Skip to main content

In tech world, women ignored

By Soraya Chemaly, Special to CNN
updated 11:31 AM EDT, Tue October 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Soraya Chemaly: Twitter, on verge of IPO, is under fire with leadership that's virtually all men
  • She says it reflects larger dearth of women in tech, media fields -- 6% of tech CEOs are women
  • She says sexism abounds in male-dominated field and guides investment, leaving women out
  • Chemaly: Controlling women's access makes men keepers of speech, keeps sexist status quo

Editor's note: Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and feminist activist. Her work focuses on the role of gender in culture, with an emphasis on sexualized violence. She blogs at Feminism Is Fantastic. Follow her on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Twitter is on the verge of its initial public offering and everyone's knickers have been in a knot all week over the company's lack of management diversity -- that is, women. As The New York Times put it last week, "The board? All white men. The investors? All men. The executive officers? All men but for the general counsel, Vijaya Gadde, who has had the job for five weeks."

Question: Why is this a problem?

First, there aren't enough women at Twitter or in the tech world because there aren't enough women anywhere.

Soraya Chemaly
Soraya Chemaly

Some facts: Women make up 6% of chief executives at the leading 100 tech companies, and that has taken years to accomplish. Most startups have all-male boards. In 2012 women held 16.6% of Fortune 500 board seats. Women of color were 3.3% of the total. Fully one-tenth had no women serving on their boards at all. In the past five years, women and minorities have lost ground despite evidence strongly suggesting that gender parity and board diversity have positive effects on profitability.

Twitter had more than a year to prepare for this IPO: Where are the women? The company's immediate response focused on a "paucity of candidates." The tech industry has a well-documented pipeline problem, one largely the result of gender stereotypes that reach into the educational system.

However, companies regularly draw executives from outside their own industries -- sometimes, yes, even women -- when seeking senior-level and board positions. It enables them to cross-pollinate ideas, diversify their expertise and innovate. For example, Apple has hired Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. During her tenure at Burberry, the company doubled its revenues and tripled its share price. Companies redefine "pipeline" every day -- particularly when profits are involved.

Twitter's importance in mainstream media
The true value of Twitter
The good and bad of Twitter's financials

The technology sector dresses itself up as progressive when in reality it shows every indication of being, at its core, powerfully retrograde. Despite investing in diversity programs, the management of tech firms is distinctly not diverse, and indeed the industry continues to "dazzle" with incidents in which men gleefully display their not even implicit biases. Last month's Titshare debacle (click and weep), as well as Business Insider's long-overdue firing of CTO Pax Dickinson (who'd for years been churning out such sexist, racist, tweets as "Jesus gets raped by a pack of n****s. It's his own fault for dressing like a whore though") are two recent examples.

Second, sexism is seamlessly coupled with the distribution of capital.

Bryan Goldberg's September launch of Bustle, a "women's centric" website ("world news and politics alongside beauty tips") was a blunt force case in point. After announcing the site with a tone-deaf post, Goldberg was widely mocked for his personal failure to grasp, among other things, how ridiculous his claim to be starting the "first site of its kind" for women was. The real issue isn't Goldberg's cluelessness, but the institutional biases that enabled him to raise $6.5 million when far more able, knowledgeable and experienced women can't.

Companies with at least one woman founder make up only 13% of those funded. Venture capitalists are less likely to invest in startups if there are women involved in their management; investors actively reduce holdings in companies that appoint female directors. These are particular ironies since women-run startups use 40% less capital to launch. These facts don't reflect women lacking in confidence ideas. They illustrate discrimination, whether it is conscious or not.

Third, while we think of Twitter as a tech company, it is a media company and part of a larger environment that does little to correct its failure at diversity. Year after year, studies such as one last week from the Directors Guild of America, as well as reports from Who Makes the News and the Women's Media Center Status on Women in Media document exactly how distorted mainstream media ownership, management and production remain. Only online is the situation improving. But even there the difference is largely gains in women-oriented "pink-collar" content.

How can we separate these facts from ownership? We can't. As reported by the Federal Communications Commission, our media are almost entirely owned and managed by white men.

Lastly, what does this have to do with speech? Everything. Male experiences, interests, expectations and voices, mainly white, inform the way we think, decide how our resources are dispersed and define our norms. The ghettoized status of women and minorities in media and technology, coupled with the lack of venture capital investments, means that our attempts to express ourselves are limited, misrepresented and regularly repackaged to make what we say palatable to a sexist status quo.

And this status quo is entirely uninterested in the idea of women as capable, autonomous leaders who might change norms in unsettling, risky ways. Stating these facts baldly is not an indictment of white men as individuals. It is a description of systemic problems that we refuse to confront with systemic solutions.

The presence of a carefully selected handful of women in tech, regardless of how determined, able and prominently visible they are, has for decades done little to alter the makeup of management and ownership. Gender diversity at Twitter, as elsewhere, isn't a priority because people make reasonable decisions about what they believe will be profitable and successful: Twitter is looking for experience and expertise within a comfort zone.

"This to me is not a gender issue, it's an innovation issue," Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has explained. Gender issues aren't innovation issues only if your gender is dominant and the norm. This rationale, and others like it, are exactly the kind of "1,000 paper cuts" marginalization that result in fewer women pursuing tech careers to begin with.

Twitter is one part of a male dominated social structure, economy and culture, all of which rely on cradle-to-grave sexism to be profitable. That's tweetable by the way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Soraya Chemaly.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT