When White Women Speak about Unfairness in Tech, Everybody Listens

In this week's Tech 100: White women's outrage gets more attention, again

white women
(Image: iStock.com/SIphotography)

Two things never cease to amaze me. One is the depth of white male privilege being such that it allows white men to get away with outrageous and inappropriate behavior that absolutely no one else could.

The second is how all  it takes is a blog post from a white woman complaining about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, and boom—it goes viral, becoming the single, most talked about tech news of the week (sometimes for months)—and revs up the diversity in tech talk to 4000 RPMs.

Case in point, the now-viral blog post of former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler. Fowler’s blog post revealed some truly stomach-turning behavior at Uber—which, by now, shouldn’t surprise anyone regularly following Uber news. From Fowler’s post:

On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with.

Ick. To date, Fowler’s blog post has been liked over 10,000 times in less than a week from release and has prompted a lot of analysis and opinion pieces (like this one) from various media outlets, including leading publications such as Fortune. There was such a burning spotlight shed on her complaints that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to address Fowler’s blog and denounce the incidents she described as “abhorrent and against everything we believe in.”

I am glad Fowler was brave enough to put this out in the open. It’s heartening to see such voluminous response. What is frustrating is that it takes a white woman opening her mouth for everyone to acknowledge just how jacked up diversity in tech is.

It seems as though when we, women of color, open our mouths to complain about unfair treatment we are told, as I was at a prominent tech publication that I used to work at, that we have “attitude problems.”

Or, how about the case of Melvin Smith, ever heard of him? Probably not. Smith is a black engineer who claims he was hired at a lower salary than an equally skilled white worker and then was the first to be fired during a staff reduction because he had complained. Smith sued, had his case dismissed at first, and then reinstated upon appeal. And you hear nothing about this case from the usual diversity in tech champions.

If Smith had been a young white woman, he would have been asked to do a TED talk by now!

Even Asian women who complain about unequal treatment in the tech industry are subject to different, and often less supportive, responses than their white counterparts. Former Twitter engineer Tina Huang says she was denied promotions and eventually forced out for airing her grievances. Twitter’s CEO and executives did not come out and condemn any unfair treatment she may have experienced, they continue to deny her allegations, saying her claims are “baseless.”

Ellen Pao, another Asian American woman, sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for $16 million for gender-based discrimination. Not only did she lose that suit, her co-workers during the trial referred to her as “entitled” and “too opinionated.”

Contrast that with Kelly Ellis going public about being harassed when she worked at Google. She tweeted that a male Google engineer said to her, “It’s taking all of my self-control not to grab your ass right now.” Google did not try to demean her or deny the allegations, the company just remained silent. Ellis quickly gained thousands of followers on Twitter and became a symbol of the fight for diversity in Silicon Valley.

And I’m glad. I’m encouraged whenever any woman finds her voice to speak out against injustice. But I wish white women would use the privilege they have to evoke outrage and garner support for others shut out and abused by Silicon Valley culture.

That’s not to say white woman don’t receive backlash for speaking up. Oh, the internet trolls are always at the ready with their hateful little comments and very frightening threats of sexual violence. Yet, very often the companies that a white woman makes accusations against will make a public response promising to investigate the woman’s complaint. Then, the woman is held up as a champion of diversity in tech. They are taken more seriously.

Chances are if you walk into your new, exciting job in Silicon Valley as one of just a handful of white female employees, and you see few-to-no brown people, you may be working in an environment that will eventually turn toxic on you. To white women in tech, I implore: Get as outraged about your company’s lack of diversity as when you’re the one put in an uncomfortable position.

 

 

 


Samara Lynn is a tech editor at Black Enterprise magazine. She has over a decade’s experience in technology journalism, covering smart home and wireless technology; startups; business tech and more. She has also written for PC Magazine, The Wirecutter, CRN Tech and has appeared as a technology commentator on Fox Business News, National Business Report, and Reuters TV. She is the author of “Windows Server 2012: Up and Running.” “Tech 100” is her column focusing on technology and its relation to politics, social issues, and more.