Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin recently unleashed some righteous fury on the “steaming turd of an opening line in David Streitfeld’s otherwise serviceable New York Times piece about […] gender discrimination in Silicon Valley.” The offending line: “Men invented the Internet.”
The thing is—and hold the rotten fruit, I’m going somewhere with this—that’s actually pretty accurate. The putative counterexamples Jardin offers are so strained that they end up reinforcing rather than refuting the claim. Grace Hopper was an important computing pioneer, but her achievements have to do with the creation of early programming languages (notably a predecessor to COBOL), not the Internet. Radia Perlman wrote a key networking protocol, and should probably be more widely known for it, but she did it in 1985, well after the invention of ARPANET and TCP/IP. Ada Lovelace, by far the most famous of this trio, is also the one with the weakest claim to an original contribution: She was basically a press agent for Charles Babbage, and her reputation as the “first computer programmer” is based on her single significant paper, published in 1843, which included a description of an algorithm actually written by Babbage. If we’re really talking about the 15 or 20 people who could most reasonably be called “inventors of the Internet”—as opposed to “people who did a cool thing related to computers”—we are, in fact, talking about a bunch of guys. If we go with the broader “cool thing with a computer,” we’re no longer exclusively talking about guys, but until the last few decades, it’s still pretty disproportionate.
The correct takeaway from this, however, is not “herp derp, women can’t do math.” It’s that the social costs of sexism are really, really high. If, despite massive cultural and institutional barriers, significant numbers of women were making important contributions at the highest level all along, but denied credit, that would obviously be grossly unfair to the women in question. But it would be sort of a wash from the perspective of overall social utility: The allocation of credit is different, but society still gets the benefit of the brightest women’s contributions. The grimmer alternative is not that the wrong people get the credit, but that important innovations just don’t happen because the pool of brainpower available to tackle important social goals is needlessly halved—the potential female counterparts of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn never got the opportunity to accelerate the progress of the Internet because, at the time, hostile institutions froze them out, or antiquated norms of femininity deterred them from obtaining STEM educations in the first place. That’s a much, much bigger loss.
It’s natural that we want to look for inspiration to the members of marginalized groups whose incredible achievements required surmounting equally incredible obstacles, but overselling the success stories can also subtly reinforce the complacent view that Genius Always Finds A Way, regardless of social arrangements, even if it’s not properly recognized until much later. The depressing reality is that it very often doesn’t. And the deeper the roots of the inequality—the more culturally entrenched it is—the longer we should expect inequality in achievement to persist even when the most obvious formal barriers have been eliminated. It’s worth pausing to belatedly recognize the neglected heroines who did overcome the odds, but insisting that there’s been some hidden parity of contributions all along actually seems to risk underselling the gravity of the collective harm we’ve done ourselves. Sexism has consequences—and it has left all of us vastly worse off.