Forty-four years ago today at the Houston Astrodome, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King engaged each other in a titanic tennis showdown the likes of which had only been seen, well, OK, a few months earlier in California. On that occasion, on Mother's Day 1973, Riggs defeated superstar Margaret Court, who won the Australian Open, French Open, and US Open that same year.
Both Court and King stood tall against the boasting of Riggs, a long-retired former World No. 1 player who was 55 in 1973. (Court was 30; King, 29.) A self-promoter and — let's not gild the pill — sexist pig, Riggs believed that women's tennis was inferior to men's tennis. To prove it, he arranged his face-offs against first Court and then King (who won Wimbledon in 1973, the only major not claimed by Court).
King, however, emerged from her much-hyped and widely viewed (the global television audience was estimated at 90 million) "Battle of the Sexes" against Riggs with a straight sets victory, turning the tables on her opponent (who had won his May match against Court in similarly dominating fashion). Beyond validating the classic Irving Berlin showtune "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun, the match was something of a watershed moment.
By besting her blowhard opponent, King struck a highly visible blow to the long-held belief that women are inferior to men. (If you, like many, weren't around to watch the fireworks in 1973, just sit tight a moment: A movie about the famous encounter, Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs, opens in select theaters this weekend.) Most people today wouldn't openly embrace such an appallingy backward way of thinking, but many still cling to it privately, perhaps even unconsciously.
Men are rarely asked, invited, begged, or badgered to prove that they are on equal footing with women. But even when there are no TV cameras or superstars involved, women are frequently in the position of being expected to demonstrate that they are just as capable as men. In that sense, the very existence of a "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match, even 44 years ago, is pretty damning evidence that a sinister perception problem exists.
In 2017, that same problem is alive and well in the IT realm. Many observers have identified the gender imbalance in IT employment, and there may be no one overriding reason for it. It has to be acknowledged, however, that a strong contributing factor is the idea, still passed along to girls in their formative years, that men are simply "better" at technology than women. Former Google employee James Damore may not have said that exact thing in his infamous memo just a few months back, but he was certainly barking up the same tree.
Let's not wait for there to be a defining Battle of the Sexes moment in IT. We're all better than that. Women are just as capable of shaping the future of information technology as men. We should do more than just tepidly welcome the participation of the few brave souls who show up here — we should actively encourage others to join them.
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