Dismantling macho engineering culture

Inside the React furore

It’s tempting to see the software industry a certain type of programmer - hyper-masculine, possessing a weighty superiority complex, broadly conservative and with misogyny thinly disguised as misanthropy. This is particularly true for those outside the tech industry in the wider world - and I think it’s dangerous.

While this stereotype undoubtedly exists for a reason, it’s essential to recognise that engineering communities are never just hegemonic bases of socially awkward men that think being offensive is edgy. They are instead spaces of significant political contestation and debate - by seeing them as such, we can start to break up the damaging mythos of the macho programmer.

It’s important that we do this because if we continue to lean on this stereotype we’ll only give it more strength and discourage other people from entering the industry.

This is something that became particularly clear to me following the recent furore inside the React community (React is a web development tool).

For people outside the community, and certainly for those outside of tech, the argument that flared up on Twitter might appear confusing and dense, full of he said-she-said - but broadly, the issue is this:

  • A community leader (Tatiana Mac) gave a talk at a conference explaining how design systems can perpetuate the status quo and exclude certain groups…

  • …some men commented (on Twitter, where else?) something to the effect that this was SJW stuff, not tech…

  • …and then someone elsewhere on Twitter then made the observation that the React community is full of hyper-masculine bros that love to lift, causing people to get upset about the generalization and forcing people to reckon with the reality of behaviours and attitudes that they overlook and subsequently enable.

[Updated 30.8.2019 to reflect that Tatiana Mac is not directly involved in the React community]

That, really is the crux of it. And although looking at it isn’t the most enjoyable thing (although as someone that enjoys snark it does hold a peculiar attraction), the one thing that came through is how many people are fighting to improve their community - to make it more accessible and more welcoming.

Tatiana Mac was particularly forthright on Twitter:

The tweet above is suggestive of something that I think you can see across the tech industry in a number of ways - people who have a vested interest in protecting something to such an extent that they aren’t willing to fight or criticise others.

But it also highlights that the industry is a place that is having some very serious conversations about accountability and responsibility.

All too often we don’t hear about that. Between toxic masculinity in engineering circles and the business practices of Amazon and Google, to much of the world the tech industry is a world that doesn’t care about anyone or anything - only its own power, whether in terms of wealth or ego.

Now, while it’s unlikely that the upper echelons of the tech industry are going to initiate conversations around accessibility and responsibility, the fact that there are a huge range of engineers - many of them not white, not male, not cis - who are all challenging the status quo indicates that the tech industry is an interesting place that could even affect change in wider society too (when you think about the growing importance of engineering to the economy, this doesn’t seem like a stretch).

The tech industry - like everything else - is in a far from perfect state. And while it’s fun to complain about tech and mock Silicon Valley, highlighting and recognising the work being done by many people - like Tatiana Mac - to make it better might actually only help them more.

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