Why Twitter’s “woman problem” is about more than identity politics

In many ways, startup culture has become synonymous with the can-do attitude of a generation. In Silicon Valley, we’re told over and over again, merit trumps all. The well-documented and much-maligned gender (not to mention race and class) gap among those at the top of the Valley’s most lucrative companies is a problem of numbers: not enough women studying math, killing it at coding, or coming up with the next Big Idea. Excuses like this were repeated like a mantra during the Adria Richards scandal for example, which is the last time I remember sexism in tech being in this bright of a spotlight.

You’ll remember Richards as the woman who was fired and sent death and rape threats for calling out sexism during a tech conference. She is, sadly, only the latest victim of the persistent  and pernicious problem that is Sexism in Tech. Constantly mansplained, to little avail, the cult of manhood that pervades much of the tech industry has manifested itself in all kinds of different ways, including breezy women’s bathroom lines and inappropriate rape jokes.

The tech offender du jour? Twitter, which recently filed to go public, disclosing its revenue and profit for the first time. The social networking company promptly drew negative attention for its dearth of women serving in its top positions. This was notably pointed out in a series of articles in the New York Times, the most devastating of which breezily names 25 women who could serve on Twitter’s board, noting that “surely at least one would bring value beyond a checked box.”

We’ve joined many across the blogosphere for years in pointing out that sexism and misogyny in tech is a big, persistent problem, something that is still apparent at conferences like SXSW and TechCrunch Disrupt. Samhita has said that the lack of women in technology is a phenomena that relies in part on the myth that women are inherently not as good at the maths and sciences. “Ironically,” she notes, “science has shown us otherwise–women actually are good at math when given the opportunity to do it. And often–the bias runs deeper than what you are learning at school.”

That’s why the latest round of criticism, now directed at Twitter, isn’t about quotas or witch-hunts, as some have suggested. People are rightly being critical of  Twitter for not only perpetuating the problem, but refusing to own up to and take steps towards correcting their mistake, opting instead to send some pretty immature tweets making light of the situation and then calling it a day.

But since it’s been central to the conversation, I want to zero in on this idea that adding a woman to their board would be “just checking a box,” the implication being that this is not only insufficient but perhaps worse: an empty gesture.

Let’s be clear: we know this.

Feminists, advocates for women in tech, members of the media, and all the rest of us who are being outspoken and critical of Twitter’s all-male board realize that this is a symptom of a much larger, industry-wide problem. We are not a “mob” with arbitrary quotas and demands, as we’ve been called. We’ve seen how Twitter can serve our community and how it sets the standard for a variety of policies that impact women and minorities at all levels. We’ve also seen how the same problems with its leadership can and do trickle down to impact other aspects of our interaction with its product. We fully realize that the larger issue *will* take much longer to address adequately. That doesn’t mean that checking this particular box would be meaningless. It means it’s taking one tiny step toward changing the culture and making it more favorable to women and other kinds of minorities and marginalized people. After all, harnessing the power of many tiny status changes over time to bring about a significant game-change in the field should be a model with which Twitter is familiar.

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