The 5 biases pushing women out of STEM

Woman typing on laptop

I think this Harvard Business Review piece is applicable to fields beyond tech. This part especially resonated with me:

Thoughts on the #PyCon debacle

The crowd at PyCon 2013
The crowd at PyCon 2013. (Photo by Ed Schipul)

So yesterday, I caught wind of all the uproar regarding Adria Richards at PyCon. (Recap here.) There have been several low points regarding women in tech and minorities in tech, at which I have shaken my head and sighed, but for some reason, this incident has particularly troubled me.

At first, I agreed wholeheartedly with this cogent take by Amanda Blum, in which she argues that the whole sequence of events is a total loss not only for the participants but also the tech community as a whole. But then I read these rebuttals, which made me rethink my position.

I believe that I, personally, would have sought to address the jokes directly with the men first. But then, I don’t work in the tech industry (although I do talk to a fair number of people who do, by nature of my job). I’m not exposed to the particular set of microaggressions—seemingly minor slants that over time compound themselves into a giant wound—that Richards, apparently, has been subjected to. I can, however, relate to the dilemma of how to respond when certain microaggressions simply become too much—and the inevitable backlash that comes from those who proclaim that you’re simply turning a mountain into a molehill.

Toward the end of my junior year at Yale, our campus tabloid (yes, we had such a thing) published an article entitled “Me Love You Long Time,” which supposedly sought to explore—and lampoon—how women of Asian descent are fetishized. But all it did was reinforce stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive (“they’re easy”), and it even included a crass reference to Hurricane Katrina as its kicker. I’ll never forget that line: “Asian girls are like New Orleans levees: they only stay tight for so long.”

The article, rightly, outraged a significant group of students. Especially problematic was that it was published and distributed on the same week that high schoolers who had been admitted to Yale were visiting campus. The article had also come on the heels of others, albeit in different publications, that reinforced stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans. (For instance, one newspaper comic expressed incredulousness that an Asian-American student would run for student council—don’t they spend all their time in the library, it asked.) So in response, Yale’s Asian-American Student Association (AASA) organized a protest, in which students would wear black clothing and gags and be silent for the day, even in class. Some participants, like me, chose to participate in class discussions but wore black in solidarity.

The day of the protest, the university also held a forum for students and faculty to address the article and the reactions it had garnered. And what comments did we hear? That we needed to lighten up—it was only a joke. That the truly bad thing was the pushback the members of the tabloid’s staff had gotten—not the ugly stereotypes their story had reinforced or the impact that might have on women of Asian descent on campus. But of course, all these are par for the course when pointing out incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. What really stuck with me happened months later. That summer, I went to London as part of a university-sponsored internship program. I stayed in a flat with three roommates. One day, three of us were having a conversation, and the AASA protest came up (I don’t remember how). One of my roommates said something to the effect of, “What they did should be reserved for actual political protest.” In other words, the response was too extreme.

I remember countering that we were in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: no one paid attention when people had written letters to the editor in response to past articles that reinforced stereotypes. (I remember it even being suggested that the tabloid in question had a history of publicly mocking criticism from others, so a simple letter might even backfire.) It was only when we went nuclear—for lack of a better term—that the issue came to the forefront in a serious manner.

So I sympathize with Adria Richards on the call she made. I may have made a different one, but that in no way excuses the subsequent retaliation she has faced.

That said, the question remains: why am I so worked up over this particular situation? Maybe it’s because as a black woman, I have a keen understanding of how intersectionality (in this case, race and gender) can play out in instances such as this. But I think it’s mainly because as a business reporter, I play some role in exalting companies and individuals that too often uphold the culture that produces sexist and racist debacles such as this. It makes me uneasy.

Last words: some insightful (and less rambling) posts on the situation:

Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

“Let me get this out of the way. I don’t like Adria Richards.”

A Few More Thoughts on Adria Richards

Rachel Sklar: The Firing Of Adria Richards Looks Like Kneejerk Appeasement To The Troll Armies

Apparently We’re Not Ready to Be Adults About Anything

How Adria Richards Spoke For Me

Thinking About Adria Richards and Other Black Women In STEM Fields

A Woman Walks Into A Tech Conference

Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question

Some Of Us Are Brave, Honest, & Transparent: The Adria Richards Edition

On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

Sexism in tech is like an onion–it has many layers and makes people cry

Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

On PyCon

In Defense of Adria Richards and Call-Out Culture

Adria Richards and Donglegate – Right or Wrong?