Today, the Internet learned about what it's like to be a female technology writer from the perspective of one of the two women who blog for the massively popular tech site Gizmodo: Sometimes, it really sucks—and not just because that's what so many commenters tell women to do. At least it does when Molly Oswaks' (or her other female colleague Leslie Horn's) work gets defiled with "nasty nerdy sexism," as she describes it. She doesn't give us many exact examples of the offensiveness, but just having ovaries has led commenters to suggest that "the only reason we have the jobs that we do is because Gizmodo needed to fulfill some imagined gender quota," or even more insulting that "we're only writing for Gizmodo because we 'lipstick shampooed' some guy's 'jock' to 'get our job.'" That daily degradation is what it is like to be a female tech writer -- at Gizmodo.
I, too, happen to be a woman who writes about technology (most of the time). And over at The Atlantic, their site has two female technology writers, Megan Garber and Rebecca Rosen. We, like Oswaks, are also women who inhabit a male dominated field, in terms of readership and fellow writers. However, we write in different spaces, with different angles, about different things, to different audiences than the Gizmodo women do. As part of Gawker Media, Gizmodo gets to be snarky and swear a lot, and as a result, it draws the kind of tech readers who like that. The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire have different tones, and therefore bring a different crowd. And, unlike Oswaks, our male coworkers don't outnumber us. We are 3/4 of the Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire's tech team. As such, our experiences are both different and the same.
The problem Oswasks references isn't unique to technology writers, many other women on the Internet have experienced sexism. Last November The Statesman had a stunning rundown of the sexual harassment women writers face in comments sections. And, Reddit has its own mess of sexism issues, as well. But, because some technology readers have staked the gadget and start-up world as a man's place, tech writers see it a lot. In 2006, for example, Annalee Newitz writing for AlterNet described what happened when a post she wrote got linked by Slashdot, a widely trafficked tech news aggregator. "A few months ago, an article of mine was Slashdotted. But instead of resulting in a lively debate about technology and social justice, it instead produced a popular thread in the 'comments' area about whether I was too fat to be considered attractive," she wrote. "What the fuck?" Fellow prominent female tech voice, Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin used this to sum up the "stupid crap that female tech writers have to put up with." Jardin herself has gotten her share of hatred, too. One reader created a hack to "De-Xeni" Boing Boing, showing a feed of the site without her posts.
Six years later and it sounds like Oswaks is experiencing the same harassment as Newitz and so too are we at The Atlantic, to an extent. Oswaks has had her errors or her "wrong opinions" attributed to her xx chromosomes. She has also had people tell her to give up talking about gender and tech issues. The Atlantic female tech writers have experienced sexism, too. But of a different variant and intensity. "I have definitely gotten a handful of sexist comments though I wouldn't say they are common," Rosen told me. "Once a commenter mocked me for being fat, responding to a picture I had used to illustrate an article, but he was too dumb to notice it was not a picture of me. Others have insisted that I am sleeping with them." Personally, I have gotten e-mails addressed to "Mr. Greenfield," which I take as a compliment -- if they thought a man wrote it, they must have liked it, right? The most insulting commentary, however, comes on posts about sexism in Silicon Valley. Take the comment thread on this one about a group of grown men whistling at a woman's bikini bod during a Google demo, for example. "The author of this article sounds like she is whining. Maybe she'd like the attention of men and isn't getting it." Ugh.
From speaking with Rosen and Garber, however, it doesn't sound like we have it as bad as Oswaks. Rosen noted that one of her most well read posts about Sheryl Sandberg got only positive feedback. Most stuff I write, even the musings that put Apple fan boy panties in a twist, don't have mean commenters that mention my lady-parts. "I think of myself as a journalist rather than, you know, a Lady Journalist," Garber told me. "While there may be a few occasions when a rogue commenter will insist on calling me 'Miss Garber' or some such -- which might be more a generational thing than an intentional insult -- for the most part, the 'I'm-a-journalist-full-stop' attitude tracks with my experience," she continued.
But that might be more of a reflection of our environment than behavioral improvement in the tech blogosphere. "I think, since The Atlantic is a degree removed from our more gadget-focused counterparts, we might get a little less of the 'hey, there's a woman on a man's turf!' pushback that women who write for other sites experience," Garber told me. None of us work on technology-only websites, like Oswaks or Horn, which might have something to do with our unique experiences.
However often it occurs, though, the problem is still a problem. This is still a fact: Women tech writers all over the Internet get sexually harassed in the comments sections. It is not only "fucking rude," as Oswaks puts it, but, it misses the point of what we are doing. "Technology is not a male subject," as Oswaks so rightly points out. "It is a human subject." We are, after all, humans, too, you know.