I got an interesting email in response to a post from last week about a woman, "Thea," who discovered that the man she thought was her boyfriend was actually married. The man in question, "Nathan," sounded like a real shit-eater. An executive at a Seattle tech company, he lied about everything, including his age and where he lived, and not only did he have an actual wife he failed to mention, he also had another girlfriend on the side. As far as bad boyfriends go, this guy would top the list, and Thea decided that it wasn't just her right, it was her duty to inform other women. As she told me in a phone interview, “he deserves a warning label."
That "warning label" came in the form of a website. Thea bought the URL of his name and set up a site telling her story. My post was about the ethics of this, and after giving it a lot of thought and consulting with a philosopher (Dan Savage), I came to the conclusion that outing her ex in this particular form was probably self-defeating. Sure, it made him look like an asshole, but it made her look crazy, too. Besides, this tactic wouldn't just potentially upend his ability to get laid, it's very possible that it could impede his ability to get a job. It's not just potential dates who know who to google; employers have the internet, too.
I got a fair amount of emails about this ethical dilemma, and there are a couple of messages in particular I wanted to share. This first is from woman I’ll call Alice, and she brought up an issue I hadn’t considered: Nathan’s relationships with women at work. In fact, she actually knows both him and Thea:
I worked with Nathan a while back. I was a peer, and luckily did not have to interact with him too much, but I definitely got an intuitive hit [sic] that he was not to be trusted. I realized that trusting my instincts and staying away from him was a good decision, once I heard Thea's story and saw all the evidence. As a woman in tech, I have had to be hyper aware of the men in my environment—and in addition to warning potential partners, I feel that Thea's website also warns potential colleagues.
Now that Nathan is a senior vice president at a startup in Seattle, I have a lot of worries about the culture of the team that he is assembling. I know that he is actively recruiting former coworkers that we have in common, and I had a lot of thoughts about whether I should warn them. I do believe in the philosophy that "how you do one thing is how you do everything." Yes, of course there is room for personal growth, and I don't know his journey—and this is probably what kept me from engaging in call-out culture on this. That being said, I would want to know if I were being recruited by him, and I would want the opportunity to ask him exactly how this has changed him. I think it is ok for us to expect more from leaders—in fact, not expecting more is what leads to the current problem with diversity in tech.
Another message, this one from a non-tech worker with a background in gender studies, put it more bluntly: “Men like Nathan are the reason women don’t go into tech."
I'm not totally sure I agree with this take. While I do agree that we can and should expect more from leaders, as Alice wrote, I'm not as sure that the lack of women in tech stems entirely or even primarily from the difficulty of being a woman in that field. Yes, sexual harassment—which, to my knowledge, Nathan has never been accused of—is a problem in tech: Just last week, Quartz dropped a bomb of a story about Microsoft ignoring allegations of harassment from their employees. One woman said that she complained to HR after an employee at a partner company "threatened to kill her if she did not perform implied sexual acts" on a work trip. HR, she says, did basically nothing. Another employee said she was called a "bitch" at work (more than once). Another one said someone asked her to sit on his lap. These are all serious breaches of professional behavior, and the fact that Microsoft ignored these women's concerns is both troubling and not all that surprising. As Quartz pointed out, a 2018 class action against the company alleged that over 200 cases of sexual harassment or discrimination were not adequately addressed by the company. Ignoring complaints seems to be something of a pattern.
Still, women are harassed in plenty of fields besides tech, including in professions dominated by women, like waiting tables or working as a flight attendant. The #MeToo movement and subsequent media coverage has largely focused on the most privileged women in not just America, but in the world: women in Hollywood, the media, and the upper tiers of politics and business. We've heard plenty of stories about starlets being harassed; we've heard far fewer about servers and nurses. The irony here is that the women whose stories we've heard are hardly the most vulnerable in the workforce. In many ways, they are precisely the opposite, and yet, from the media coverage of #MeToo, one might think that women who win Academy Awards and have second homes in Malibu are more likely to be the victims of harassment than women who, say, clean hotel rooms or change bedpans. In reality, the poor and working class are far more likely to experience harassment, assault, and discrimination than women in Hollywood, business, or tech.
So, if women aren’t harassed any more in tech than they are in, say, food service—and one report found that 90 percent of women in food service have experienced sexual harassment versus 60 percent of women in tech—what is keeping us out of computer science but not out of restaurants? There are plenty of differing opinions on this, but in a study published last year, researchers analyzed the distribution of women in STEM fields across 67 nations, and they found that the least egalitarian countries had the highest rates of women in fields like computer science and engineering, despite the fact that girls "performed similarly to or better than boys" in two-thirds of the countries studied. The researchers concluded that women are more likely to enter STEM fields due to "life-quality pressures" found in countries where women are less likely to be treated as equals. As countries modernize, the sexes become more equal, social safety nets increase, and those life-quality pressures lessen.
Take Algeria. Algeria ranks 124th out of 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and yet 41 percent of STEM graduates are female. In Scandinavia, on the other hand—a region with the greatest degree of sex equality and the most robust social safety net on the planet—less than 30 percent of computer science and engineering degrees go to women. In the broader European Union, only 16 percent of IT specialists are women—except in Romania and Bulgaria, two of the least egalitarian countries in Europe, where the rates rise to over a quarter. Is this because harassment is worse in Norway than it is northern Africa or Romania? Of course not. Instead, the researchers think it's because women in more egalitarian societies have other options. They aren't forced to do the thing that pays the most money; instead, they have the option of choosing to do the thing they are most interested in doing. Instead of going into computer programming to pay the bills, they can go into arts, medicine, or social services instead.
This doesn’t mean that the lack of women in tech isn’t a problem. It is a problem, but I would argue that the problem isn’t inherent. Compare, for instance, the national conversation around increasing diversity in tech versus the national conversation around increasing diversity in construction or trucking—two fields even more dominated by men. One conversation exists; the other just doesn’t. Why? Because few people actually care about diversity for its own sake. Rather, the reason the lack of women in tech is a problem while the lack of women in trucking isn’t is because tech pays so much more than other fields do, including those that require even higher levels of education and training. You could to college, get a master’s degree, and then go teach high school for $50,000 a year, or you could go to code school for six months and get an entry-level programming job that pays twice as much. Of course, correcting this discrepancy isn’t as easy as just paying teachers more: One of the reasons coders earn more than teachers is that for-profit companies pay their salaries. Every time teachers get a pay bump, someone else’s taxes go up.
So, what’s the solution here? Frankly, other than taxing the shit out of corporations to subsidize publicly-funded jobs, I don’t know. But I do know that the narrative that sexual harassment is more rampant in white collar tech jobs than in, for example, restaurants, isn’t just incorrect, it’s ultimately going to do very little but keep women who are interested in those fields away.