Where Women Once Ruled the Computer World, When Did Silicon Valley Become Brotopia?

Romans of the Decadence (1847), by Thomas Couture, as updated to parody Silicon Valley’s male-dominated sexual and sexist culture. Photo Illustration by Darrow; from Vanity Fair


Who knew the root cause of sexism in Silicon Valley could be traced down to one defining moment in 1973? Engineers tasked with converting real-life photos into pixels, selected a Playboy image to use for their prototype and now argue that this wasn’t sexist because there were no women around to offend at the time.

45 years later, this image is still in use, and as recently as 2016, a former president of an imaging trade group said, “When you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore; it’s just pixels.” To male engineers, the soft porn photo was nothing out of the ordinary, but women find it alienating, and I’ve heard Samantha Walrens, author of Geek Girl Rising, describe the culture of Silicon Valley for women “as death by a 1,000 cuts”.

Interestingly, women used to dominate the computing industry, and the word “programmer” inferred “women’s work” similar to working as a switchboard operating or in the typing pool. When annual salaries starting approaching the modern-day equivalent of $150,000, more men became interested in the job and subsequently pushed women out.

The number of women earning computer science degrees peaked at 37% in 1984, and today, fewer women follow the STEM track citing the lack of female comrades and role models. A further concern is the culture once they get there, and given that 90% of developers are men and all the eye-popping stories that have surfaced within the last year, their fear seems legitimate.

Given the expected growth in STEM jobs within the next twenty years, let’s hope this “bro culture” self-destructs quickly with all the scrutiny. How wonderful if this upcoming generation could start anew.



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