Why sexism in male-dominated industries is not an issue of the past

Alice Muir, who is part of CommonSpace’s summer work experience programme, describes her experience of sexism in the tech industry after being sent out on her first job, and says it’s vital to stand up to it

I HAD just started my summer placement at CommonSpace. It was my first official journalism job and I had been given the opportunity to focus on one of my biggest passions; technology.

As part of a task I set for myself, I was going to take it into my own hands to show the people of Scotland that this country really could become a massive hub for technology and innovation, despite the fact that mainstream Scottish media, in my experience, tends not give this sector enough credit.

Discovering a press release for a tech company in Glasgow that I thought looked interesting, I contacted the people involved to arrange an interview. Fully expecting to be able to indulge myself in the kind of geeky conversation that I don’t often get to have with the majority of my friends, I was excited. I had already played around with a similar technology in my spare time and knew a lot about how it worked. As a self-taught developer, I was approaching this story not just as a journalist, but as someone who has a considerable amount of insight into how this technology works.

When I turned up at the pub it was firm hand-shakes all round. That was about as professional as it got.

When I turned up at a pub to meet the people involved in the company it was firm handshakes all round. That was about as professional as it got. I was greeted by the project director, the senior developer and by another lady who appeared to have some kind of involvement in the firm, but nobody introduced her to me. Maybe they thought she wasn’t worth the effort.

As we were preparing to get down to business the project director put his arm around me and made a joke about how he had picked me up in the bar. I brushed it off as a bit of light-hearted banter and continued to prepare for the interview. By now we were already bouncing creative ideas off of each other and making plans for future collaborations. I was excited because I’d just made my first journalism contact in the tech sector, but it was at this point that the senior developer stopped to ask for my phone number and made a joke about taking me out for dinner next week.

To say that I felt uneasy was an understatement and I made a hasty comment about not having the balls to turn down his invitation. By this point I was stuck in an awkward juxtapose between playing up to the sexist banter in order to keep these guys on my side, and essentially telling them to shove the article up their anal cavities. I had high hopes for myself in becoming the Glenn Greenwald of Scottish technology and I wasn’t prepared to let, what appeared to be a minor hiccup, stand in my way.

To say that I felt uneasy was an understatement and I made a hasty comment about not having the balls to turn down his invitation.

As the interview progressed, I started to wonder whether I should have worn a different outfit to work that day - maybe the dress I was wearing was giving off the wrong impression about me. Maybe I should have dressed more like the stereotype of a computer programmer.

Rounding the interview up to a close, I left the pub and walked back in the direction of the office. The senior developer happened to be heading in the same direction and we had a really interesting and insightful conversation relating to the work that he does. It felt like things were going well until he asked the dreaded question again; would I go out with him next week? My heart sank at the realisation that this guy was not getting the message that this was a professional meeting, not a tinder hookup. 

It was back at the office the next morning that I got a phone call from the project director asking for my number on behalf of the senior developer – again. It was beginning to feel like this was the first time these guys had discovered the female species. I somewhat reluctantly gave out my number as I thought he would be a useful contact for a separate story that I was interested in working on for CommonSpace.

It was beginning to feel like this was the first time these guys had discovered the female species.

What followed next was a series of, what I felt were, inappropriate messages over Facebook and text message. One message in particular, in response to a request for more information regarding a future article, read: “I can fill your beautiful brain with all sorts of information.” Another read: “I want to help you but I also want to be honest with you. I'm very attracted to you.” At this point I felt I was going to get nowhere with my next article so I decided to call him out on his behaviour and to ultimately have no further contact with this person.

I was nervous about telling my colleagues that this was going on as I had assumed that they would question my professionalism in some way. I worried that I must have given the interviewees the impression that I was there looking for a boyfriend, rather than a story. I was in fact pleasantly surprised to find that the opposite was true. Both my editor and my fellow journalists were horrified to discover that I had gone out on a story that I was so passionate about and was subjected to such patronising and sexist behaviour. But then again, according to a senior member of staff at the tech company, I’m young and blonde and therefore should expect to be asked out. My editor contacted the company directly after I told her what happened and instructed them to have no further contact with me.

Luckily, this experience has not knocked my confidence, and I have been out on a number of visits to tech companies in and around Glasgow following this incident. The general consensus is that this kind of treatment is not symbolic of the industry as a whole. There are plenty of technology companies who are making a concerted effort to attract talented and skillful women into the workplace, as they can clearly see the value of a diverse workforce.

However, that doesn’t mean that sexism in its entirety is an issue of the past. My experience – my first ever visit out on the journalism job – shows this. It’s unacceptable to behave this way towards a woman just trying to get on with her work. I deserve to be treated with respect, both as an individual and as a professional. Reducing me to a pretty blonde who should take these things as a compliment is degrading. It’s time we all stood up to it.

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