Friday, October 6, 2017

The Gender Gap in Tech: CD Reiss's KING OF CODE


Whenever my significant other, a tech geek who does advanced computer development and research work, attends an academic or commercial conference, he likes to text me the number of people in the audience at each workshop or presentation he attends. That number is always preceded by a much smaller figure: the number of women in each room. Three out of forty. Two out of twenty-seven. Zero out of sixteen. Two out of 19 on stage during three general session meetings. The only room during the conference that had more women, he tells me, was the one in which the "Women in Tech" breakout session was held.

Such numbers are more than a little disheartening, especially for those who like to believe that gender discrimination is far less of a problem in the workplace than it was 50 years ago, or even 20. In some professional fields, such as law, medicine, and the physical sciences, the gender gap has decreased. But not in computer science. In fact, computer science's gender gap has actually increased since 1984:

Why has women's participation in computer science declined over the past thirty five years? Many different reasons have been proposed: the advent of home computers; computer games that focus on competition rather than collaboration; social discourses that code computers as masculine, just to name a few.

In her latest contemporary romance, King of Code, CD Reiss highlights yet another reason—sexism among male computer coders. Our introduction to the book's narrator, Taylor Harden, comes as he's engaged in sex with the sole female employee in his small computer start-up company, in the company supply closet. After he's finished, Taylor muses about the experience:

Raven looked great walking into the hall after she'd just demanded I rip her apart with my cock. I had no feelings about her whatsoever, and that lack was mutual. Working sixteen-hour days in the same office meant we fucked each other or didn't fuck at all. This was why I didn't hire women, besides the fact that they turned nerd IQ points into premature ejaculations. I usually wound up fucking them. But my lawyer had said to hire one, pay her well, and not fuck her. I'd taken two-thirds of the advice. Raven had needs, same as I did. She was so anti-drama, she practically had a dick. (Kindle Loc 173)

I'd like to believe that Reiss was exaggerating Taylor's sexism for dramatic effect. But my spouse was not at all surprised when I described this scene and others that highlighted Taylor's gender stereotyping throughout the opening pages of the novel. Such overt identification with male goals, male feelings, and the male gaze, and the consequent objectification and denigration of anything labeled female and feminine, are all too prevalent in large swaths of the high tech field, his anecdotal evidence suggests. Especially in smaller start-ups, where work environments can feel more like carry overs from a frat house than professional adult spaces, the idea that women are distracting, dangerous and even a potential legal liability is far too often the norm rather than the depressing exception. To be a King of Code, one must banish all potential queens and princesses from the room.

Taylor's start-up is on the verge of making a big public splash with a new, non-binary, and above all non-hackable computer system: " 'Quantum Intelligence Four is pure virgin code.' It bleeds when breached. We said that a lot around the conference table room, but not in front of Mona Rickard," Taylor notes while giving a tour of the up-until-now highly-secret company to Mona and several other reporters from Wired magazine (281). Computer guys may make sexist jokes, and reinforce gender stereotypes, among themselves, but most know better than to say what they really mean in public, especially where a woman such as Mona might hear:

"You're pretty sure of yourself."
     "I'm sure about these guys on the other side of the door."
     "I hear it's all men."
     "I hire the best regardless of gender."
     "And all the best had dicks?"
     Someone on her team snorted with laughter. The elevator doors opened, and I led the group to the cage doors.
     "Google hires all the girls," I said.
     "I'm sure." She folded her pad and pencil against her chest and smiled. We saw right through each other, but she couldn't print what I wouldn't say. (249)

Male techie contempt for "girls" is an open secret in the high tech community, one that many men have learned to talk around, in order to maintain plausible deniability—and to maintain their all-male privilege.

After such an introduction to the sexist Taylor, (female) readers are primed for him to be on the receiving end of some pretty major payback. And payback comes, early and hard, as Taylor's purportedly un-hackable system is hacked—right in front of the eyes of Wired's reporting team.

Luckily for an enraged, humiliated Taylor, his hacker seems just as cocky as he is, leaving a clue in the text of The Complete Sherlock Holmes posted in the comments section of the hacked code: Geohash coordinates. Taylor knows that wherever those coordinates are pointing, he has go to face his tormenter-hacker and force him to give back the keys to the code he's locked Taylor out of.

Taylor's hardly expecting the geohash coordinates to lead him in Nowheresville in the Great State of Nowhere, USA, i.e., Barrington, a down-on-its-heels town economically reeling after the recent closing of its one remaining major employer, a bottling plant. Barrington must be just a stop on the way to some bigger town, Taylor insists; no way could a person with an IQ high enough to hack Taylor's code live in such a dead-end town.

Neither is Taylor expecting to find a woman like Harper in Barrington, a beautiful, sexy girl ready to help him discover the identity of his hacker. Or is she? Things get a little confusing when Taylor gradually gets beyond his own sexist assumptions to see the truth: Harper is not just physically hot, but smart as hell. In fact, it's she, not some faceless geek guy, who is actually his hacker. And Harper has some prior history with Taylor, history that Taylor, in his blinkered, sexist bubble, has found it far more easy to overlook than Harper has.

Just who is Harper? How does she know Taylor? And what does she want from him and from QI4? Quite a few very important things, it turns out, including economic opportunity, lots of hot sex, and a recognition of the needs of small towns like Barrington, towns often overlooked in our shift from an industrial to a communications/service economy. Not to mention a little bit of self-reflection on Taylor's part about how his bro-dude attitudes towards girls and women are less about a common-sense approach to ridiculously restricting political correctness and more about maintaining a space where men are not forced to confront the discrimination against women both past and present upon which their gender privilege rests:

    "Honestly? Can I say something honestly without you destroying my life?" [says Taylor to Harper]
     "Sure. Why not."
     "If I'd noticed you, I would have fucked the shit out of you."
     "Thanks. I think."
     "And if you were in SanJo when I staffed. . . I might have hired you. But the 'wanting to fuck you' thing would have been a problem."
     Her jaw tightened, and her face hardened as if she didn't believe me.
     "That's not comforting," she said.
     "I didn't say it to comfort you."
     "You need to fix that, Taylor. You need to grow up and stop letting your dick run the show. It's pathetic."
     I'd been told that before, but her disgust sent the message right into me. I was ashamed. Deeply ashamed. I carried my cock as if it was the president of the company, and I didn't make any excuses for it, but now I wanted to curl into a ball and think about all the decisions I'd made because of where I wanted to stick it.
     I'd thought I was making sure the workplace was appropriate, but what I'd done was make it safe for the impulses of the least appropriate person: Me.
     And. . . Raven. Of course I'd made sure there was one consenting partner in the office just for me.
     Nice leadership. Real nice. I didn't blame Harper for being disgusted.
     "Yeah. Well. I guess, when you put it that way, you're right." (2559)

Why does it matter whether women go into computer science or not? Because, as Forbes magazine notes in response to the study put out by Girls who Code that first called attention to the gap in high tech, "that gender gap not only impacts women's career prospects and financial lives, but the U.S. economy as a whole. Keeping women on the sidelines means more computer jobs will go unfilled, reducing innovation and global competitiveness. It is already happening: in 2015, there were 500,000 new computing jobs to be filled but fewer than 40,000 new computer science graduates."

Perhaps after reading King of Code, a few more women might be inclined to pursue such jobs.

And perhaps a few more men might stop standing in their way.

Illustration credits:
Women Computer Scientists: Girls Who Code

Without Women, Computer Coding: Women Who Rock Science Tumblr

Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?: The Atlantic

The Case for Computer Science in the Classroom:

King of Code
Flip City Media, 2017


  1. Wow - your post made me really appreciate my work place. I work in IT for a university. We have a very large percentage of women and I don't think any of us feel alienated or uncomfortable. I'm always treated with respect by my fellow employees and I am not a computer tech (I'm a phone operator). They never treat me like I am stupid when I can't figure out things on my computer.
    In fact, our last 2 CIO's were women. We now have a man in that position but he's incredibly friendly and accessible (where our last CIO was not interested in getting to know any of us).
    Granted this is a different sort of field than you would find in Silicon Valley, it still makes me feel grateful that we have such an open and inviting workplace.

    1. It's great that you have such a supportive place to work Sara! I've talked with several friends in tech who say that their work environments are far better than the one described in Reiss's book. But I've also talked to others who say, yeah, this is depressingly spot on. So, headway is being made, especially at the larger companies. But tech misogyny is still out there in the broader field.