Open Systems and Glass Ceilings: The Disappearing Woman and Life on the Internet

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TomDispatch.com

Open Systems and Glass Ceilings: The Disappearing Woman and Life on the Internet

The following essay is excerpted and adapted from The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC, and appears here with permission.

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule -- 80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

Powerful and exceedingly familiar hierarchies have come to define the digital realm, whether you’re considering its economics or the social world it reflects and represents.  Not surprisingly, then, well-off white men are wildly overrepresented both in the tech industry and online.

Just take a look at gender and the Web comes quickly into focus, leaving you with a vivid sense of which direction the Internet is heading in and -- small hint -- it’s not toward equality or democracy.

Experts, Trolls, and What Your Mom Doesn’t Know

As a start, in the perfectly real world women shoulder a disproportionate share of household and child-rearing responsibilities, leaving them substantially less leisure time to spend online. Though a handful of high-powered celebrity “mommy bloggers” have managed to attract massive audiences and ad revenue by documenting their daily travails, they are the exceptions not the rule. In professional fields like philosophy, law, and science, where blogging has become popular, women are notoriously underrepresented; by one count, for instance, only around 20% of science bloggers are women.

An otherwise optimistic white paper by the British think tank Demos touching on the rise of amateur creativity online reported that white males are far more likely to be “hobbyists with professional standards” than other social groups, while you won’t be shocked to learn that low-income women with dependent children lag far behind. Even among the highly connected college-age set, research reveals a stark divergence in rates of online participation.

Socioeconomic status, race, and gender all play significant roles in a who’s who of the online world, with men considerably more likely to participate than women. “These findings suggest that Internet access may not, in and of itself, level the playing field when it comes to potential pay-offs of being online,” warns Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Put simply, closing the so-called digital divide still leaves a noticeable gap; the more privileged your background, the more likely that you’ll reap the additional benefits of new technologies.

Some of the obstacles to online engagement are psychological, unconscious, and invidious. In a revealing study conducted twice over a span of five years -- and yielding the same results both times -- Hargittai tested and interviewed 100 Internet users and found that there was no significant variation in their online competency. In terms of sheer ability, the sexes were equal. The difference was in their self-assessments.

It came down to this: The men were certain they did well, while the women were wracked by self-doubt. “Not a single woman among all our female study subjects called herself an ‘expert’ user,” Hargittai noted, “while not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or ‘not at all skilled.’” As you might imagine, how you think of yourself as an online contributor deeply influences how much you’re likely to contribute online.

The results of Hargittai’s study hardly surprised me. I’ve seen endless female friends be passed over by less talented, more assertive men. I’ve had countless people -- older and male, always -- assume that someone else must have conducted the interviews for my documentary films, as though a young woman couldn’t have managed such a thing without assistance. Research shows that people routinely underestimate women’s abilities, not least women themselves.

When it comes to specialized technical know-how, women are assumed to be less competent unless they prove otherwise. In tech circles, for example, new gadgets and programs are often introduced as being “so easy your mother or grandmother could use them.” A typical piece in the New York Times was titled “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.”  (Assumedly, dad already gets it.)  This kind of sexism leapt directly from the offline world onto the Web and may only have intensified there.

And it gets worse. Racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment or “trolling” has become a depressingly routine aspect of online life.

Many prominent women have spoken up about their experiences being bullied and intimidated online -- scenarios that sometimes escalate into the release of private information, including home addresses, e-mail passwords, and social security numbers, or simply devolve into an Internet version of stalking. Esteemed classicist Mary Beard, for example, “received online death threats and menaces of sexual assault” after a television appearance last year, as did British activist Caroline Criado-Perez after she successfully campaigned to get more images of women onto British banknotes.

Young women musicians and writers often find themselves targeted online by men who want to silence them. “The people who were posting comments about me were speculating as to how many abortions I’ve had, and they talked about ‘hate-fucking’ me,” blogger Jill Filipovic told the Guardian after photos of her were uploaded to a vitriolic online forum. Laurie Penny, a young political columnist who has faced similar persecution and recently published an ebook called Cybersexism, touched a nerve by calling a woman’s opinion the “short skirt” of the Internet: “Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill, and urinate on you.”

Alas, the trouble doesn’t end there. Women who are increasingly speaking out against harassers are frequently accused of wanting to stifle free speech. Or they are told to “lighten up” and that the harassment, however stressful and upsetting, isn’t real because it’s only happening online, that it’s just “harmless locker-room talk.”

As things currently stand, each woman is left alone to devise a coping mechanism as if her situation were unique. Yet these are never isolated incidents, however venomously personal the insults may be. (One harasser called Beard -- and by online standards of hate speech this was mild -- "a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth.”)

Indeed, a University of Maryland study strongly suggests just how programmatic such abuse is. Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous. The findings were so alarming that the authors advised parents to instruct their daughters to use sex-neutral monikers online. “Kids can still exercise plenty of creativity and self-expression without divulging their gender,” a well-meaning professor said, effectively accepting that young girls must hide who they are to participate in digital life.

Over the last few months, a number of black women with substantial social media presences conducted an informal experiment of their own. Fed up with the fire hose of animosity aimed at them, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and others adopted masculine Twitter avatars. Golden replaced her photo with that of a hip, bearded, young white man, though she kept her bio and continued to communicate in her own voice. “The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped off considerably, and discussions on race and gender were less volatile,” Golden wrote, marveling at how simply changing a photo transformed reactions to her. “Once I went back to Black, it was back to business as usual.”

Old Problems in New Media

Not all discrimination is so overt. A study summarized on the Harvard Business Review website analyzed social patterns on Twitter, where female users actually outnumbered males by 10%. The researchers reported “that an average man is almost twice [as] likely to follow another man [as] a woman” while “an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.” The results could not be explained by varying usage since both genders tweeted at the same rate.

Online as off, men are assumed to be more authoritative and credible, and thus deserving of recognition and support. In this way, long-standing disparities are reflected or even magnified on the Internet.

In his 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reports that of the top 10 blogs, only one belonged to a female writer. A wider census of every political blog with an average of over 2,000 visitors a week, or a total of 87 sites, found that only five were run by women, nor were there “identifiable African Americans among the top 30 bloggers,” though there was “one Asian blogger, and one of mixed Latino heritage.” In 2008, Hindman surveyed the blogosphere and found it less diverse than the notoriously whitewashed op-ed pages of print newspapers. Nothing suggests that, in the intervening six years, things have changed for the better.

Welcome to the age of what Julia Carrie Wong has called “old problems in new media,” as the latest well-funded online journalism start-ups continue to be helmed by brand-name bloggers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver. It is “impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively -- and increasingly -- male and white,” Emily Bell lamented in a widely circulated op-ed. It’s not that women and people of color aren’t doing innovative work in reporting and cultural criticism; it’s just that they get passed over by investors and financiers in favor of the familiar.

As Deanna Zandt and others have pointed out, such real-world lack of diversity is also regularly seen on the rosters of technology conferences, even as speakers take the stage to hail a democratic revolution on the Web, while audiences that look just like them cheer. In early 2013, in reaction to the announcement of yet another all-male lineup at a prominent Web gathering, a pledge was posted on the website of the Atlantic asking men to refrain from speaking at events where women are not represented. The list of signatories was almost immediately removed “due to a flood of spam/trolls.” The conference organizer, a successful developer, dismissed the uproar over Twitter. “I don’t feel [the] need to defend this, but am happy with our process,” he stated. Instituting quotas, he insisted, would be a “discriminatory” way of creating diversity.

This sort of rationalization means technology companies look remarkably like the old ones they aspire to replace: male, pale, and privileged. Consider Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing and social networking service, which was founded in 2010 but only hired its first female engineer last year. While the percentage of computer and information sciences degrees women earned rose from 14% to 37% between 1970 and 1985, that share had depressingly declined to 18% by 2008.

Those women who do fight their way into the industry often end up leaving -- their attrition rate is 56%, or double that of men -- and sexism is a big part of what pushes them out. “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,” wrote one woman in a roundup of answers to the question: Why there are so few female engineers?

In Silicon Valley, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer excepted, the notion of the boy genius prevails.  More than 85% of venture capitalists are men generally looking to invest in other men, and women make 49 cents for every dollar their male counterparts rake in -- enough to make a woman long for the wage inequities of the non-digital world, where on average they take home a whopping 77 cents on the male dollar. Though 40% of private businesses are women-owned nationwide, only 8% of the venture-backed tech start-ups are.

Established companies are equally segregated. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that in the top 100 tech companies, only 6% of chief executives are women. The numbers of Asians who get to the top are comparable, despite the fact that they make up one-third of all Silicon Valley software engineers. In 2010, not even 1% of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black.

Making Your Way in a Misogynist Culture

What about the online communities that are routinely held up as exemplars of a new, networked, open culture? One might assume from all the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” rhetoric that they, at least, are better than the tech goliaths. Sadly, the data doesn’t reflect the hype. Consider Wikipedia. A survey revealed that women make up less than 15% of the contributors to the site, despite the fact that they use the resource in equal numbers to men.

In a similar vein, collaborative filtering sites like Reddit and Slashdot, heralded by the digerati as the cultural curating mechanisms of the future, cater to users who are up to 87% male and overwhelmingly young, wealthy, and white. Reddit, in particular, has achieved notoriety for its misogynist culture, with threads where rapists have recounted their exploits and photos of underage girls got posted under headings like “Chokeabitch,” “Niggerjailbait,” and “Creepshots.”

Despite being held up as a paragon of political virtue, evidence suggests that as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women, a number far lower than the computing profession as a whole. In response, analysts have blamed everything from chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models. Yet the advocates of open-source production continue to insist that their culture exemplifies a new and ethical social order ruled by principles of equality, inclusivity, freedom, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that openness, when taken as an absolute, actually aggravates the gender gap. The peculiar brand of libertarianism in vogue within technology circles means a minority of members -- a couple of outspoken misogynists, for example -- can disproportionately affect the behavior and mood of the group under the cover of free speech. As Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, points out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave -- that is, essentially are driven from -- the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

“Urban” Planning in a Digital Age

The digital is not some realm distinct from “real” life, which means that the marginalization of women and minorities online cannot be separated from the obstacles they confront offline. Comparatively low rates of digital participation and the discrimination faced by women and minorities within the tech industry matter -- and not just because they give the lie to the egalitarian claims of techno-utopians. Such facts and figures underscore the relatively limited experiences and assumptions of the people who design the systems we depend on to use the Internet -- a medium that has, after all, become central to nearly every facet of our lives.

In a powerful sense, programmers and the corporate officers who employ them are the new urban planners, shaping the virtual frontier into the spaces we occupy, building the boxes into which we fit our lives, and carving out the routes we travel. The choices they make can segregate us further or create new connections; the algorithms they devise can exclude voices or bring more people into the fold; the interfaces they invent can expand our sense of human possibility or limit it to the already familiar.

What vision of a vibrant, thriving city informs their view? Is it a place that fosters chance encounters or does it favor the predictable? Are the communities they create mixed or gated? Are they full of privately owned shopping malls and sponsored billboards or are there truly public squares? Is privacy respected? Is civic engagement encouraged? What kinds of people live in these places and how are they invited to express themselves? (For example, is trolling encouraged, tolerated, or actively discouraged or blocked?)

No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering online platforms to promote diversity unsettling and -- a word with some irony embedded in it -- paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind.  They are, as a start, designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, as well as advertisers, who want to sell us things. The term “platform,” which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing certain purposes over others, certain creators over others, and certain audiences over others.

If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system, developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity through a process of trial and error. The question of how we encourage, or even enforce, diversity in so-called open networks is not easy to answer, and there is no obvious and uncomplicated solution to the problem of online harassment. As a philosophy, openness can easily rationalize its own failure, chalking people’s inability to participate up to choice, and keeping with the myth of the meritocracy, blaming any disparities in audience on a lack of talent or will.

That’s what the techno-optimists would have us believe, dismissing potential solutions as threats to Internet freedom and as forceful interference in a “natural” distribution pattern. The word “natural” is, of course, a mystification, given that technological and social systems are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be changed and improved.

Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life), and activist. Her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), has just been published. She also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

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