The push for gender equality in tech is dj vu all over again

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This column is part of a series called “Voices of Women in Tech,” created in collaboration with AnitaB.org, a global enterprise that supports women in technical fields, as well as the organizations that employ them and the academic institutions training the next generation.

As we prepare for the second annual Women’s March this weekend, it’s tempting to see the last 12 months as a time of unique empowerment. But honestly, the more things begin to change, the more obvious it becomes that we must fight against inertia and the tendency for our industry to revert to the same old tired excuses about why women can’t have seats at the table.

For each step forward we’ve taken in the past year — troubled CEOs stepping down, anti-diversity manifesto-writers getting fired — there’s been at least one major step back. Emboldened by the current political climate, a crew of once-silent men have been lashing out: Feminists, they claim, are ruining their beloved tech industry. They imagine a cabal of women plotting to humiliate and subjugate men. They argue that women aren’t biologically suited to be programmers or engineers. They file class-action lawsuits claiming that they themselves are, in fact, the victims of discrimination.

For even the most amateur historian, this backlash should come as no surprise. Whenever women have asserted their rights to participate equally in the world, we’ve been told all the reasons that we can’t, we shouldn’t, we’re not good enough. Women have had to fight tooth and nail for every measure of equality, including many privileges that seem preposterously basic by today’s standards.

“Women have had to fight tooth and nail for every measure of equality.” 

Until the late 1800s, married women in most Western countries enjoyed no right to hold property, open bank accounts, or enter into contracts. The natural order would be upset, said men, if ladies were set loose with money of their own. “God hath given the man greater wit, better strength, better courage, to compel the women to obey, by reason or force,” said noted English statesman Thomas Smith. For similar reasons, women weren’t afforded the right to vote until 1920 in the U.S., 1928 in England, and 1944 in France. Our own grandmothers remember these days.

Here in the U.S., women’s suffrage was far from universal. Native American women and Asian women were subjected to government-backed voter discrimination for decades, and it took a full 45 years to pass the Voting Rights Act, offering Black women their chance to cast a ballot. These steps forward caused a wave of oftentimes violent backlash, part of a trend that continues to this day, as gerrymandering and disenfranchisement keep far too many women of color from having a fair voice in their political fortunes. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, these same communities remain drastically underrepresented in the world of tech.)

Women were barred from Ivy League schools until the 1960s, for reasons that sound surprisingly familiar. A member of Princeton University’s class of 1955 objected to coed admissions on the grounds that “for every woman admitted to Princeton, a man would be denied that opportunity.” Today, women account for roughly half the student body at every prestigious institution, putting the lie to old excuses. The fear of educated women still holds sway; the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other extremist sects commit shocking acts of terror to prevent girls from attending school.

The list of places where women have had to fight to belong is, quite frankly, endless: college sports, military service, and national politics, to name but a few. And the list of industries where women still struggle for acceptance isn’t limited to the technical realm.

“Once the March is over, the real work begins.”

The truth of the matter is, none of these anti-feminist men who are complaining have ever had their rights or capabilities challenged. They say they have worked hard to earn their places, disregarding the same hard work by women who also have faced sexual harassment, gender bias, and the continual denigration of their rights and capabilities in addition to the usual workplace struggles.

This Saturday, people will take to the streets all over the country, once again demanding the rights of women to be seen as equals, to achieve their dreams, to pursue careers of their choosing, to be free of sexual harassment. But once the March is over, the real work begins. We will fight for the right to be judged on our capabilities and our work — not the biased stereotypes run amok. We will persist in our calls for equality, not just for women as a monolith but for individual women in all their intersectional brilliance. And, some day, the complaints of those who rail against gender equality in the tech industry will seem as ludicrous as all the prejudiced claims of those who came before them.

Elizabeth Ames is the Senior Vice President of Marketing, Alliances, and Programs at AnitaB.org. She previously held senior management positions at Apple, Verifone, Netcentives, and RETHINK Partners, where she was Founder and CEO. 

Elizabeth Ames

Elizabeth Ames is the Senior Vice President of Marketing, Alliances, and Programs at AnitaB.org. She previously held senior management positions at Apple, Verifone, Netcentives, and RETHINK Partners, where she was Founder and CEO.

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