in the way job ads are written.
Yet all these problems afflict women in legal, military and medical careers—and somehow those sectors have managed to move forward.
The truth is, men dominate technology because technology is a religion.
This rarely gets talked about because many of us consider tech entrepreneurs to be arch-rationalists with no religious beliefs. But actually, Silicon Valley is overflowing with borderline religious institutions and utopian cults dedicated to the goal of transcendence, and particularly male transcendence.
The overtly transcendental beliefs of many of tech’s superstars seep through the industry and encourage junior acolytes to shun and exclude women, and to ignore issues that women are often more interested in—namely practical stuff that actually benefits real people living today.
Take the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (recently renamed to avoid confusion with the like-minded Singularity University). It counts among its chief funders and supporters Peter Thiel (PayPal’s co-founder and the first outside investor in Facebook), Google’s Larry Page, and Telsa Motors’ CEO and real-life Iron Man Elon Musk.
The Singularity Institute advocates research into the technological singularity – a hypothesised moment in history when humans become immortal through their convergence with technology. Its wealthy curates proclaim that the singularity will eliminate the suffering of corporeal existence, and therefore everything that medicine and law and other more gender representative disciplines care about.
Sublime robots do not need palliative care or restorative justice.
From the outside, the Singularity Institute bears eerie similarities to the Freemasons, another rich peoples’ cult built around the ‘hot career’ of its day––civil engineering. For engineers of the 18th and 19th centuries, the impressive scale and the life transforming nature of contemporary civic projects––bridges, dams, railways––convinced many they were actually involved in fulfilling God’s plan to render a paradise on earth. The story is complex, but Freemasonry can perhaps best be summarised as a belief in transcendence-through-town-planning.
And of course, women were not only excluded from joining the Freemasons, they were forbidden from crossing the threshold of Masonic lodges.
Many of the Singularity Institute’s backers have also poured money into the Seasteading Institute, a maritime transcendence cult where the shackles of government and society are cast off not through the technological singularity but by creating floating cities that can anchor in lawless international waters. Free from the pernicious influences of the mainland, seasteaders can pursue whatever radical libertarian goals they wish, including Frankenstein science and social engineering experiments in child rearing, relationships, schooling, and work.
But, as n+1 magazine recently said: ‘there’s nothing preventing a hypothetical start-up country from regressing into a patriarchal, Paleo-Futuristic state. If anything, the [seasteading] movement’s reverence for caveman essentialism suggests the latter.’
It is probably worth bearing in mind at this point that libertarianism and transcendentalism often stand for the same thing in Silicon Valley: a childish desire for absolute freedom that casts women as the enemy.
Indeed, where transcendence through science, engineering, or technology is concerned, women get in the way and muddy the waters with their demands for very boring things like social justice and food for at least most people.
Peter Thiel said as much in an essay on a Cato Institute website a few years ago:
The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women - two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians - have rendered the notion of "capitalist democracy" into an oxymoron.
Thiel’s message echoes that of Walter Charleton, one of the founding members of science's own culty boys' club, The Royal Society, who said of women:
'You are the traitors to Wisdom, the impediment to Industry, the clogs to virtue, and goads that drive us all to Vice, Impiety, and ruine. You are the fools Paradise, the Wiseman's Plague, and the grand Error of Nature.'
Every time we’re told by the goliaths of the tech world that they’re saving humanity by creating stratospheric balloons to supply wifi to African villages or sending private starships into deep space, we need to remember that these utopian dreams are often motivated by a cloistered group of fairly unusual billionaires and gnomic thought leaders, many of whom are falling into the same transcendental traps that the Freemasons, the Catholic Church and others have tripped on before.
And these transcendental beliefs traditionally involve the exclusion of women.
Just as Christian religions describe Eve ripped from Adam’s ribcage in a laughable attempt to bestow the miracle of birth on men, so ownership over the birth of truly groundbreaking ideas in science and technology is usually ripped off women and given to men – consider the way British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin had her critical research into DNA purloined by Francis Crick and James Watson. Or the scant attention paid to Ada Lovelace, the eccentric daughter of Lord Byron and the first computer programmer.
The aura of transcendence not only signifies that women are not welcome. What is happening behind the temple doors often has an enormous importance for how our society is shaped and run.
If you’re wondering why, for instance, Twitter has been so slow to respond to rape threats made against women, or why all of the major tech companies seem to be complicit in the construction of an NSA managed Orwellian surveillance state, it could be because without women in tech, our future is likely to be one where the perspective of women is marginalised and where democracy is trashed in favour of an elite transcendentalism that is happy to flirt with whatever political model keeps it afloat.
As the feminist academic Cynthia Cockburn has argued:
'Transcendence is a wrong-headed concept. It means escape from the earthbound and repetitive, climbing above the everyday. It means putting men on the moon before feeding and housing the world's poor.’
‘[T]he revolutionary step would be to bring men down to earth.'