For the last two months the video-game industry has been embroiled in an ugly outbreak of name-calling and worse. This dustup, called Gamergate, was named after a hashtag on Twitter, where much of the nasty fight has taken place. It's a battle in which women have been threatened with violence and even death by hardcore gamers. The women's crime, in their eyes: They criticized what they see as the anti-woman, anti-gay, racist nature of games and many people in the industry.
The controversy began when violent threats were made against Zoe Quinn, the designer of the game Depression Quest, after her ex-boyfriend posted a screed against her on the Internet. The vileness of the reaction against her was astounding. Here's just one sample, posted on the 4chan site: "Next time she shows up at a conference we ... give her a crippling injury that's never going to fully heal ... a good solid injury to the knees. I'd say a brain damage, but we don't want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us."
Things spread from there. The New York Times reported that the video-game critic Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel a talk at Utah State University after an email threatened that if she appeared there would be "the deadliest school shooting in American history."
It's tempting to dismiss the controversy as a tech sideshow confined to the "boys-will-be-boys" culture of adolescent gamers. In fact, though, the ugly gamer culture on display in Gamergate doesn't infect only the video-game industry. It reflects uncomfortable truths about the rest of the tech industry as well.
The Times reports that "Under pressure from GamerGate, Intel pulled its advertising from Gamasutra, a website that covers the medium from a developer's perspective, because of a column by Leigh Alexander that criticized mainstream gamer culture as an embarrassing cesspool of adolescent consumerism." Intel is anything but an outlier; it's at the heart of the entire tech industry.
Startups have long used a "booze-and-broads" approach for recruiting male programmers and have embraced a "brogammer" culture. That culture extends outside startup walls. In France Uber promoted its ride-sharing service by promising that you can get rides from "hot chicks" when using the service, and posted photos of the supposed drivers in lingerie.
Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank that studies workplace diversity, has done research about the issue of women in tech for the Harvard Business Review. She says that she sat in on a performance review of one woman who was given poor grades and called "difficult" because she believed strongly in her ideas. A man at the same company, Sherbin claims, showed the same traits and instead was called inspirational and given a positive review.
It's not just on the tech side of technology companies that this happens; it's on the business side as well. A recent study by the Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership found that fewer female MBAs take jobs in "tech-intensive" industries after graduation than do male MBAs, 24% for men versus 18% for women. The report also found that women face many problems once they get in the industry: few female co-workers, mentors, bosses and role models. As a result, women leave tech in larger numbers than do men.
It needn't be that way. The report concludes, "The attrition of women in tech-intensive industries is not inevitable. It is possible to transform the culture of a male-dominated organization through concerted effort."
Even Microsoft, long recognized as a progressive company, fell into the trap recently when CEO Satya Nadella said women would be better off waiting for good karma to bring them raises than ask for raises themselves. Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research, responded to Nadella by tartly telling Phys.org, "There's not a lot of evidence that karma has been friendly to women in this area."
She's right: Women have long made less money in tech than do men. Research by the think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley found that men in Silicon Valley with graduate or professional degrees earn 73% more than do women with the same degrees. For those with bachelor degrees, the research found, the gap was 40%.
To Nadella's credit, he immediately moderated his statement. Still, Microsoft says that its workforce is only 29% women. Google says 30% of its employees are female. Facebook puts its figure at 31%.
So it's easy to tut-tut about Gamergate. But it's not just game-loving boys or men stuck in misogynist adolescence who are the problem in tech. The culture of the entire industry, from tech titans down to startups, is to blame.