Women in Tech: How Anonymity Contributes to the Problem

August 30, 2010 at 10:37 pm 9 comments

Like Michael Arrington, I too have sat on the sidelines of the debate on women in tech. Unlike Michael Arrington, I did so because nobody asked for my opinion. There is, however, one aspect of the debate that I’m qualified to comment on.

The central issue seems to be whether the low participation rate of women in technology is due to a hostile environment in the tech industry (e.g., sexism, overt or covert) or due to external factors, whether genetic or social, that influence women to pick career paths other than technology without even giving it a shot.

Arrington thinks it’s the latter, and makes a strong case for his position. In response, many have pointed out various behaviors common in the tech industry that make it unappealing to women. Jessica B. Hamrick talks about rampant elitism which affects women disproportionately. What I’m more interested in today is Michelle Greer’s account of being viciously attacked for a relatively innocuous comment on Arrington’s post.

Let me come right out and say it: while I am a defender of the right to anonymous speech, I believe it has no place whatsoever in the vast majority of discussion forums. The reason is simple: there is something about anonymity that completely dismantles our evolved social norms and civility and makes us behave like apes. Not all of us, to be sure, but it only takes a few to ruin it for everyone. Or to put it in plainer terms:

There is no doubt that sexist comments online — the vast majority of them anonymous — contribute hugely to the problem of tech being a hostile environment for women. While there are rude comments directed at everyone, just look around if you need convincing that the ones that attack someone specifically for being female tend to be much more depraved. It is also true that rude behavior online is not limited to tech fields, but it creates more of a barrier there because online participation is essential for being relevant.

Here’s my suggestion to everyone who’d like to do something to make tech less hostile to women: perhaps the best return on your time that you can get is by making anonymous, unmoderated comments a thing of the past. Abolish it on your own sites, and write to other site admins and educate them about the importance of this issue. And when you see an uncivil comment, either educate or ignore the person, but try not to get enraged — you’d be feeding the troll.

Thanks to Ann Kilzer for reviewing a draft.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. pseudonymous poster  |  August 31, 2010 at 2:37 am

    As someone who has regularly declined to comment (with actual information, as opposed to vomiting on the internet) because of sites’ identification requirements… No, thank you?
    Moderation is much more efficient than banning pseudonymity, I think; look at Charlie Stross’ blog some time for a shining example of conversation that is well-managed without killing debate.

    • 2. Arvind  |  August 31, 2010 at 3:22 am

      You haven’t really disagreed with me :-) My suggestion was to abolish unmoderated anonymous comments. If moderation works for you, that’s great. (that’s what I do here). I suspect that for more high-volume sites, though, it may not be an option unless you enlist the help of the community in some way.

      Secondly, I think pseudonymity might be fine, depending on the degree of identification. For example, if commenting were tied to Google accounts, even though you can keep creating new accounts if you get banned for offensive comments, the extra level of effort involved should keep the bile way down.

      I find your personal perspective interesting. I myself make it a point to always identify myself when commenting, even if the site doesn’t require me to. I have acted in the role of anonymous whistleblower a couple of times, but that’s clearly a special case and we have sites set up specifically for doing that.

  • 3. Thomas Edisson  |  August 31, 2010 at 6:40 am

    The say that in cyberspace nobody realises you are a dog ( or a cat , after all its about equality ) . How would removing anonymity reduce the greater Dick Wad theory when it is possible to lie about who you are ?

    I dont disagree with the policy. I have ( as a man ) experienced a bullying , intimidating and aggressive behaviour and realised that it came from the same IP despite the number of aliases used. It that particular muppet ever discovers HideMyAss or iPGuard or any number of valid identity hiding products then it will be easier for that muppet to continue his trollery . All the while he will be using a fake id.

    Thank you

    Nik Butler
    http://www.loudmouthman.com [1]

    1] One of these identities might be true.

    • 4. Arvind  |  August 31, 2010 at 9:55 am


      There’s anonymity, then there are various levels of pseudonymity, and finally there is real-world identity. It appears that you’re thinking about pseudonymity. As I commented above, allowing pseudonymous commenting would be fine as long as creating new pseudonyms requires a significant amount of effort.

  • 5. Bertil  |  September 5, 2010 at 5:05 am

    I beg to disagree, with your point.

    Reddit would be one counter-example as a intensively pseudonymous community with great quality, so would many comments on TechCrunch, in full name, but offensive surprisingly often.

    I do not think that anonymity makes people more offensive. It does make them more daring, and all the “anonymous” support groups (that help many former addicts and that rather as easy to leave and join) show how that courage can be used in the right way.

    What it true, however, is that people tend to be aggressive when they feel not listened to, or powerless. It’s very easy to have the impression your point of view in not represented when you read a very opinionated blogger, or when you work in a corporate setting, where most of your thoughts would be deemed offensive if aired out. That frustration explains the violence you see — as the result of a process that is easy to reverse: just ask people what they think, try to summarize it until you all agree on what they meant. You can disagree with what he says, but you should not disagree on what his intentions are.
    On the contrary, on a very dynamic website like Reddit or Quora, most of what you say will be commented by someone, often many, and several of them will get your point and probably make an joke about it. The fact that some disagree with you or miss the point won’t matter: you are not frustratingly alone, and you can expect support from some and intelligent attention from most.
    You get the same reactions on Wikipedia comment pages: when an admin is very procedural, he quotes rules that you might misunderstand but you have no idea if he understood your point; similarly, most forums about discrimination are very segregated, and any counterpoint will appear uncommon and won’t be accepted, which is why those see so many violent reaction.

    Now you know what websites have the most insight on gender discrimination.

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  • 9. The Cranky Product Manager  |  September 14, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Interesting. I can see both sides of the argument. After all, I blog/tweet/comment as a fictional / anonymous persona, aka “The Cranky Product Manager” (who is female).

    I do this anonymously because I can express the frustrations that all people in my profession really encounter without career repercussions, and have built a good following because of this. But I guess, yes, that can make me a bit of a dickwad, even though I never pick on individuals or even small companies.

    I’ve been on the receiving end too, though. I once blogged a less than gushing opinion about a particular software development methodology, and I received rape threats and all matter of hostile/scary/alarming email and comments. About a DEVELOPMENT methodology. Honestly. Even though my persona is anonymous, it is definitely female, and I do think that makes me a bigger target.


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About 33bits.org

I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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