Photo: flickr/Andrew_Writer

Gender-based discrimination in the workplace doesn’t surprise me, least of all in tech-based industries. Recent examples like the alleged sexual harassment by Tinder’s co-founder Justin Mateen, and a diversity report finding only 30 per cent of Google’s employees to be female, underline the undeniable fact that women are treated to a different set of rules in this male dominated atmosphere. From developer conferences, where the general discourse includes ‘dongle jokes’, to the generally toxic online gaming atmosphere, the tech world remains a culture that inhibits the full participation of women and girls.

What did surprise me this past Monday, while sitting down to my lunch, were the voices — unmasked by whispers — vocalizing, in a public space, their own sexism. With the relaxed tones of people chatting about a new television series, two gentlemen, discussed that women, specifically young women, will not be considered for ‘new hires’ in their tech firm. Going on, with coffee cups in their hands, they speculated, like farmers over potential crop yields, about which women they thought would be bearing children in the coming year. They further wondered, for my ears to hear, just how many years they might anticipate having to shuffle people around in order to manage the missing bodies of those on maternity leave.

There isn’t much that I won’t believe about discrimination in the workplace; daily, our media feeds are pumped full of examples of people dealing with race, sexuality and gender focused bias in their workplace; potentially impacting all aspects of life, from financial stability to mental health, discrimination in the workplace is dangerous in its accepted practices. But, listening to these men lay down the reasons why they didn’t want to employee young women spoke to the ripple effect of antiquated, but prevalent sexist notions.

As I tweeted, in harbouring specific discrimination toward women who might possibly bear children, these prolific and too often accepted modes of thinking, feed the accordion folds of systemic stereotypes. The notion that only young women are going to need time off work because of parenthood excludes the countless fathers that are actively and intensely involved in parenting their children. It further disregards paternal leaves that are happening with increasing frequency in countries around the world.

Additionally, not all of this faceless mass of ‘young women’, there are women who are consciously making the decision to not have children. What about the women who are keen to maintain a career while caring for their family, or are fully participating in the workforce, making use of nannies and other supportive child care options from the earliest days of their children’s lives? Excluding potential mothers from a company is problematic not only on the basic ethical level of oppression, but the amount of talent and potential good lost by the company is in itself a worthy consideration to sexists everywhere.

Without surprise, it has been some of the responses to this overheard conversation that are serving to accentuate, and add flesh, to the very real presence of misogyny and gender-based discrimination, not only in the world of ‘all things tech’, but in the larger communities that have picked up on the story. More than one person has brought to the conversation their myopic idea that women getting pregnant is indeed a problem for companies and employers shouldn’t feel limited in asking about family plans.

Additionally, on Twitter, which is coincidentally a company where women make up only ten per cent of the employee population, a number of people have taken to harassing, and verbally attacking me, using sexist and sexual language.

When women fear going to tech conferences because of reports of rape, when they face being seen only as ‘booth babes‘, and when it is acceptable to proliferate a culture of sexism in the very marketing of the industry, we have to register, rather than ignore, the situation.

For all the well-meaning codes of conduct, and shining initiatives that appear to push for advancement of women, we need more than tokenism, we need more than a place where women are ‘permitted’ to sit at the table. We need to be accepted and encouraged to inhabit a world that is as much our own as it is the man’s in the cubicle next to us.

Lyndsay Kirkham is a feminist, activist and writer. 

Photo: flickr/Andrew_Writer