Fathom Mag

Not good for man to work alone?

What the church can learn from the expulsion of women from the tech industry

Published on:
June 8, 2018
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8 min.
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Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique began a movement. By the late 1960s, the love affair American women had with post-war domestic bliss faded, and a nation of housewives was suffering from psychic ennui. The Feminine Mystique was Friedan’s clarion call to women to unshackle themselves from the slavish yoke of home and family and chart a path toward a new definition of womanhood, one defined by the same kind of personal and professional agency afforded to men.

This galvanized a generation of women struggling to identify the root cause of their restlessness and catalyzed what today is labeled the second wave of feminism. This era is when American women began redrawing the lines of their spheres of influence to closer match those of men, demanding equal access to employment, political influence—and most infamously—sexual autonomy through access to birth control and legalized abortion.

The primarily male church authorities identified the unifying weak link in these chains of cultural upheaval to be women.

Cultural changes unfurled. Sexual mores and boundaries continued to dissolve, and institutions and industries moved at varying rates of speed to accept and then actively welcome women into their ranks. 

All industries except two.

The Church’s Automatic Reflex

What secular circles observed to be a new and untested social phenomenon the conservative Christian church considered to be an existential cultural threat. Loosening cultural mores around sexuality and marriage diluted the strength of the nuclear family and normalized sexual sin. When women’s pursuit of equal vocational opportunity expanded to the pursuit of pastoral ministry, conservative evangelical leaders considered it to be theological overstepping—a first-order assault on the inerrancy and authority of the scriptures.

The primarily male church authorities identified the unifying weak link in these chains of cultural upheaval to be women, in particular Christian women, who were succumbing to the siren call of secular rebellion. They were, according to many pastors, going against biblical norms and endangering themselves, their homes, their churches, and the culture at large in the process. America was in a moment of cultural crisis that insisted on creeping into sanctuaries, and the church powers decided to act.

In 1988, a group of concerned evangelical leaders gathered in Danvers, Massachusetts, to craft a collective statement that called the church to hold the line on historically and, it argued, scripturally drawn lines around gender roles. As with previous statements on topics like scriptural inerrancy, this statement, christened the Danvers Statement, offered churches and denominations a point of unification and demarcation—a rallying cry toward a Christian vision of the world as God created it to be, and against the deleterious cultural corruption being wrought by feminism.

Among other things, it lamented “the widespread ambivalence regarding the values of motherhood, vocational homemaking, and the many ministries historically performed by women” and called women back to the embrace of these values as their core mission.

Suggested resources for revisiting gender

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Built on selected verses in Genesis 1–2 and Titus 2, the collective framework requires separated spheres of calling—with the sphere of women being the home and the raising of children, and the sphere of men being the workplace, as well as leadership in the home and the church. When men and women work in these bifurcated, “complementary” spheres, it was argued, all of society would flourish as God intended.

The Danvers model of what became known as complementarianism was wholeheartedly embraced by conservative American evangelicals in the decades that followed its publication, birthing an entire industry of conference, books and Bible studies on biblical womanhood. 

Technologically Accidental Adoption of the Danvers Statement

The IT community may not have known about the Danvers statement, but they have effectively put it into place. 

Today’s stereotypical picture of a computer programmer is a T-shirt-and-skinny-jeans wearing white man, a stereotype with merit. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, female representation in the computing industry has been on the decline since the 1990s. Notably, in the engineering (or building) sector of the industry, as well as in the selling sector, women comprise somewhere between 15% to 20% of the workforce.

This means that from our devices to the apps that run on them to the Internet pipes that connect them, the technological infrastructure that drives so much of our life has been predominantly designed and delivered to us by men.

Silicon Valley has been famously working to reverse this trend, albeit with limited success. But subscribers to the Danvers statement should agree that there is little to change because the technology industry represents most closely what the traditional complementarian vision of the workplace should be—one where men work side by side, with the fruits of their work serving the women and children to which they are accountable, and the communities in which they work thriving as they grow and multiply.

The reality is far different.

The Economic and Sociological Consequences

I began my career in the technology industry at Hewlett Packard in the mid-nineties, during the end the Lew Platt era, at the dawning of the Internet age. Platt had famously and tragically become a widowed father of young children while working to lead a growing company. This caused him to implement what then were revolutionary policies around job sharing and remote working. He promoted what became known as “work-life balance.”

Two decades later, that world is gone . . .

Absent the balancing ethos of femininity—nurture, community, protection and care for the vulnerable—the hypermasculine ethos of the technology industry has built a world that is unstable, a place where humanity isn’t flourishing but failing. 

When work is the singular sphere of influence, we forge systems that forget relational responsibilities. For the average Silicon Valley worker today, forty-five to fifty hours of work per week are standard—for senior leaders, fifty- and sixty-hour work weeks are common, and expected. Remote work policies have been largely rescinded, sending more daily drivers back onto already crowded freeways. Our commute times, like our home prices, are among the highest in the nation, and the combination keep people away from their home and community twelve hours a day or more. They have little choice: “affordable” neighborhoods enforce a lifestyle cost of a ninety-minute to two-hour commutes each way.

We may be required to show up for office hours but work never really stops. Work demands keep parents online and unengaged on evenings and weekends. High speed networking, WiFi, and mobile devices are the drivers of always-on-the-clock work expectations. Communication methods like email and instant messaging and social media platforms keep us “productive” and “connected” to work but often at the cost of nourishing personal relationships between friends and spouses.

Children are noticeably bearing the psychological costs too. Silicon Valley teenagers struggling with anxiety, depression, and even suicide at such rates that they’ve triggered CDC investigations

When work is the singular sphere of influence, we forge systems that forget relational responsibilities.

Our societies are struggling too. Far from a utopia of familial and community flourishing, a notable feature of Silicon Valley life is camper van communities—families living in campers along streets parallel to major Bay Area freeways. And they’re growing. Their occupants are the cafeteria workers, janitors, and other facilities workers, and their children, whose hourly contracting paychecks can’t keep up with the stratospheric cost of living, costs driven by the high salaries of the workers whose buildings they maintain. Unable to afford the gas or time required to commute from a more affordable area but needing to be close to their workplace and children’s schools, camper communities are the only option some feel they have. While Silicon Valley is certainly building a culture of prosperity for some, it’s simultaneously building a culture of poverty and near homelessness for many.

The ethos of the technology industry has become centered on work, but not on the people the work is supposed to benefit. Its focus is on the individual, but not on the family and community to whom the individual is connected. The value is measured for the employee, but not for whom the employees’ work is supposed to benefit. And the ethos of the technology industry has not been confined to just Silicon Valley. It has spread like a digital virus into every industry, and every community, not just in America, but all over the globe.

Where did all the women go?

To assume malice and ill-will as if men set out to shape a world where human flourishing hovered under a low ceiling would be silly. God made both men and women to image him and work to cultivate the world he created. Both is exactly the point. The world of technology had a chance to have both men and women influence its creation. 

The first computer programmer is widely recognized to be a woman named Ada Lovelace—a daughter of the famed romantic poet Lord Byron and a largely self-taught mathematical genius. So too was the first software engineer, Grace Hopper, and two of the leading figures in the inventions of the frameworks and protocols we know today as the Internet, Radia Perlman and Ann Hardy. In the early decades of the computing revolution, women were an integral part of the work at many levels, ironically titled “computers” for their work doing complex math calculations and managing room-sized punchcard systems. 

In her fascinating book, Programmed Inequality, about the rise and decline of the British computing industry, Marie Hicks documents how gender-driven presumptions about the nature of computer work, and the role of women performing it, disrupted the egalitarian inclinations of the early computer industry. In the 1950s and ’60s, the mechanics of computer work was so closely associated with women that the UK division of IBM used the term “girl hours” instead of “man hours” to measure its impact. Yet at the same time, expectations about a woman’s calling to homemaking after marriage influenced company policies so that women were either pressured or actively made to resign when they married. Eligible men were reluctant to take the roles the women left and so the British computing industry declined.

Thanks to the space race, America’s accelerated. As dramatically commemorated in the film Hidden Figures, American determination to beat the Russians in the race to the moon drove US technology companies to include women as mathematicians and computer workers at a far higher rate than other industries. But once again, in the decades that ensued, as the computer engineering field matured and grew in status and salary potential, perception of the value of technical work shifted to be viewed in masculine terms.

This trend accelerated with the rise of the computer nerd, exemplified by the meteoric success of computing pioneers like Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates. Suddenly, men whose mental acuity far outstripped their physical prowess of social skills had their own customized path to power, wealth, and relational success. Thus, in contrast to the slow but steady increases in female representation in other industries over the 1980s and ’90s, the technology industry famously experienced the reverse.

Remodeling the God-given Vision of Flourishing

The cultural expulsion of women from the technology industry hasn’t done Silicon Valley any favors. And the relegation of men and women to their designated areas hasn’t done any for the church either. The companies that craft our platforms and devices, and the startups that chase them, have acknowledged the error of their ways and many are working to change their environments to include women at all levels. The church is primed to join them. 

It’s time to recognize the ways the church has replaced one half of humanity at odds with the other.

It’s time to recognize the ways the church has placed one half of humanity at odds with the other. Unlike the world, we vehemently reject the argument that it’s any better for women to work alone than it is for men. The Christian vision of human flourishing is not a vision of replacement but of remodeling—of tearing down infrastructures that have been built on an insufficient, incomplete foundation, and rebuilding them on a better, more integrated one.

We will have to admit that the segregated approach is antithetical to the collective vision of the cultural mandate, and to proclaim the interdependence of each gender on the other for its good is relevant in every realm. The time has come to agree with God that it was not and is not good for man to work alone—that the work needed to fulfill God’s command to subdue the world requires men and women to work together.

The world as God made it requires shaping by men and women together. In that collective shaping work we will find ourselves shaped into wholeness—and into holiness—to the praise of his glory.

Rachael Starke
Rachael Starke has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for over eighteen years. She writes about the intersection of the gospel with technology, gender, food, and everything else. You can connect with her on TwitterLinkedIn, or her blog.

Cover image by rawpixel.

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