Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Revenge of the nerds

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“Those cops know who you are,” [Starling] said. “They look at you to see how to act.” She stood steady, shrugged her shoulders, opened her palms. There it was, it was true.

—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

Over the last six months, a pattern of behavior within the technology world has been coming into focus. It arguably began with Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer who published a post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which, with its account of sexism, harassment, and the dismissal of her concerns, set off a chain of events that culminated in the resignation of Uber founder Travis Kalanick. More recently, we’ve seen similar reports about the venture capital firm Binary Capital, the investment incubator 500 Startups, and now the electric car company Tesla. Even at a glance, we can draw a few obvious conclusions. The first is that most companies still have no idea how to deal with these accusations. By now, it should be abundantly clear that the only acceptable response to such allegations is to say that you’re taking them seriously. Instead, we get the likes of Binary’s original statement, which said that the partner in question “has in the past occasionally dated or flirted with women he met in a professional capacity.” (The firm quickly reversed itself, and it’s now being rewarded with the possibility that it may simply cease to exist.) Another inference is that the number of cases will only grow, as more women come forward to share their stories. And a third takeaway is that most of these companies have certain qualities in common. They’re founded and run by intelligent, ambitious men who may not have had a lot of romantic success early in life, but who now find themselves in a position of power over women. It’s a dynamic not unlike that of, say, a graduate department in philosophy. And it’s worth wondering if we’re fated to hear similar stories whenever male overachievers with poor social skills become gatekeepers in industries where women are at a numerical disadvantage.   

As it happens, an experiment along those lines has been ongoing for over ninety years, in a closed setting with ample documentation. It’s the science fiction fandom. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but this doesn’t make it any less compelling. In the anthology The Hugo Winners, which was published in 1962, for instance, Isaac Asimov wrote of Anne McCaffrey: “She’s a woman in a man’s world and it doesn’t bother her a bit.” He explained:

Science fiction is far less a man’s world than it used to be as far as the readers are concerned. Walk into any convention these days and the number of shrill young girls fluttering before you (if you are Harlan Ellison) or backing cautiously away (if you are me) is either frightening or fascinating, depending on your point of view. (I am the fascinated type.)

The writers, however, are still masculine by a heavy majority. What’s more, they are a particularly sticky kind of male, used to dealing with males, and a little perturbed at having to accept a woman on an equal basis.

Asimov concluded: “It’s not so surprising. Science is a heavily masculine activity (in our society, anyway); so science fiction writing is, or should be. Isn’t that the way it goes?” But Anne McCaffrey, with her “Junoesque measurements and utter self-confidence,” was doing just fine. He added: “I have the most disarming way of goggling at Junoesque measurements which convinces any woman possessing them that I have good taste.” As an illustration, he told an amusing story of how McCaffrey beat him in a singing competition, prompting him to point at her chest and protest: “It’s not fair. She has spare lungs!” How could any woman possibly feel out of place?

You could excuse this by saying that Asimov is joking, using the bantering tone that he employs in all of his essays about the fandom, but that’s problematic in itself. Asimov consciously mastered an informal style that made readers feel as if he were confiding in them, telling his publisher, who had expressed doubts about his approach: “They will feel themselves inside the world of science fiction.” And they did. At a time when the genre was rapidly expanding into the mass culture, he made it seem as close and intimate as it had been in the thirties. But he also gave hints to fans about how they were supposed to talk about themselves, and sometimes it wasn’t particularly funny. (It also had a way of excluding anyone who wasn’t in on the joke, as in Asimov’s infamous quip to Samuel R. Delany.) This wasn’t a new development, either. A quarter of a century earlier, as an unknown fan in the letters column of Astounding, Asimov had written: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” Later, he doubled down on his position: “Let me point out that women never affected the world directly. They always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him…and then affected history through him.” He concluded that he should probably stop before he inspired a “vendetta” of all the female fans in the country: “There must be at least twenty of them!” If this was a joke, it persisted for decades, and he wasn’t the only one. When you look back at those letters, their suspicion or bemusement toward women practically oozes off the page, and you get a sense of how hard it must have been for “a female woman”—as one identifies herself in 1931—to enter that world. There was a debate about whether women even belonged, and Asimov cheerfully participated: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

This doesn’t even get to Asimov’s own behavior with women, which deserves a full post in itself, although I’m frankly not ready to tackle that yet. And while I don’t mean to pick on Asimov on particular, maybe, in a way, I do. In The Hugo Winners, Asimov describes himself as “a ‘Women’s Lib’ from long before there was one,” and his political views were unimpeachably progressive. (I’m sure you could say much the same thing about the founders and employees of most of the firms mentioned above.) He was also the most visible ambassador of a subculture that continues to have a troubling track record with women and minorities, in ways both explicit and implicit, and he wasn’t just symptomatic of its attitudes, but one of its shapers. Fans looked to Asimov for cues about how to behave, because he was exactly what they wanted to become—a shy, lonely kid who grew up to be famous and beloved. And we don’t need to look far for parallels. In an internal email sent two days after the termination of the woman who says that she was fired in retaliation for her claims, Elon Musk wrote:

If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla where someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

It certainly isn’t. And although Tesla has said that “this email in fact did not reference Ms. Vandermeyden or her case,” it doesn’t matter. The assumption that the presence of “jerks” among less represented groups—who allegedly benefit from special treatment “over more highly qualified represented candidates”—is pervasive enough to be singled out like this sends a message in itself. Musk is a hero to many young men inside and outside his company, just as Asimov, whose books he deeply admires, was to his fans. Many are bright but socially confused, and they’re looking to be told how to act. And as Clarice Starling once said under similar circumstances: “It matters, Mr. Crawford.”

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