Technology | Business | Nation

Sexism In The Tech Industry Takes Center Stage

NPR | Sept. 11, 2013 2:59 p.m.

Contributed By:

Elise Hu

The TechCrunch Disrupt conference is held in San Francisco. This year, two hackathon presentations ignited a firestorm.

The TechCrunch Disrupt conference is held in San Francisco. This year, two hackathon presentations ignited a firestorm.

Max Morse, Getty Images

For women struggling to make inroads in the male-dominated tech industry, a few stunning situations this week have provided some extreme examples of what they’re up against.

Sexist attitudes in startup culture got a major showcase on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the industry’s leading conferences. In a separate incident online, the hateful, bigoted musings of a media company’s chief tech officer got public attention that forced his firing — but he’d been tweeting sexist content for years. They are the latest flare-ups for a community struggling to get more women in its ranks.

On Sunday, after an all-night hackathon at TechCrunch Disrupt, Aussie programmers presented TitStare. “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” the explained. They went on to say, “Women just aren’t that warm to it.”

That was an app dreamed up during an overnight hackathon and presented to an audience of 500. The creators later said it was a parody.

“It’s not. It’s not a funny thing. It’s not appropriate,” says Richard Jordan, whose daughter Alexandra participated in the hackathon and was in the audience. He says that presentation was actually just one of two disgusting displays.

“A guy got up and presented his hack, which was some game where you shake the phone and compete with your friends to shake the phone. And he simulated masturbation. Complete with noises and sounds in front of the audience. It was a thoroughly embarrassing situation to be in,” Jordan says.

Especially for Jordan, who was seated next to his daughter Alexandra, a programmer who took part in the hackathon. She is nine-years-old.

“She’s, you know, she’s a very mature young lady and she sort of shrugs this kind of stuff off. But she shouldn’t have to,” he says. “A lot of people have mentioned oh it’s not okay because there were kids in the audience. The bigger point is, that stuff shouldn’t be okay anyway.”

TechCrunch issued an apology Sunday for the “two misogynistic presentations,” acknowledging that “sexism is a major problem in the tech industry” and that the events represented “a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time, and establish clear guidelines for these submissions.”

“I personally am sorry. I also was offended,” says Alexia Tsotsis, the TechCrunch editor. Tsotsis says creators of the controversial app didn’t list its name on the presentation list, which is how it avoided raising red flags beforehand.

“It’s sort of symptomatic of a larger problem,” Tsotsis says. “Which is tech has been a guy, dude-bro area for awhile now. Now as it becomes more mainstream, more women join the workforce and exposed to these locker room type attitudes.”

Women are so outnumbered in tech that in 2010, the Silicon Valley Index found that just three percent of venture-backed companies were all-female teams, compared to 89 percent all-male teams. It spills into a fratty culture getting a lot more attention lately, as these incidents happen so publicly.

A firestorm on Monday forced out the Business Insider site’s Chief Technology officer on Tuesday after his racist, sexist Twitter feed got wide notice. Some sample musings include, “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.” Or, “This election will be decided by single women. It’s an epic battle between ‘Jungle Fever’ and ‘Daddy Issues’.”

He’d been tweeting these things for years, but it was only this week that it got enough attention to cost him his job.

Female programmer Adria Richards… says these situations are happening too often.

“It was really distressing and I was upset and I couldn’t believe that this was happening,” she says of the Disrupt incident. “I think a lot of fields have this problem where people just aren’t aware of how their actions or words can affect people in a negative way.”

She knows about negative reactions. A few months ago — Richards tweeted a photo of two men making sexual jokes at a coder conference. One of those men got fired. Richards was then the target of rape and death threats, computer hacks and racial slurs before she got fired, too. Today, she’a speaking out for women in the industry.

“There’s so much tech, geeky things I love. But when things like this happen. I just want to shrink away. I feel like a little kid again. In a bad way though. Like a little kid who feels unsafe.”

Making the tech industry a place where women feel safe and welcome will take more work. But for starters, TechCrunch’s editor says going forward at their conferences, sexism will no longer get a stage.

Here on All Tech, we’ve been exploring the gender imbalance in tech with a series of posts and contributions. Check out what Catherine Bracy writes about the dearth of data on the issue, or an exec role where Leslie Bradsaw sees women excelling. We want to hear your takes, too. Email at ehu@npr.org, tweet me or leave a note in the comments.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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