The wife of a friend of mine was recently headhunted out of a corporate executive position in the midwest to a loftier job with an online retailer on the west coast. Silicon Valley to be exact. And though she expected her new work life to be a bit of a boy's club, she didn't expect to work in a world lagging decades behind other industries in its treatment of women, and she certainly didn't expect to routinely confront sexism, and even sexual harassment. Should she have?
Even though women outnumber men at the top college and universities, as well as in the workforce, they still represent only a small fraction of executives, entrepreneurs, investors and engineers.
According to this story in the Los Angeles Times, the number of women studying computer science is shrinking and at many tech companies, only a tiny fraction of the engineers — 2% to 4% in some cases — are women.
They're so rare in fact, Pax Dickinson, the former chief technology officer of business blog Business Insider, referred to female developers and engineers as "unicorns."
In a rare case of retribution, however, Dickinson was fired last month after repeatedly tweeting sexist comments such as: "misogyny" is "hatred of women". It is not misogyny to tell a sexist joke, or to fail to take a woman seriously, or to enjoy boobies.
He also tweeted, "men have made the world such a safe and comfortable place that women now have the time to bitch about not being considered our equals."
Sexism was also on full display last month at the AOL-owned TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, billed as "one of the most anticipated technology conferences of the year."
One of the features of the conference is called the "Hackathon." It brings together hackers and developers from all over the world, where they join teams to hack a product within a 24-hour time slot. Once the Hackathon ends, every team presents their hack to a panel of expert judges and audience members. The winners go on to present their product on the Disrupt stage.
So on that stage, two young men from Australia, Jethro Batts and David Boulton, took the stage to demo their new app "where you take photos of yourself " staring at women's breasts.
That was followed by a guy who demonstrated his product by simulating masturbation on stage.
Keep in mind this was happening on as public stage at a big conference with a mixed audience of men, women and even some pre-teen children, one of whom made a much more well received presentation of her own about superfunkidtime.com.
Amidst a firestorm of backlash and criticism about the two presentations, TechCrunch issued a rather tepid apology, and followed that up with this more strongly worded one:
Normally our hackathons are a showcase for developers of all stripes to create and share something cool. But earlier today, the spirit of our event was marred by two misogynistic presentations. Sexism is a major problem in the tech industry, and we’ve worked hard to counteract it in our coverage and in our own hiring.
Today’s issues resulted from a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear guidelines for these submissions. Trust us, that changed as soon as we saw what happened at our show. Every presentation is getting a thorough screening from this hackathon onward. Any type of sexism or other discriminatory and/or derogatory speech will not be allowed.
You expect more from us, and we expect more from ourselves. We are sorry.
Tech is one of the most vibrant sectors of the U.S. economy, and has been for some time. However, it doesn't bode well for the future if it remains a place where women are marginalized.
Tech is one of the most vibrant sectors of the U.S. economy, and has been for some time. However, it doesn't bode well for the future if it remains a place where women are marginalized, paid less than half of what their male counterparts make, are repeatedly passed over for jobs and promotion, and have to navigate a hostile work environment.
One commenter on a tech blog I saw sums it up thusly, "To ignore biases, however subtle or unintentional, is to allow them to flourish."
Now back to my friend's wife. She recently confided in a female co-worker, and here is her paraphrased response: "As far as I can tell, it's self selection out here in terms of who survives - and thrives. The women in Silicon Valley either tend to have a higher tolerance for the male-dominated 'culture,' or they don't. And if they don't they leave."
Is that just the way it is, and we'll leave it at that? After all, boys will be boys. Or do you think this is something that should - and could - change? Is this type of atmosphere relegated to Silicon Valley, or does it exist in tech, or for that matter, in corporate America everywhere?