The gender imbalance in technology

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Photo: Getty

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?

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In the rush to decipher this problem, serious people have tried to blame the unreconstructed teenage misogyny of rich nerdsthe 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.'

9 comments

  • Yes good story. I was part of a study of this issue and wrote a journal article called 'Technology Loving Luddites' where I argued it was the lifestyle that young people, particularly girls, were rejecting. This adds more insight to these findings.

    Commenter
    Cazwellreid
    Date and time
    August 08, 2013, 8:14AM
    • Agree it's a lifestyle issue. My very clever daughter refuses to join any corporation as the culture is abhorrent to her. An army of boring neat uniformed drones selected by HR departments bent on recreating the consistency of propaganda driven agendas. History is full of political examples of chanting brainless thinking suppressing individualism. Even worse, opponents are ostracised. When I meet people from corporate life I am frightened by their cultish praise of their employer. But hey it is how they survive. I think men work better in this way. They grow up all wearing the same uniform, clothes and ply sports where they learn to be one of the gang. Girls grow up more able to express their individualism. And they support each other. In corporate life when a guy stuffs up he is stabbed to death by his competitors. Women come forward to express support for their sister. The IT world has a male engineering culture and will not change until technology becomes a utensil to use in business and no more.

      Commenter
      A don
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 08, 2013, 10:00AM
      • And don't forget - that every Revenge of the Nerds story I have ever seen involves having the "cheerleaders" and models fall on the now fabulously wealthy and powerful technocrats...... after all they are still men and as evolved as our politicians when it comes to balancing the intellect and the ID.

        Commenter
        Linka
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 08, 2013, 11:28AM
        • not sure where you work, but in the engineering department of my university doing postgrad my last lab was 2:1 female/male, now this lab it's 50/50. actually come to think of it where do you work?

          Commenter
          hhh
          Date and time
          August 08, 2013, 11:43AM
          • Well that article veered off in a direction I wasn't expecting.

            I'm not sure that the peculiarities of the Singularity or Seasteading Institutes have a lot of day-to-day relevance to the gender imbalance in tech fields, but it was certainly fascinating, and not something I'd previously read about.

            Commenter
            The Claw
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            August 08, 2013, 11:54AM
            • Interesting is probably the only word you could use to describe the article, as apart from the single sentence "And these transcendental beliefs traditionally involve the exclusion of women" that is not then really followed up with, there is not really anything in the article that indicates how the existence of such elite groups within the technology world has any relevance to anything, let alone to gender inequality.

              If the assumption going in is that women are genetically/socially pre-disposed to being more compassionate toward their fellow human beings than men, I could see where the reasoning comes from.
              But such an assumption is a sexist stereotype to begin with, so not really a great start to an article on gender inequality.

              Commenter
              Markus
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              August 08, 2013, 1:43PM
          • Having worked in IT for the last 20 years, I can agree with the imbalance ratio. I don't like working in the industry anymore and haven't for years. I've been sexually harrassed, racially vilified and put up with "Boys Club" mentalities in some companies. However, the way I see it is, when my daughter finishes high school in a few years, I will leave the industry and start over in the industry I love and have been studying for.

            As horrible as it is, it pays the bills rather well at the moment. Got to have some perks after all.

            Commenter
            Geekgal
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            August 08, 2013, 3:05PM
            • It must be pointed out that the gender imbalance exists only in the Western world.
              In my Masters degree - made up of almost all Asian students - there was a balance between men and women. It seems Chinese, Indian girls see IT as a desirable job.
              I suspect that the Geek stereotype view of IT persists here.

              Commenter
              gabe
              Location
              fitz
              Date and time
              August 08, 2013, 4:29PM
              • As a female mechanical engineer and scientist, i can't help but feel a little insulted by this piece. I don't understand what 'transcendence' has to do with sexism in the IT industry. It's a non-sequitor. The whole point of there being science and technology is to transcend the human condition. What has that got to do with sexism? Scientific breakthroughs have benefited as many women as it has men through sanitation, medicine, medical diagnostics and transportation so how is this sexist? To make the broad generalisation that men are selfish and women are all 'caring and nurturing' is a little sexist to be honest. There are plenty of selfish women who have the ability to influence the world for good, yet only work for their self interest, example, GINA RINEHART. At the same time there are plenty of men who dedicate their lives to bettering the quality of life for those less fortunate, example Tim Costello.

                The conclusion that IT is sexist is correct. However the writer presented some terrible arguments for his flimsy premises. IT is sexist, yes, but not for the reasons you stated. IT is sexist because ALL INDUSTRIES ARE SEXIST. The culture is changing with increasing female representation, a trend you see in most industries, especially medicine and engineering. It's a matter of time before IT heads that way too.

                Commenter
                lc
                Location
                brisbane
                Date and time
                August 08, 2013, 4:48PM
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