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What India Can Teach Silicon Valley About Its Gender Problem
Silicon Valley has been wracked with controversies about sexism lately. Only 17 percent of Google's technical employees are women. Tech conference organizers routinely post speaker lists that skew male. The female cofounder of Tinder was allegedly harassed and erased from corporate history last year. Yet some people still minimize the problem. Their argument: Since the tech industry is populated by meritocratic rationalists, it would be impossible for a talented female engineernot to rise to the top. Therefore, if few women are in the industry, the problem is not sexism but the absence of some innate capacity or interest on the part of (most) women. In other words, the dearth of women in tech is only natural.
Having grown up in India and worked as a coder in the US, I find this line of reasoning specious. One of the characters in Love and Longing in Bombay, a collection of short stories I published in 1997, is a young female programmer who founds and runs a company out of her apartment. This fictional depiction grew out of a decidedly nonfictional reality: I had noticed many such women in India, and over the years their numbers have increased steadily. The proportion of programmers in India who are women is at least 30 percent. In the US it's 21 percent.
And this despite the fact that by most indexes—economic opportunity, educational attainment, health—women in India have access to a narrower set of opportunities than women in the United States. So unless nature is working contrarily in South Asia, something about the culture of the Indian educational system and tech industry is more hospitable to women than the American one. If we can figure out what that difference is, we can begin to change things for the better in the US.
In India, women feel at home in engineering. One 2013 study of Indian engineering students asked whether they ever felt left out in an academic setting. About 8 percent of female engineers reported such feelings, while almost 20 percent of male engineers sometimes felt left out. In another study, female students described the culture of computing as one that prizes meticulousness, intelligence, sociability, and mutual assistance. In workplace interviews with both sexes, sociologist Winifred Poster found “a pervasive conviction that women and men have similar mental abilities to do technical work” and so “an assumption thattechnical work itself has no gender.”
A sea of male faces at a recent Google I/O conference | JAMES MERITHEW
In the US, the culture of tech definitely has a gender. It's a culture where one company running a hackathon offered beer served by “friendly (female) staff,” where brogrammers proudly “crush code,” where women report that bosses and peers challenge their expertise, where some women's attempts to address these issues are met with online harassment and even death threats.
Of course, the US has a long history of infusing the pioneering work of innovation with a particular strain of masculinity. In the popular imagination, the rugged, well-armed pioneer was a de facto soldier of Manifest Destiny, a resourceful problem solver, a man of action. And in 1910, with the westward expansion completed, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the nation must turn to a new, figurative wilderness, the frontier of knowledge, and that scientists must lead: “The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than the ax and rifle in this new ideal of conquest.” In a prideful 1930 evocation of American exceptionalism, botanist and mathematician J. Arthur Harris observed, “In Europe they cross the frontier. In America we penetrate the frontier.” The contributions of women notwithstanding, the imagined, mythologized pioneer becomes unmistakably male. Leah Ceccarelli, a scholar of rhetoric, points out that in the US “the archetype of the frontier explorer to which scientists are invariably compared is a white male risk-taker, eager to isolate himself from society for long stretches of time as he makes a bold thrust forward into dangerous territory.”
So also in Silicon Valley, where the warriors of code are encouraged to be ninjas, to make killer apps, to disrupt. Venture capitalist and startup whisperer Paul Graham knows on sight the qualities that make good founders: “These are fierce nerds. You have to be somewhat intimidating-looking, and that's what these guys are,” he said in a 2012 NPR interview. “They're like the kind of people Julius Caesar was afraid of.” And if women don't look lean and hungry and dangerous enough, well, that's just nature at work.
But there are other ways to imagine the qualities necessary to succeed as an engineer and scientific thinker. In the Indian context, debate has always been—in philosopher B. K. Matilal's words—the “preferred form of rationality.” The earliest extant Indian texts, the Vedas, contain many hymns conceived as questions and answers or discussions. The Bhagavad Gita is staged as a dialog. Scientific and philosophical texts were often written in the sutra form, collections of tightly economical aphorisms in verse; the important ones were always surrounded by commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries. As the famous saying had it, “Vāde vāde jāyate tattvabodhah.” (“In continuous dialogue emerges knowing of the essence”). Great halls were built for the sole purpose of debate. Women occasionally participated, but the culture was a masculine one.
The modern equivalent of such dialog, however, actively recognizes women's scientific and technical skills: In a 2004 study, anthropologist Carol Mukhopadhyay reported that when she asked Indian interviewees to react to the idea that mathematics is inherently masculine, their response was “surprise, laughter, and bewilderment”; they countered with stories of female mathematicians in Indian history. Another study, from 2007, notes that “almost all IT professionals in Chennai, male and female, insisted to us that both sexes have equal technical skills … and, in relation to gender, the Indian IT industry contrasts with its counterparts in Europe and America.” The middle-class consensus is: If women want to program, and if this is now socially acceptable, of course they can and should.
But in the United States, which imagines pioneers as male combatants, can men realize that sometimes a microscope is just a microscope and still remain pioneers? US programmers, like coders everywhere, work in teams, but they seem imaginatively committed to the ideal of the violent, lonely frontiersman. The resistance to the introduction of women into the cowboy posse springs, I think, from fear that the very nature of the activity will be transformed, that men will have to adopt (supposedly) female ways of working. The action will move from the mesa to the parlor. The lone warriors will be domesticated, forced to be effetely polite. They will become mere conversationalists, doing something that looks less like penetration and more like the knitting of a vast skein. The would-be riflemen and dagger-wielders will be unmanned.
THE LONE WARRIOR WILL BECOME DOMESTICATED, FORCED TO BE POLITE. THE WOULD-BE DAGGER-WIELDERS AND RIFLEMEN WILL BE UNMANNED.
To be sure, there is no lack of violence and warrior machismo in the Indian tradition, and those cultural elements still rule much of the landscape outside of the debate halls and technology parks. Though the IT environment is largely gender-neutral and is attractive to women precisely because it functions as a haven from some of the misogyny outside, it's far from perfect: In a study by Poster, women reported impediments to full participation, especially at managerial levels—social conventions and safety concerns limit work hours and travel. Meanwhile, more women in the US achieve management positions than in India, and they receive fairer wages in these nontechnical roles.
According to Poster, one Indian subsidiary of a US tech company mixed elements from both cultures: flex time, open-floor seating plans, and freer gender mixing from the US, with family benefits from India, including three months of maternity leave and allowances for domestic help. A female employee responded enthusiastically: “It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen … It is quite different from other Indian companies. It is quite different from other multinationals. It has a total freedom.” But the women also noted that American managers unconsciously imported their engineering culture, so that suddenly the women were facing supervisors who questioned their engineering skills, trivialized their technical aptitude, and overlooked their contributions.
Can the virtues of a blended freedom—American-style flexibility and social fluidity with Indian-style familial support and recognition of women's engineering skills—be replicated on a wide scale? Maybe. The first step to checking this culture of blithe sexism and systematic exclusion masquerading as a meritocracy is to recognize that it is rooted in a mythology. Myths are energizing, but they can also blind us to the received notions that shape how we see the world. The frontier myth of Silicon Valley traps men in a hall of mirrors, where all they can see is go-it-alone gunslingers. Once we recognize this, we can start to tell ourselves newer, better stories.
SOURCES: available here.
Vikram Chandra (www.vikramchandra.com) is a novelist and the author of Geek Sublime, to be published in September by Graywolf Press.