Even though I didn’t skateboard, I decided that it would be a great idea to buy a Boosted electric skateboard my freshman year at UC Berkeley.
It was the quintessential tech product for the stereotypical “tech bro,” the caricature that peers simultaneously ridiculed and lionized. The “tech bro” was the ideal coder –– he was typically male, sped through Sproul Plaza on his Boosted Board and was always decked out in outdoor apparel brands and AirPods. Under the “tech bro” framework, he was simultaneously nerdy and cool. Most of all, one glance at him and it was clear to everyone he belonged in tech.
Coming from a high school where I was one of two girls in my Advanced Placement computer science class to UC Berkeley, where I found myself in all-male study groups, I felt isolated and grappled with whether I was even cut out for a technical career.
So when I splurged on a Boosted Board, my motives cut deeper than simply wanting to get to class faster. Looking back, I was trying to convince myself that I did belong in tech.
But even though I eventually found my footing in the industry, I still come across moments that remind me of my discomfort with the tech bro culture. I’m never surprised when corporate T-shirts only come in male sizes. I’ve had so many hiring interviews with male interviewers that I breathe a sigh of relief when I hop on a call and find that my interviewer is a woman. Even though I haven’t faced blatant sexist remarks, the lack of female figures and possible mentors in the tech industry still leaves me feeling drained and obligated to prove myself in a sector dominated by men.
But the tech industry wasn’t always swarmed by tech bros. In fact, when the industry first emerged in the United States, women filled most of the tech positions and operated the first computing devices. In 1840, Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program before a computer had even been built. Grace Hopper invented the idea of the compiler.
It was only when tech became more profitable that men remodeled the industry with strongly biased hiring criteria and toxic workplace cultures that excluded women. As characters such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs sprung up and normalized dropping out of college, tech ditched the values of hard work and traditional training, instead hiring and glorifying the image of awkward boy geniuses.
Break rooms at tech offices are furnished with foosball, pingpong and billiards tables –– almost as though they’re man caves. Having beer on tap in tech office microkitchens perpetuates the culture of “cracking open a cold one with the boys.” The masculine undercurrents run so deeply through the tech industry’s veins that its culture seems almost akin to fraternity life.
The issue of toxic masculinity in the tech workplace isn’t confined to the break rooms either — it affects the way our apps, websites and software are designed too. For one, the benchmark for image processing that’s been used for decades in computer science is a photo of a woman named Lena from an issue of Playboy magazine. Apps such as Yelp, which are predominantly used by women, are still designed nearly entirely by men, giving one more reason for men to believe that they get to build the world while women merely live in it.
Women are being denied a voice in this technological reinvention of global culture. And as we hurl through history creating increasingly advanced technologies, we’re also implementing gender biases throughout the algorithms that shape the world.
As much as Silicon Valley prides itself in disruption and innovation, it has paradoxically remained stuck in a sexist system failure. And even the tech industry’s attempts to level the playing field are but ploys of easy fixes. Men in tech write code to hide applicants’ gender during the hiring process or prop up a few women in high positions, and then simply call it a day.
In settling for these solutions, we bend to existing power structures that support the status quo. These changes don’t make men suddenly see women as their equal counterparts nor do they make women feel less isolated in a culture where men are the focus, which should be considered the bare minimum. Instead of “needing more female CEOs,” what needs to change are the business models and hierarchies that continue to inflate men’s power in the industry.
Since freshman year, I’ve long since ditched my Boosted board and abandoned trying to conform to the “tech bro” homogeneity that is ever pervasive in the tech industry. But of course, I’m still struggling with asserting myself in the tech space as a woman.
I’m working on sending decisive messages on Slack without the excessive use of emojis and exclamation marks to make myself seem friendlier. I’m trying to stand my ground more firmly about the code that I write. I want to pitch my ideas in male-dominated meetings without feeling like I’m clamoring for validation and approval.
The longer I find myself working in tech, the more that I find myself noticing the masculine roots that drive technological change. And I’m over it. The main circuit board of a computer is called the motherboard for a reason, and it’s about time that the tech sector respects the half of the population that helped build this industry.
Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.