False Utopia and The Land of the Meritocrasaurus Rex


The idea that fields of technology such as open source programming is a meritocracy is very, very dangerous. It leads to all sorts of discrimination, sexism, and racism.  It also leads pretty smart people to say some pretty dumb things.

For example, Michael Arrington wrote a piece called “Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Blaming the Men,” published in TechCrunch in August 2010.  He starts out by saying,

Success in Silicon Valley, most would agree, is more merit driven than almost any other place in the world. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are. If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really, stinking rich.

So who is successful in Silicon Valley?  Do you see lots of women and minorities succeeding in that utopia you so aptly describe?  My guess is that the answer is no, because he goes on to write,

Every damn time we have a conference we fret over how we can find women to fill speaking slots. We ask our friends and contacts for suggestions. We beg women to come and speak. Where do we end up? With about 10%  of our speakers as women.

We won’t put women on stage just because they’re women – that’s not fair to the audience who’ve paid thousands of dollars each to be there. But we do spend an extraordinary amount of time finding those qualified women and asking them to speak.

And you know what? A lot of the time they say no. Because they are literally hounded to speak at every single tech event in the world because they are all trying so hard to find qualified women to speak at their conference.

Perhaps tech conferences do spend time and money trying to find women to speak at their conference; perhaps companies do work hard to recruit women to the field; maybe techies themselves even strive to include women in their geek communities.  The problem, however, is so much bigger (yet so much more invisible) than that.

Caroline Simard (paraphrasing MIT professor Emilio Castilla) says that “in environments that are designed to be meritocratic, women and minorities receive less compensation for equal performance.”  She writes that women face “isolation, a lack of access to influential social networks and mentors, lack of role models, stereotyping, unwelcoming cultures, and organizational practices that are not adapted to a diverse workforce”—all laden with that subtly that makes it very difficult to be taken seriously when discussing these issues.

Is This Really Happening?

Sometimes, though, the discrimination is far from discrete.  We only need to look back to the brilliant developer and tech writer Kathy Seirra.  Sierra is the co-creator of the Head First series on technical issues, and she is a notably brilliant coder.

Where is Kathy Seirra now? After becoming probably the most well-known female programmer, Kathy Seirra was threatened into seclusion.  Before going to speak at a tech conference, Seirra started receiving death threats.  The threats continued, and escalated.  BBC reports she believes, “the campaign against her is more likely to be because she is a woman in the male-dominated technology world.”  Many of the threats were reportedly sexual in nature.  Seirra said, “I have cancelled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same.”

Isolated incident? This was way back in 2007, and things have changed since then, right?

Recently a similar situation arose when Google employee Noirin Shirley was (reportedly) sexually assaulted by a Twitter employee at the ApacheTech conference.  Noirin outed her attacker on the Internet (with less than 6% of sexual assaulters spending 1 day or more in jail, can you blame her?), and was lambasted by the tech community for the so-called trial by Internet.  Noirin writes of her assault,

He brought me in to the snug, and sat up on a stool. He grabbed me, pulled me in to him, and kissed me. I tried to push him off, and told him I wasn’t interested (I may have been less eloquent, but I don’t think I was less clear). He responded by jamming his hand into my underwear and fumbling.

Isolated incident(s)?  The Geek Feminism Wiki doesn’t think so: Valerie Aurora doesn’t think so either.  She writes, “here it is, the year 2010, and my female friends and I are still being insulted, harassed, and groped at open source conferences.”

I’ll admit, conference organizers can’t be responsible for the action of the attendees, especially after alcohol is involved.  I’m sure they had a reasonable anti-harassment policy in place to protect the women that Michael Arrington claims are so in demand at these conferences. Actually, no.  And most tech conferences, particularly open source conferences have no sexual harassment policy of any kind.  But, as long as the women are good at code, they will be fine, right?  Aurora reports that “three of the ten women reported being physically assaulted at a conference.” Three in ten.


“Every damn time we have a conference we fret over how we can find women to fill speaking slots -Michael Arrington

“I give talks, organize and spend a lot of time in conference booths, I frequently have to deal with conference attendees ignoring me and asking questions of male colleagues standing next to me because they think that I am non-technical” –Selena Deckelmann

“We ask our friends and contacts for suggestions. We beg women to come and speak” – Michael Arrington

“At one conference, it was implied that another engineer was only agreeing with me on a technical matter because I would pay him back with a sexual favor later” –Mackenzie Morgan

“But we do spend an extraordinary amount of time finding those qualified women and asking them to speak.” - Michael Arrington

“When strippers were hired to mix with people at the Saturday night event everyone attended, that made everyone uncomfortable”Deb Nicholson

If I had a 3 in 10 chance of getting sexually assaulted when going to a football game, I’d stay home. If I had a 3 in 10 chance of getting sexually assaulted when I went to school, I’d get my education at the public library. If I had a 3 in 10 chance of getting sexually assaulted when I went to a conference, I wouldn’t go.  And my career would suffer.  And I would not be as experienced or knowledgeable as my male colleagues. And then I would probably try and find a nice teaching job somewhere where I didn’t have a 3 in 10 chance of getting sexually assaulted when I met with my colleagues.

Before we can change the institutions in place that allow women to be systematically driven out of the tech. industry, we need to acknowledge there is a problem.  We can’t fix it until we agree that there is something to fix.  Despite the articulate women and men writing about this issue, the idea that technology is a meritocracy is still widespread.

This post has been on my mind for a long time. I am hopelessly committed to a field of game studies that is critically conscious of its blind spots and willing to ask questions of itself as an institution that inevitably excludes some and includes other. Those of us in game studies, new media studies, and other fields that live on the border between the tech industry and the academy, have a chance to take our relatively small (but growing) group in a different direction.

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2 Responses to “False Utopia and The Land of the Meritocrasaurus Rex”

  1. Jeremy Cushman says:

    This is a powerful post alexlayne. And the Arrington quotes juxtaposed against what a few of the women in the field have had to say exposes an (more than unfortunately) old issue. Institutionalized meritocrasy seems to me to be as old as the notion that abstract reason and logic will always solve problems. I can hear in Arrington a 19th century dude in a black top hat claiming to be an “enlightenment” progressive. He’s telling the world that he loves women and sees nothing wrong with allowing them onto a late 19th century public stage: Let’s hear what she has to say. But if we really are going to listen, she better sound just like we boys do. She better not talk about issues that are better suited for the home (i.e. left in private). What that means is she better not talk about bodies or gender. That’s not the kind of thing we award merit for in this egalitarian, abstract view of the world. These open source conferences you describe sound worse the Greek Agora. At least the Greeks admitted their dislike/distrust of women. These guys seem to hate them so much they can’t even tell them they hate them.

    What I really wish… is that this was shocking. I’d even take surprising.

    Please excuse the ‘downer’ post. It’s my first reaction.

  2. alexlayne says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response Jeremy. I have to agree, when I read stuff like this I get so angry it’s difficult to respond academically.

    You are, very unfortunately, completely right. I hadn’t thought about the connection to the agora. I will think more about that. Next post? Perhaps.