Dear James,

Long, long ago, before Google was a verb, I had learned about the internet in a classroom of thirty young people in 1997, who thought that the future (specifically the year 2000) would look like something from Crystal Maze. People would be replaced by robots, have no feelings and machines would take over. Somewhere in the backdrop of all those lessons, I found myself digging my history textbooks for any mention of women among the range of men named during the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Second World War, the Indian Independence Struggle and everything else history had to offer. I found two, or at the most three women for every fifteen men I found. No kidding.

They’re probably two very different things, but stick with me on this because I’m going somewhere. When I read your memo, I couldn’t help but think about how twenty years later, the same thing seems to be in mind. I work hard to put women back in the dialogue. I work hard to get young people to cultivate empathy and there you are, pushing all the coins I’ve stacked up on the board with the sweep of one hand.

I like how you started your note: “People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.” And then, you let the car go downhill. You list out a range of biases, and here’s the funny story: you’ve written the whole thing through a lens of bias, yourself. I know people on the right that are compassionate and upset by disparities due to injustice. I know people who lean toward the left that are incredibly resistant to change and are horribly closed. I know people on the right that are frighteningly idealistic that you’d see their name in the meaning for the word in a dictionary. I know people on the left that compete more than collaborate because they believe humans are incapable of cooperation. Perhaps you and I can hang out some time and I’ll take you to meet these people. If you’re open and cooperative, that is.   

Women In Tech In India by
Women In Tech In India by

I’m not going into anything you suggested about what happens within Google. Somehow, my status as an extensive user of its products doesn’t give me license to comment on the back end. (See what I did there? I’m a girl and I can tech, too.) And so I won’t look into what Google espouses or what it doesn’t, but rather look at what you offered up as facts and science as the basis for your counters.

Your positioning of the basis of the gender gap is rooted in a rigid understanding of gender as being confined to the binary. Gender is fluid, dynamic and ever-evolving. It holds a spectrum of identities within – heck, even ascribed sex at birth is beyond the binary. If you’re labouring under the assumption that sex is binary, Google (see what I did there?) “sex assigned at birth.”  Sam Killerman’s Genderbread man will make an appearance. Have some tea with good ol’ Genderbread. He’ll have lots to share. Agreed, men and women are biologically different in many ways, but their differences are also socially constructed. None of these explain the gap in representation in tech and leadership, simply because the question is of gender equity, which is all about access and inclusion.

You suggest that women, on an average, have more openness towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas; that they prefer jobs in social or artistic areas, that their extraversion is expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness and higher agreeableness which leads to women having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises or speaking up and leading, and also suggest that women are more prone to neuroticism.

Interesting thoughts, but let me unpack them and show you why it’s not a logical basis for why women aren’t represented in STEM as much. A very dear friend of mine, Saundarya Rajesh, an activist in Chennai, runs an initiative called AVATAR. Through their research, they find that girls fill classrooms at middle and high school, and in college. But there is a funnel of sorts after that, where only a fraction of them work. This, their research shows, happens because of a variety of factors – all purely social. One, the social conditioning that they must aspire only to marriage – and even if they don’t, their families do – keeps women out of the workforce. Two the lack of safety in workspaces and in the public spaces they must access to get there make some women drop out. Three, the exclusionism and discrimination they face – be it in the form of the glass ceiling of unequal pay, or being elbowed out of a project because they’re pregnant.  It’s not that there’s no interest. It’s not that there’s a lack of assertiveness. It is that patriarchy has pervaded in more ways than your male privilege lets you understand it. I can send you a pair of feminist lens, if you need help looking at the world the right way.

All of this, my friend, is social conditioning. You say that these differences are not socially constructed because they are universal across human cultures. It’s universal, because patriarchy is universal. Spend some time with Gerda Lerner, and she’ll show you how whatever theory it is that you want to use to define patriarchy, it cuts across cultures. Men dominate regardless of their cultural bearings – and if culture were to play any role, it would only manipulate things on the scale of bad to worse from an intersectionality perspective.  So let me take you to another subject that can help you understand social conditioning. History. Except, I’ll show you Herstory. Tell me, if women were biologically incapable of science, would you try to assert that Ada Lovelace was an anomaly? She’s the reason why you write code the way you do today – if you do get time to write code between all that misogyny that you’re busy endorsing, that is. That the first computer algorithm in the world came out of a woman’s brains and was carefully written by a woman’s hands is not a mere coincidence. Because if you’ve heard of Grace Hopper, you’d know that she brought Cobol to life.  Did you watch Hidden Figures? Because a room full of African American women put a man in space. That’s right. They were all women. How about Rosalind Franklin? Her work led to critical breakthroughs in the discovery of DNA but Watson and Crick happily manipulated it as their own and won a Nobel Prize for it, no less.  Heck, I taught myself how to code to put an app in the hands of survivors of sexual violence. From the day I founded the Red Elephant Foundation, I’ve coded my own websites all by myself.

It’s cute that you think Women can’t Science. The truth, though, is that Men can’t herstory.  Makes me realize that it’s guys like you wrote over all the badass women there ever existed, their contributions and their brilliance, called it History, and then hid behind biology to keep more women out of the pages.

Kirthi Jayakumar of Red Elephant set up and coded her own website from scratch.
Views are author’s own