YouTubE via New York Magazine

Why The Tech Industry’s Sexism Problem Isn’t Going Away

Standing up for what’s right.

In the last two years, I’ve seen more people than ever speak out against sexism in the tech industry. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In helped shine a giant spotlight on the issue, no matter what you think of the advice she dispenses.

One would think that all of the attention and outcry would change people’s behavior. It’s not naive to believe that more education and attention on the issue of sexism would make men appreciate the enduring struggle that women must face in the tech industry. At the very least, one would hope that men would think twice before posting astoundingly sexist status updates and party events.


Let’s recap a few episodes of sexism in tech from the last few months, shall we?

  1. Titstare at the TD Disrupt hackathon: because inappropriate sexist apps at hackathons are apparently hilarious. To TechCrunch’s credit, it immediately apologized and I don’t think that kind of app will ever grace its hackathon ever again.
  2. Pax Dickinson, former CTO of Business Insider, had the most inappropriate Twitter stream of a C-level media exec perhaps ever.
  3. This gem.
  4. The death and rape threats against Adria Richards.
  5. Saying that women who wear high heels don’t have brains.
  6. Somebody thought it would be a great idea to hold a “Hackers and Hookers” party. I mean, seriously, how many people have to be lacking in basic judgement skill to approve this:
What moron thought, “This is a great idea!” More importantly, why haven’t the organizers cancelled this blatantly sexist event already?

I could list dozens of other instances, but these are just some of the most blatant. The issue isn’t just blatant sexism, either — it’s also a lack of women at the top levels of the industry, exemplified by Twitter not having a single female board member despite a majority of its users being women.

“Sexual harassment is pervasive in culture. It is easy to point blame on a certain male, but sexual harassment is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed.” ~ Boonsri Dickinson

Pinpointing the Problem

Last year, I wrote the following on the issue of women in tech on my Social Analyst column on CNET:

The problem is simple: technology is still a male-dominated industry, and the gender ratio is far more skewed within engineering teams. Male-dominated teams lack female viewpoints, which can contribute to the objectification of women. Company culture within an early-stage startup is dramatically different when there is a female co-founder. (I have a female co-founder, so this issue is personal for me.)
We face a chicken and egg problem. If we want more women to become engineers and join the tech industry, we need to offer a culture that is more friendly to them. But building that culture requires having more women in technology. All of this needs to begin at the high school and college level, when students start exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) majors and careers.
“Why aren’t there more women in tech?” It’s the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is this: “How do we change the culture of the tech industry to be fair and friendly to women?”

I still believe this is one of the fundamental problems hurting both women and the entire tech industry. However, a must-read piece by LA Times reporter Jessica Guynn makes me believe that education and changing the culture of the tech industry won’t be enough.

Her piece is a thoughtful investigation into why the issue of sexism in tech hasn’t “gone away”. But perhaps more telling than the story are the comments anonymous readers have left on the story:

“The little ladies clearly just don’t have enough to complain about as it is! This is complete feminist crap!”
“Is sexism the problem or just lack of female initiative and scientific know how?”
My friend Boonsri Dickinson drew this yesterday to express her frustration with sexual harassment in the tech industry...

How is this acceptable? How do we still have so many people who think this way?

The reason sexism continues to permeate Silicon Valley and the tech industry boils down to this: there are still countless men who think women are inferior objects instead of equal human beings.

As long as certain members of my gender think it’s okay to throw a Hackers and Hookers party or hit on a female founder while she’s pitching her company for an investment, these issues aren’t going to go away. More women and more education will help solve these problems, but pointing out sexist behavior is the only way to make it clear that not only is this not okay, but that it will hurt your career, your livelihood and your friendships.

Sometimes this means taking somebody aside and telling him that what he’s saying is not okay. Sometimes that means an important conversation among friends or co-workers. Sometimes that means involving HR. Sometimes that means publicly calling out someone.

Regardless, don’t be afraid to point out, call out and stand up to sexism, whether you’re a man or a woman. And if you get backlash for standing up for what’s right (I’ve seen it happen way too many times by men trying to silence a women), there are plenty of us who are on your side, here to support you.

If you want to discuss this issue further, send me a message on Twitter.