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Soraya Chemaly

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NYT Just Doesn't Get It: Men, Women and the Internet

Posted: 06/04/2012 1:38 pm

I was shocked this sleepy Sunday morning to learn, as I opened the business section of the New York Times, that "MEN (caps all theirs) invented the Internet." I knew men invented fire and water and are probably responsible for figuring out how to make a thumb opposable. But the INTERNET? I had NO IDEA.

It's true. There were clues -- I had to count them on my little, itty, bitty, fingers.

1) Internet innovation and invention shares a lot, culturally, with revolutionary new phone technology, right? According to Best Buy, all the nifty phone innovators are men and it's just like "being in a boy band"! I was confused for a bit during half-time in February, Hedy Lamarr and Arlene Harris and all.

2) Or, maybe the fact that the military, where some say it had its origins, is strictly for men and their toys. Women like Grace Hopper, who did things like lay the groundwork for programming languages like COBOL, just like fancy dress.

3) Or, it may just be the lingering popularity of male-founded-Internety gang-bang rape jokes and brogrammerness. The fun kind that ends up with portrayals of women "in tech" as nothing more than crazy, materialistic, orificies with legs. Those should be dead "men invented the Internet" giveaways.

Here I was thinking about women like Radia Perlmen (sometimes referred to as the "mother of the Internet," she isn't famous for inventing a fundamental Internet building block, spanning-tree protocol -- better known as the cute, womanly STP) and countless other women who persisted in their work through the dense fog of awesome programmer maleness.

It's just that I found it strange that an article about a sex discrimination lawsuit in the tech industry would start with a sweeping generalization that reinforces all-male mythologies so that we can give men "their due."

"MEN invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due."

Given that 99 percent of recorded history and biography is an exercise in giving men "their due" and denying women theirs, the New York Times shouldn't feel an obligation to make sure this continues any longer. It might behoove them to stop trying. Then again, it might not.

Yes, the founding technologists of the Internet were overwhelmingly men. But, that fact alone, especially in the context of a sex discrimination lawsuit in the tech industry, might lead a more perspicacious editor to think: "Now, if the writer wants to start this way, it's an opportunity to create context. Let's talk about why women were not so visible or able to participate equally in the founding of the Internet. Let's talk about what that past has to do with the sexist and discriminatory culture that existed and continues to exist."

What exactly is the point of starting the article with that -- just to make it clear that the woman in question (and others like her) a) Should consider herself lucky to have been invited to play with the boys at all? b) Should have known she wasn't really part of the club? c) Should give the men around her some exculpatory credit by virtue of their gamete-affinity with the men who started it all? d) Should go away and just let the guys get back to business?

But, the writer went with flip and the editor went with "it's true" and annoyed many people who are daily trying to stop the tide of girls and women away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and employment. I realize it was just one paragraph, but the negating of women's contributions in this way does no one any good and contributes to exactly the type of small, damaging and persistent stereotyping about girls and boys, men and women that undermines the participation of girls in the sciences. In addition, it's in exactly this way -- a mainstream media company's powerful influence on creating historical and cultural narratives -- that men have long been credited with many inventions and discoveries that included the invisible work of women.

Women scientists, inventors, engineers, researchers, computer innovators, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, have long been subsumed in a sexist swamp of laws restricting their recognition and culture that would rather ignore them in preference for more traditional, patriarchal roles for women.

That's why it is so sad and disappointing to see a newspaper write this silly paragraph on a lark. I know it shouldn't be a surprise, especially coming so fast on the heels of that newspaper's absurdly anachronistic "motherhood and mommy wars" debate. But, if I wasn't hopelessly optimistic about the future, I couldn't really believe in equality, could I?

A simple, quick Internet search yields hundreds of sites like Women's Internet History Project and The Ada Project, an encyclopedia of women computing pioneers for anyone interested in teaching their daughters and sons a bit of actual history. As I type, the Women in Technology conference is going on -- there may even be NYT coverage of it. But, that's not really the point, is it? Women have always striven to do these things and male-dominated media have always sought ways to silence their achievements, opinions and ambitions. The difference is now, mercifully, we have organizations like the Women's Media Center, Women, Action and the Media and Name It. Change It. for which I am grateful.

I close here by dedicating this pithy but useful video to the New York Times: An "Oddly Satisfying Film Montage of 'You Just Don't Get It, Do You?'" Despite the fact that it's a bad screenwriting cliche, the expression has its uses and this is one of them.

 

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