Tech’s Male ‘Feminists’ Aren’t Helping

Feminism is more fashionable than ever. Too bad the tech industry’s male leaders are jumping on the bandwagon for their own good instead of the good of their female colleagues.

Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

This year, the world discovered what those of us working in the tech industry have known all along: The numbers for women working in technical roles are dismal—ranging from 10 percent at Twitter to 31 percent at Etsy—and have been dropping since the ’80s. Companies have mostly blamed the declining number of graduates while ignoring the shockingly high attrition rates (56 percent of women drop out of the industry mid-career).

However, as the conversation about the lack of women has become fashionable—making its way into Glamour and Vogue—men have started to get more involved, often in ways reminiscent of an Onion article.

And so 2014 became the year of the tech industry “Male Ally.” Some men have used their declared allyship to build their own platform rather than that of the women they claim to support. Others have taken the stage to tell women to just work harder and trust in karma. In many ways, the behavior of the male “ally” demonstrates how far we have to go in the tech industry.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s been going on.

Entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa is a vocal proponent of gender diversity. He sparred with Twitter’s CEO about having an all-male board of directors just before their IPO, he co-authored a book to inspire more women to join the tech industry, and he’s a regular speaker on the conference circuit about the need for gender diversity.

But on closer inspection, Wadhwa is still early in his journey to becoming a real ally. At a Bloomberg conference earlier this year, he referred to women in tech as “token floozies,” later attributing his misunderstanding of this derogatory slang to English being his second language. Wadhwa’s book is also the subject of controversy, as women in forums and on Twitter question why he published it. Was it because of his sincerity to support women or was it to build his personal brand?

At this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest conference for women technologists, male allies were front and center in a plenary panel and a morning keynote. Women at the conference were disappointed by the content of the panel, where unconscious bias training was lauded despite there being no evidence demonstrating efficacy. Women were told to “just work harder” because they could “make a big difference.” Especially disappointing was the featuring of GoDaddy, a company known for its sexist advertising, though CEO Blake Irving has been quick to point out that this was something he immediately changed upon joining the company. As yet we don’t see signs of success; GoDaddy’s diversity numbers, released immediately before the conference, are on par with numbers at Facebook and Google. Both companies claim “leadership in diversity,” but the data looks more akin to “leadership in homogeneity.” At the same conference, women were outraged by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who advocated that women shouldn’t ask for raises but trust in karma.

At least these men learned from their mistakes. Alan Eustace of Google organized a reverse male allies panel and Nadella was immediately set straight by computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College Maria Klawe. He has since followed up with a promising email to Microsoft employees, writing, “We must ensure not only that everyone receives equal pay for equal work, but that they have the opportunity to do equal work.” The opportunity to do equal work is often overlooked, but is crucial as the data tells us that men are often promoted on potential, but women on performance.

Earlier this year, we also watched “The Gittip Crisis” unfold. Gittip, now rebranded to Gratipay, is a platform that allows users to receive recurring donations for their work—for example, open-source-coding contributions. The prevalence of women in the site’s top users, in particular diversity advocates, caused one person to describe it as “a joke dominated by professional victims.” The subsequent actions of Gittip’s founder, Chad Whitacre—trying to get a victim in an open call with a long-term-harasser and writing a diatribe and gaslighting follow-up against another diversity advocate and top user on the site—drove many users from the service. Because Gittip operates on a model of “radical transparency,” we can see the decline in their usage stats since; Whitacre himself wrote, “The loss these past two weeks of 6 percent of our users—representing 18 percent of our volume—is an unhappy event for Gittip and for our current and former users.”

Whilst Whitacre never defined himself as an “ally,” this remains a cautionary tale of what not to do. He prioritized his hurt feelings and ideals over the safety of his user base, and additionally spoke to the diminishing of platforms that appear dominated by women. And yet, 90 percent of Wikipedia’s contributors being male goes mostly unchallenged.

So what’s a guy to do?

These examples may leave men wondering how to act. How does one support gender equality without coming across as disingenuous or, even worse, as pandering? Men may opt out of the discussion rather than risk saying something wrong.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

But here’s the thing: Women do want men to be involved with changing the ratio in tech. We need you to take action. And we’ve come up with a list of suggestions of how you can do this. These are the phrases we want to hear from male allies across the tech industry in 2015 that show true, meaningful support. With a nod to the women who created the original Male Allies bingo card for the Grace Hopper Celebration, we created a new version.

As we look ahead to 2015, we’re hopeful that more men will show up as allies. That they will take a stand. That they will leverage their voices and their power to make real change to improve gender diversity. The tech industry desperately needs it.

Print this bingo card set and find resources for male allies at www.maleallies.com.