Using "because I’m a man" as an excuse for an "inevitable" response is just plain sexist

Gaslighting and self-reflexive sexism aren't something we can let slide.

If a man says he sucks because he’s male, it’s surely sexist to agree with him. But if he uses his gender as an excuse for bad behaviour, is it also sexist to call him out on it?

This is the latest gender equality conundrum raised by US website Jezebel. In a controversial piece entitled "I suck: how guys use self-deprecation against you", American author Hugo Schwyzer explores a variant of the phenomenon by which men "gaslight" women (defined as the various ways in which they convince them that they are overreacting or hysterical): “Call it the 'I'm such an asshole' speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.”

Invoking the crisis of masculinity theory, Schwyzer suggests that gas lighting is basically a response to men internalising the idea that they are emotionally stunted and wont to let down women because of it, a self-fulfilling negative prophecy which gender theorists call stereotype threat: “I think I’m crap therefore I am” kind of posturing.

As is to be expected, Schwyzer’s article is proving controversial. Not just because it is being defended by indignant males on the Jezebel comment stream, nor simply because Schwyzer’s failure to include a "NB – this may only apply to some men" caveat irritates the vehemently anti-generalisation gender debaters. Rather, detractors have accused Schwyzer of criticising men in order to endear himself to Jezebel’s feminist-leaning readership, effectively practising his own form of gas lighting.

That’s a pretty complex bit of double-bluffing, a grown-up version of the "all boys lie! playground riddle. Not impossible, but where does it leave men who want to call out gender iniquities practised or perpetuated by other men?  Probably in the same iron maiden many male feminists and pro-feminist sympathisers find themselves, silenced, and invalidated for expressing their pussy-whipped opinions. 

For every progressive, liberal man I know and love, I encounter two amoebae – whether that’s my ex-boss who wouldn’t let me lug about the oversized office atlas because "ladies shouldn’t", or the tweeter who disliked my comments on porn on Radio 2 the other day – "oh? So you’re a journalist? I thought you were just a common whore". This kind of sexism is easy to identify, and well rebuffed. The kind Schwyzer is writing about isn’t, probably because half the men practising it wouldn’t be able to recognise it as such, nor would half the women its receiving end. As such, a rare piece that identifies subtle sexism is definitely worth contemplation – even if less generalising would have been preferable.

As an intersectional feminist, who recognises men regularly suffer gender discrimination too, I generally recoil at any "he does, she does" oversimplifications when it comes to framing behaviour. Still, there is something about Schwyzer’s article that resonates. Possibly because I have become uneasily familiar of late with the "It’s because I’m male and a bit autistic" school of excuse when it comes to expressing an inability to offer commitment, one guy I know citing it as the reason he "can’t love", another as the excuse for why he would feel really uncomfortable if I stayed over after casual sex. (I mean, a woman can take a hint, even if she is, er, a woman.) But more importantly, because I don’t see how you can ignore the gender factor here - not when it is being cited as the singular excuse for the behaviour in question. The tactic may be textbook passive aggressive narcissism, but using "because I’m a man" as an excuse for an "inevitable" response is just plain sexist.

Granted, two anecdotes do not a scientific theory make (even if you extend that to two dozen, or 200 by including many similar stories I’ve heard from others), and sure, women do it too: "I can’t trust him to do the cleaning because his male standards are lacking", or, "I wanted a baby so I tried to steal his sperm" (remember that? From the nation’s most misunderstood feminist, no less.) So when we see gender being used as an excuse for bad behaviour, whether that’s by men or women, we need to call it, conscious that criticising it may leave us open to charges of perpetuating sexism, even if the intention was anything but, and mindful that it’s all too easy to do so, as those now criticising Schwyzer clearly feel he has.

But ignoring self-reflexive sexism because it would be sexist to draw attention to it? Sounds like self-gaslighting to me. And amidst all this light flickery-pokery, it’s pretty hard to see who is rearranging the furniture.

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gas Light.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.