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OP-ED: When it comes to gender, tech has plenty of work to do

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My 10-year-old daughter approached me on the playground last weekend, pointed to a younger boy and said, “He's talking about 'dumb girls.'” Like most parents do nowadays, I deliberated. Should I say something? I chose not to speak to him — or to his absent parents when they returned. I'd already warned him and his friends several times about throwing acorns up the slide while my daughters were sliding down it. I didn't want to overstep.

As I’ve pondered the moment, it was hard not to contemplate the discourse in our country regarding Judge Brett Kavanaugh and the #Metoo movement. Or the alarming statistic that roughly one-fourth of college females encounter unwanted sexual contact.

I’m still debating if I was right to stay quiet. Might that boy grow up to disrespect women? Could I have changed the course of his behavior just a bit by speaking out firmly (and risking a confrontation with his parents)?

Of course, my two daughters will need to contend with larger issues as they grow up. It seems likely that there will be greater awareness around sexual harassment in the future. That may translate to better-behaved males — hopefully. But then there’s the reality of the internet, which often encourages behavior that’s worse — more objectifying — not better. We all know a 12-year-old boy can access hard porn within seconds from his computer or phone, making yesterday’s stray copies of Playboy look downright quaint. That frankly terrifies me.

Issues like these don’t get solved by themselves. We need to find measured and thoughtful ways to address them.

So often, whenever our society strides forward and then stumbles back, technology is the means by which those shifts are accelerated, and the brakes removed. My younger daughter recently celebrated her 8th birthday at our local bowling alley, where it was hard to miss the hunting video game that featured sexy women popping up on screen after the shooting ended. Bike racing games that should be perfectly playable by young women suddenly feature sexy finish-line ladies. This was no adults-only bar, and whenever I’ve been there, the players have mostly been young kids — learning uncomfortable gender ideals every bit as much as cycling skills.

I’ve written to the alley owner to see if there’s a G-rated version, but I think I know the answer. I suspect what’s required is a campaign to persuade the game manufacturers — and suddenly we’re uncomfortably close to my tech industry.

I remain hopeful that the growing numbers of women entering programming and computer science will help reduce the continued objectification of girls and women in gaming and beyond. Whatever ultimately happens with current or future Supreme Court nominations, I think the phrase “boys will be boys” is thankfully on its way out — whether it’s heard on a playground, at an unchaperoned high school party, on campus or in the executive suite.

I know we’ll be talking about issues like these at the Tech Council's annual Women in Tech Conference on Thursday. I’m very much looking forward to that.

Whenever new technologies have disrupted norms and made it harder to sustain those we still value, it’s taken time to find a new balance that reduces anti-social behavior and works for society. From sexually abusive games to online stalking to social media bullying, we face plenty of those issues right now.

Issues like these don’t get solved by themselves. We need to find measured and thoughtful ways to address them. You and me, not someone else. Sooner, not later. The good news is: we have before, and we can again.

James Barrood is president and CEO of the New Jersey Tech Council.

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