How Gender-Biased Language Impacts Women in Tech

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portrait of Charlotte Cornbrooks
by Charlotte Cornbrooks
Published on October 29, 2021
Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Until the late 20th century, women were largely written out of the history of scientific discovery. For example, James Watson and Francis Crick are widely associated with the discovery of DNA's double helix structure, but Rosalind Franklin, the woman they stole vital data from, is hardly a household name. This gender bias is so great that historians like Margaret Rossiter have dedicated their scholarly career to researching and writing about women scientists throughout history.

With men gatekeeping women's entry into the sciences and suppressing their accomplishments in the history books, it is hardly surprising that the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is low.

According to a 2021 report from AnitaB.org, women hold about 27% of tech jobs. However, women enroll in college and graduate at higher rates than men. Women are smart enough and capable enough, so why aren't there more women in tech?

Perhaps the answer lies in centuries of gender bias in STEM leading to systemic prejudices that work to exclude women. This article will explore some common, unequitable practices across the tech industry, looking specifically at the gender-biased language used.

Gender Bias in Job Postings

Gendered language in tech starts before a woman even lands a job. Research has found that many companies, both in tech and outside the industry, use gender-coded language in their job postings.

Verbs and nouns in English aren't gendered, but that doesn't mean we don't associate certain words with certain genders. For example, academic studies on language in job postings found "determined" skews masculine, whereas "enthusiastic" skews feminine.

These associations are determined by unconscious or implicit bias. We all possess unconscious biases. These biases are judgements we don't realize we make about certain people, places, or things. They can be both positive and negative.

When job postings in the tech industry were analyzed for gender-biased language, the results were disappointing but not surprising. In 2019, ZipRecruiter found that 92% of STEM job postings demonstrated masculine wording.

That doesn't mean that all women reading these postings perceive them as masculine-coded or that all women are deterred from applying to the job. However, language like this can prevent some women from applying. This could be a contributing factor in the low number of women in tech jobs.

Tech Industry Language Bias

In addition to the gender-biased language found in tech job postings, much of the industry-standard jargon is intensely gendered and gender essentialist. These terms often evoke heteronormative sexual intercourse or allude to sexual violence.

If you aren't familiar with tech, it's hard to imagine this is true, but it most definitely is. Most of us have connected a computer, TV, or phone to an electrical outlet; therefore, you've used a jack or connector. The piece with a solid pin is literally called the male connector and the piece with a hole is called the female connector. Male and female anatomy are clearly the inspiration for these names.

Sexual overtones are also found in a common security test: pentesting. This is short for penetration testing, which is IT security testing. This phrase refers to unwanted penetration of a firewall from outside hackers or other technical threats. While it is an accurate description of the way security is breached, it has sexual undertones.

There are many other terms, often relating to cybersecurity, including a tool named John the Ripper (a reference to the infamous London serial rapist and killer, Jack the Ripper). It's hard to imagine using these terms in a professional setting, but they are ordinary in the tech industry.

Gender Bias in the Workplace

The sexism isn't just built into the language of tech; it's prevalent throughout interactions. Some of the experiences of women in tech seem like they belong in a "Mad Men" episode rather than 21st-century workplaces.

In 2017, Bethanye Blount shared her experiences as a senior employee at a tech startup with The Atlantic. In the article, she described an interview with a young male applicant who refused to answer her questions seriously. Blount left the interview and spoke with a female vice president who interviewed the same candidate and reported the same experience.

Blount decided to conduct a mini-experiment and sent a junior-level male employee who started at the company recently to interview the candidate as well. The male employee identified himself as a new member of the team, but the candidate engaged with him, saying, "Finally, someone who knows what's going on!"

Most women wouldn't be surprised to hear about this interaction. Sadly, this type of gender bias is still prevalent in many industries.

Among other women interviewed for The Atlantic article, almost all reported some degree of unwanted sexual touching. For women looking to succeed in the tech industry, it seems one needs an extensive background in coding and software engineering, as well as the ability to politely extricate yourself from sexual advances without alienating potential investors or employers.

Reducing Tech Industry Gender Bias

It's no wonder that women leave the tech industry at nearly twice the rate of their counterparts who are men. But women who have persisted in the tech industry are working to advocate for other women and make the space less biased.

Bethanye Blount is one of the founders of Project Include, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to counter gender biases in tech. Project Include has recommendations for tech companies looking to transform their culture from start to finish.

In addition, any casual search of "women in tech" pulls a myriad of affiliate groups. Some are geographically based, while others are specific to different sectors. The international Women In Tech group aims to decrease the tech gender gap around the world. As a nonprofit, Women In Tech works to educate, support, and advocate for women as they break into the tech job market.

While there is still work to be done around gender bias in tech, the good news is there are people of all genders working toward change.

Frequently Asked Questions About Women in Tech

What does it mean to be a woman in tech? true

Simply put, a woman in tech is a woman working in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

Who is the most influential woman in the tech world? true

There are several women at the helm of major tech businesses. A few influential women in tech include Reshma Saujani (founder and CEO of Girls Who Code), Gwynne Shotwell (president and COO of SpaceX), and Fei-Fei Li (co-director of Stanford's Human-Centered AI Institute).

What percentage of women work in big tech? true

Big Tech is the name given to the largest and most influential tech companies based in the United States. Women hold approximately 27% of tech positions at the Big Five: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Reviewed by:

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

Angelique Geehan is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Learn about 10 organizations actively working to reduce the gender gap in the tech industry. Find a group that can help you achieve your goals. Check out our guide to find the top coding bootcamps for women. Find out what they teach and what makes each coding bootcamp unique. Find coding bootcamp scholarships for people from all backgrounds, including LGBTQ+ people, people of color, veterans, women, and more.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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