Geek Life

This Book About Women in Tech Could Break the Internet

Lady coders be gettin' uppity again.

By Matthew Halverson January 27, 2015

If we learned anything from Gamergate—the internet brouhaha that erupted late in summer 2014 over claims of misogyny and sexism in video games—it’s that a certain, very vocal, portion of men don’t like it when women in the tech community get all uppity and start asking for outlandish things like equal occupational opportunities and a workplace devoid of sexual harassment and, you know, a freedom from threats against their life.

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack knows all about this. In summer 2012 the Redmond resident and her two business partners launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce, film, and distribute a seminar that would teach young women how to interview for—and more important, keep—jobs in the male-dominated tech world. LadyCoders: Get Hired, as the trio named the seminar, met and exceeded its $23,000 goal, but it was also a dog whistle for trolls: Wheeler Van Vlack got slammed on Twitter by not only those who thought she was making a supercomputer out of a microprocessor, but also by feminists who argued that she was striving for assimilation instead of equality. So with her new Kickstarter project, which launched this morning, she’s expecting more of the same.

Should it meet its nearly $29,000 goal, the book Women in Tech will be a how-to manual of sorts for women trying to succeed in a field in which Wheeler Van Vlack says they've been indirectly—and sometimes very directly—led to believe they don’t belong. “I’m going to address the need for women to take up the space that they want to take up, rather than the space that other people will let them have,” she says.

And though Wheeler Van Vlack’s stock within the industry has risen in the years since the LadyCoders launch, it’s not necessarily her involvement that she thinks will draw the most attention. No, she expects the trolls to take notice of her five co-authors, particularly Brianna Wu, a game developer who fled her home last summer after receiving death threats in the wake of Gamergate. “This became a politically charged book the second Brianna joined the project,” Wheeler Van Vlack says. (Also contributing are Angie Chang, of Hackbright Academy; Kristin Toth Smith, CEO of Seattle-based Code Fellows; Katie Cunningham, of the Python Software Foundation; and well-known hacker Erin Jacobs.)

She swears that ginning up controversy isn’t the intent—at least not entirely. First and foremost, her hope is that the book will offer practical career lessons and an inspirational, We made it, and so can you message from the autobiographical chapters written by each of the (very accomplished) contributors. If, by virtue of having the nerve to speak up for women in tech, the project has the unintended consequence of sparking a social media firestorm that attracts more backers, so be it.

That’s not to say Wheeler Van Vlack is taking the prospect of backlash lightly. In fact, she’s already been bitten by it—preemptively. The original plan was to have seven co-authors, but weeks before the campaign’s launch one dropped out for fear of being perceived as a “social justice warrior”—geek code for uppity female crusader—and incurring the web’s wrath. And another pulled out just yesterday for the same reason. “They both have a right to be afraid,” Wheeler Van Vlack says. “I’m fucking terrified right now.” And if Brianna Wu’s experience was any indication, she might have a good reason to be.

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