Last Friday, Valleywag published a post about the tech sector's increasing abuse of the term “culture fit” as a way to discriminate against potential hires who don't match the pattern of a successful startup employee. It prompted an outpouring of responses from readers about their own abysmal experiences with the euphemism.
The best anecdotal evidence for her observation may well have been in the comments to our post. Stories about being marginalized or passed over by their male peers started in Computer Science class and continued through the hiring and promotion process, layering on ageism if they managed to get that far.
Recently, Scripting News founder Dave Winer asked why there are so few female programmers. "Now, I'm sure there is sexism, probably a lot of sexism. But I also think there's something about programming that makes many women not want to do it."
So, Dave, here are a few answers:
When I was a grad student at Princeton in CS, before CS nerds ran most of the women out, I was leading a study session for some younger grad students when I saw some amazing international sexism on display. A woman, who would later have a pretty good position at Google, was explaining a homework problem about which there was some controversy. Every guy in the room, the southerner, the Jewish New Yorker, the Greek guy, and a few more, ignored her and me and started arguing with each other. And that was mild. The part that drove me away was the macho perfectionistic competitive criticism. Whether the criticism was worse because I was a woman or not, I couldn't live with it. -peacelovecrazy
I no longer touch code because I couldn't deal with the constant dismissing and undermining of even my most basic work by the "brogramming" gulag I worked for. And that started even when I was in school. I was the ONLY female in my university's mid-level programming courses and even though I worked to hard to always be in the top 95% of the curve, if a pasty white guy with thin-rimmed glasses and a tee-shirt with an "ironic" phrase doubted me, I was wrong.
I have a sometimes-mentor that's a woman who has started several tech start-ups. The stories she's told me from VC meetings are horrifying. VCs straight-up refusing to talk to her, blatantly propositioning her in exchange for funding, or literally asking her to bring a man to the meeting "so she has a tech consult" (she's brilliant at tech with a track record to prove it). Seriously, this shit is endemic. -RuthSlayderGinsburg
On the first day of my Intro to Computer Science class, the professor (who was incidentally the chair of the division, don't know why he was teaching the 110 class) actually got up in front of the lecture hall and outright TOLD the women in the class that they should drop the class. Because, they're just going to drop out of the program anyway and meanwhile they're preventing a guy from being there who would see the program through, and it's important to these guys' careers. I am not exaggerating even a little.
That intro class was about 40% women. Almost all of us dropped the class immediately, not because we thought we couldn't hack the work or weren't interested — we wouldn't have signed up for it in that case — but because we felt certain that no matter how well we performed, that professor was going to find a way to screw us over. I later became friends with a female computer science major, who told me that being in the program was like swimming with sharks. No one helped her, and many belittled her. When she graduated, she felt a sense of accomplishment and relief, but also a wave of "FUCK YOU" rage.
I have an ex who frequently asserted that he and his team should not have to accept working with women if they didn't want to. He believed this should apply regardless of candidate quality and suitability to the actual work. He was in IT.
I actually think there is a bit of logic to it - if a person makes everyone else miserable then overall productivity could go down, and a marginally better hire turns into a bad choice. That said, I watched the same guy brag about him and his buddies sabotaging female candidates' chances, and they all were open about thinking women were just inherently inferior at the work and STEM in general (one once told me, "You're female, you're physically incapable of understanding science").
In that sort of context it's hard to imagine 'cultural fit' being applied in a way that's even remotely fair or productivity-oriented. Honestly, that experience was a contributing factor in my going into low level hardware design. It's a lot harder to bullshit, and the skills are sought after enough that your lack of desire to drink beer and play BF3 in the office is going to be outweighed by your actual ability in enough cases to generally keep you in employment -gerbilllll
There's some crucial failure to comprehend here in all the defensive "but culture fit is important because blah" comments: "It's almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team." The point is the "uncritical" part. We're allowed to criticize your "culture fit" claims if we think they're being used as an excuse not to hire someone because they're female. I understand that it can be a little weird if she's the only female engineer, and I should know; I am ALWAYS the only female engineer. Consider this though, if she has a great attitude, is a team player and she kicks ass at code and you don't hire her because she has a vagina, she's going to go and work for your competitor and kick ass there. I've done a LOT of interviews in the past 15 years here in the Valley. It's really hard to find good people - the job market is absolutely swamped with total n00bs and bullshitters. If you pass up a candidate who kicks ass, just because she has a vagina, you're an idiot and you deserve to lose to that other company. Same with any other type of discrimination. This is a VERY competitive industry. You can't afford to discriminate based on things that really don't matter - Margipunk
I had an interview for a very well know tech based non-profit. During that interview the ED stated that they hired based upon several criteria... including "visual minority" status.
What's that you ask?
As explained to me: It's when you can look around the room and "see diversity". I did not get the position, I am Indian.
I ended up getting a position at another non-profit almost immediately after - so it wasn't an issue for me... but hearing that in the interview kinda made me happy that I didn't have to work in an environment like that. . .
I was aghast that someone in a position like they were, from an international web based non-profit, would even say something like that in an interview.
I honestly could sue them for discrimination based on race as then person they hired (and subsequently fired after 2 weeks) was Chinese.
The ED said this to me after she talked about how disgusted she was at what another applicant had said when he shared an anecdote about taking BART. The offensive language in the anecdote, "what ever the language was that they were speaking".
Dude, I have a Masters in CS, programming certifications, experience in mobile dev, and years of experience. I am also a woman, laid off in January. I have yet to find a job. I'm either too "senior" or "not senior enough." Sight unseen I'm rejected many times.
I am not entry level so I can't be one of the token hires to show that a company supports women in tech [...]
Somehow women in tech may get the mascot entry level coding jobs, maybe, but there ARE some of us with experience that hit a block as soon as we are out of entry level and remain in tech, not switching to project management or marketing.
I'm quite often the finalist in interviews, never being hired. And their teams remain all dudes. I'm told I'm too senior when I apply down the experience chain. I still do it, because I need the regular gig. The truth is, most places where I live won't hire women beyond entry level in development groups and if you are beyond that with experience managing dev groups even, with a Master's degree even, forget it. Perhaps someone who does some html work or marketing, but not in the tech group. I'll hit the nail on the head perhaps sooner or later, but it's very ironic they like to say they are begging for talent. But they have to have a certain look. And not be over 35.
I was told to get more education, experience, etc, got it and even then, my progress up the chain had at least a 5-7 year lag to any dude with less education and experience. Why did I get a Master's in CS, because I had to to prove things. Why did I get certifications? Why do I go the extra mile outside of work? Because on the face of it, a dude is given credit for just looking like a dude in tech. Even with these things, I just may be considered on par with a dude without them most of the time.
Not all places are sexist, not all upper leadership is sexist, but the places that aren't are so few. [...]
Fuck the whole tech business for telling Congress they cannot find talent so give them more H1-Bs. There are people like me out there and most of us are just not the ingenue anymore. I have to say, dudes are always surprised when, after forties, mid-forties, unless they are directors or VPs, they are not hot on the market anymore. It happens to dudes too, and often the most Libertarians of them are shocked when at fifty, they are laid off for just being old. It happened to a dude I know recently. That kind of thing they thought only happened to the unqualified or maybe whiny women or something [...]
I do think it's a load of crap when you see support for getting girls in tech, when there are women in tech. It's the same crap - as long as you are entry level and no competition for jobs, then it's okay. That is the case everywhere from Google to Etsy to most hip companies. Seriously, Etsy brags on bringing in da womenz to code. At entry level. Where older dudes can schoolz the womenz on being developers, women far away from threatening the dudes who have real power in their tech. Meanwhile, they had and have higher level jobs in tech that they claim they cannot get women to take - they interview and no woman they like will work for Etsy, so they HAVE to fill all with men. At some point, they just gave up (they wrote this to the public) and put effort into only entry level bringing the women in. I guess bringing them in at a higher level would be quite upsetting. Or just one into tech management. MMMM, how's about hiring just ONE woman as a tech director from the outside or something, Etsy? Meanwhile they get pats on the back for having a caste system, essentially, institutionally put in place.
Ironically, it can be the older "conservative" businesses where it is less sexist and ageist. Ironically I tell you it's many times the men older than 45 that have given me my best jobs - those chubby old graying dudes, not the biker, 10% body fat dudes. The hipsters, they are actually more sexist as a group. So you can take that as you will. -ReadyReady
Women definitely get treated different in Computer Science classes - not so much by the professors in my experience, but by classmates. While I'm not a woman, I do get perceived as one and get treated accordingly. Whenever I end up doing a group assignment, which is of course a male majority, I often get ignored or assumed that my answers or suggests are wrong or lousy. Then it turns out my answer was correct (say, for an in class assignment) and the snobby know-it-all looks at me in disdain, or in the case of a project, my implementations are often easier and more efficient. I'm not clueless because I wear a dress, jewelery and some makeup. And I wouldn't be a CS major if I didn't think it was a good fit for me. -Piss Paws
I'm a programmer who happens to be female (and without the CS degree). As far as I can tell, it's self selection - the women in the field tend to have a higher tolerance for the male-dominated 'culture'. I'm regularly asked by women from other departments how I can stand it, after they've spent any time working with engineering. Not that my coworkers are ogres, just that they are often under the mistaken impression that they work in a true meritocracy. (Although I have worked with a fair few ogres in the past, from which I have not entirely recovered.)
In regards to the open source projects - I've been thinking about this recently. I actually haven't committed to any and it definitely puts a kink in my career. It's not that I don't want to, or that I am lazy (much), but near as I can tell, they are entirely groups of friends / ex colleagues. I feel like it's a circle I can't get into. But mostly I fear the excessive spotlight of being a sole female programmer on a publicly available project. In light of how women are treated on the internet, this fear does not seem unreasonable. -Msinformation23
I have been told since ever that women have no place in science or engineering. I went to school for it anyway. I got my funding for that cut because I "refused to change my major to something good for a girl like English" and ended up having to switch to English for financial reasons. Then I went into tech anyway, where I was fired from my first job after months of harassment by two employees who claimed that I was incompetent because "girls suck at computers" even though when they had a technical problem, I was the one they asked. I was treated pretty well by my next few companies but eventually ripped off by many, sexually harassed out of one and more recently, fired because I stood up to a sexist incident for the second time.
Exactly. I totally sympathize with the block once out of entry level. I've been experiencing it for the past several years. Male peers (of age, skill, and seniority) who weren't even interested in management have been promoted to management. I run training, write documentation, act as team lead with great success, and express an interest in management — but I'm not up for promotion and I make half as much or less.
I know I should ditch this place, but I keep thinking my seniority will eventually count for something — that starting over elsewhere will just make the issue worse.
There are probably a lot more reasons for all that than just my sex, but I can't rule it out. I can't be sure it doesn't contribute to whatever unfavorable assessments I'm getting (my reviews are always great, so I don't even know what the problem is). I know I'm excluded in certain ways, I know there's probably more sexist bullshit simmering under the surface of comments like,
"Men's brains just work more logically" (which a coworker actually said to me)
But how much? When? In what precise ways? That's a male privilege: if you get passed over for a promotion you know absolutely that being a dude had nothing at all to do with it. If you're a lady in tech you know you're a minority, you've heard the dumbass comments — but all you can do is wonder without being allowed to outright say anything — because if you do say anything you're being oversensitive and difficult.
Honestly, the same thing happens for a lot of Black/African-American students as well. With the exception of friends that attended HBCUs, those that went to "mainstream" public or private schools often encountered similar discrimination based on preconceived notions of their ability and commitment. It was only through establishing networks with other POCs that they were able to find the help and support they needed. It is difficult to learn and enter an industry when the established networks refuse to welcome you because of your sex, sexual preference, or skin color… -Romero Stokes
Not all the responses were in the comments. I also got an email from Robert Harker, who lives in San Mateo and gave me permission to publish his response:
"I am a Linux systems administrator taking care of web farms. My niche, sysadmin, in particular is especially hostile to women. The boys, and they are boys not men, think it is fun to haze, insult and generally pick on each other. I have had several women friends in the industry who have left. It is not that they can't take it. They can and they can dish it out as well. It is just that they get tired of it and leave into management, project management or marketing. I think they wait for the boys to grow out of age 13 into men and it never happens.
I find it especially hard because when the topic comes up, the boys say it is the women's problem. They need thicker skin, etc... And what can I/we do when they miss the most basic part of the problem. I must admit I had an upsetting experience this weekend at a party.
I am 56. There were 3 other men and a woman about my age. As part of a longer story I was talking about how a group of women were working on getting a code of conduct included in conference material because of sexual harassment. And the three men started laughing. I tried to correct them. I had to raise my voice four times and start talking about groping, fondling and unwanted hugs before I could wipe the smirk of their faces. These are older men who have worked their entire lives in the Silicon Valley. I thought we were better than than. And now I find that I have to apologize for my gender.
Well on a positive note, I did not let it slide which would have been easy to do. I put myself out there and made them understand for at lease a moment. We still have so far to go . . . I would like to work with more women. I get tired of the boys club."
To contact the author of this post, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Image via Shutterstock]