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Pax Dickinson is the tech industry’s woman problem

Pax Dickinson, the newly fired CTO of Business Insider, once likened talented female software engineers to unicorns. (Jahi Chikwendiu/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Earlier this week, the Internet suddenly realized that Business Insider chief technology officer Pax Dickinson had been saying sexist, racist and classist things on Twitter for years. A backlash ensued, and he was fired.

In an interview with New York Magazine today, he denied that there is a "woman problem" in tech:

I think the tech world is just kind of — it doesn’t have a woman problem. Women in tech are great. There's just not that many of them because tech is just a kind of thing that a lot of women aren’t that interested in, I think. I mean, I don't think it has a problem. I'd worry more about taking away what makes tech great. The freewheeling nature of it is what leads to innovation. And my fear is that if we’re all going to police what we say, maybe we lose that innovation. And tech is important, it’s really important to this country and to the world. And I'd hate to see us kill the goose that lays the golden egg by turning it into a politically correct wasteland.

Here's the thing Dickinson doesn't seem to get: He is the tech industry's woman problem.

When you say in a tweet that "feminism in tech remains the champion topic for my block list" and make rape jokes, you're directly adding to what the American Association of University Women describes as the "stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities" that help keep women from full participation in those fields.

Similarly, if you think talented female engineers are the equivalent of unicorns, as Dickinson has said in a tweet, that says more about your biases than the actual talent pool. And when you think that and are the CTO of a company that counts major industry players such as Marc Andreessen, Jeff Bezos and Kevin Ryan among its investors, it says a lot about the tech industry.

That Pax Dickinson doesn't understand that there is a woman problem in tech while being a prime example also speaks to the myth of meritocracy in the tech industry. When you believe that you are succeeding based on your merits, rather than on social privilege (you know, looking like Mark Zuckerberg), it's easy to dismiss a lack of diversity as the result of X or Y group not trying hard enough. It leads to an inattentional blindess problem where you don't see the issues in the field because you are focused on a convenient success narrative that reinforces your current worldview.

But it's clear from the efforts of some tech companies that they think diversity would actually improve their firms. For example, the New York Times reported last year that Google was trying out a number of experimental and data approaches to improve its gender ratio after the departure of some high-powered female executives.

Let's end on a personal anecdote about being a woman in the technology field. When I wrote about a recent Sony gaming announcement this week, I received hate mail asking how much Microsoft gaming executive Larry Hryb had paid me to perform a sexual act on him (the sexual act was also misspelled). I bet Hanna Rosin ten bucks that my male co-workers would not have received the same sexualized hate mail if they had written the same piece.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.



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