Can anyone address the subject of women in technology without becoming a polarizing figure? It’s a question that Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack is exploring.
The Redmond 35-year-old, co-founder of a company that provides automated HR services, called Fizzmint, recently launched a Kickstarter campagin to fund a book called, simply, Women in Tech.
Sure, such a book could go on about the outpouring of misogyny unleashed by Gamergate (the ugly comments and death threats directed at women criticizing sexism in video games). It could stress the dismal statistics on women in the industry (one of the only fields in which there are less women now than there were three decades ago). And it could devolve into horror stories. (A Newsweek
story that came out yesterday had a good one: an entrepreneur went out with a male tech executive for a business dinner, and had him place her hand in his unzipped pants.)
But Wheeler Van Vlack says she wants to stay positive. That’s what she’s told her contributors, who include game programer and outspoken Gamergate survivor Brianna Wu, Seattle-based Code Fellow CEO Kristin Toth Smith and—just signed, Wheleer Van Vlack tells me today– Kamilah Taylor, a software engineer at LinkedIn.
These aren’t your conventional techies for reasons beyond their gennder. “Many have come into tech through the side door,” Wheeler Van Vlack says. Rather than graduating with a software engineering degree and getting their first job at Microsoft, they’ve explored other fields and sometimes other careers.
Wheeler Van Vlack herself, who will write a chapter of the book, says she studied political science and “the science of warfare” before going to Microsoft to work on the Halo video game team. She then worked as a consultant and, in time, adviser to women. Through a previous Kickstarter campaign, she put on a weekend of seminars entitled “LadyCoders: Get Hired. ” (Among her tips, fight back when an interviewer tells you, during “white board interviews,” that “your code is wrong.” A conflictual style equals confidence in the tech world. Also, whatever you do, don’t fluff a handshake. “If you extend for a grasp or a clasp, they’ll kiss your hand and the interview’s over.” )
Now, for the book, she’s asked her authors to write about how they achieved their success. She hopes by doing so, other women will find inspiration.
She says she sees such an approach as “a referendum on moderation.” It carves out a middle ground between those who say “there’s nothing wrong and women just need to toughen up” with those who complain that “the system is so flawed that we just need to burn it down.”
How’s that working so far? On the positive side, she had by 4 o’clock today raised $9,400 of the $29,000 she is seeking. Wheeler Van Vlack, who intends to publish the book herself, says she will use much of that money to pay her authors.
On the negative side are the Internet trolls who see the book as hate bait no matter how mild the approach. Some have tried to hack into her online accounts, she says. What could they possibly object to in a book with such a neutral title? Apparently, having “women” and “tech” in the same sentence.
“Just saying anything at all puts you in the cross-hairs,” Wheeler Van Vlack says. Knowing that, some women she approached for the book said they were too scared to participate.
The referendum on moderation is still out, but such intimidation doesn’t bode well for free speech, never mind feminism.