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Sexism In The Tech Industry Takes Center Stage

Sep 11, 2013
Originally published on September 11, 2013 5:59 pm

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, Australian programmers presented Titstare. "Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits," Jethro Batts explained. He went on to say, "I think this is the breast hack ever."

The app was 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 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 9 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," Jordan says. "A lot of people have mentioned, 'Oh, it's not OK because there were kids in the audience.' The bigger point is, that stuff shouldn't be OK 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."

Alexia Tsotsis, the co-editor of TechCrunch, says, "I personally am sorry. I also was offended." She 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 a while now. Now as it becomes more mainstream, more women join the workforce and are exposed to these locker-room-type attitudes."

Women are so outnumbered in tech that in 2010, the Silicon Valley Index found that just 3 percent of venture-backed companies were all-female teams, compared with 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 forced out Pax Dickinson, Business Insider's chief technology officer, on Tuesday after his racist, sexist Twitter feed got wide notice. Some sample musings: "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 such things for years, but it was only this week that it got enough attention to cost him his job.

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's 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 that from now on at the company's 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 Bradshaw 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/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The tech industry, like Wall Street or construction, is dominated by men. And the gender imbalance can sometimes show up in crude ways. The I.T. world's sexist attitude got a major showcase on stage over the weekend and even more attention throughout social media this week. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, the latest flare-ups are a problem for an industry struggling to get more women in its ranks.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: What you're about to hear will likely offend you. It's part of a presentation by Australian programmers on stage at one of the tech world's largest and most influential conferences. Again, you may find this offensive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're here to bring you...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Titstare.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Titstare?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.

HU: 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.

RICHARD JORDAN: It's not a funny thing. It's not appropriate.

HU: Richard Jordan was in the audience in San Francisco. He says that presentation was actually just one of two disgusting displays.

JORDAN: 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 got up on stage and simulated masturbation, complete with noises and sounds in front of the audience. It was a thoroughly embarrassing and uncomfortable situation to be in.

HU: Especially for Jordan, who was seated next to his daughter, Alexandra, a programmer who is 9 years old.

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

ALEXIA TSOTSIS: I personally am sorry. I also was offended.

HU: Alexia Tsotsis edits the industry's site TechCrunch, which puts on the conference. 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.

TSOTSIS: It's sort of symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that tech has been a guy, dude-bro area for a while. And now, as it becomes more mainstream, more women join the workforce and are exposed to these sort of, you know, locker-room-type attitudes.

HU: In 2010, only 3 percent of venture-backed companies were led by all-female teams, while 89 percent were all male. That's according to the Silicon Valley Index, which tracks the area's economy. The fratty culture that results is getting a lot more attention lately as these incidents happen so publicly.

A firestorm forced out the Business Insider's site chief technology officer on Tuesday after his bigoted and sexist Twitter feed got wide notice. Programmer Adria Richards says these situations happen too often.

ADRIA RICHARDS: Yeah, it was really distressing and I was upset, and I couldn't believe that this was happening. I think a lot of fields have this problem of people just not being aware of how their actions or words can affect other people in a negative way.

HU: 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's speaking out for women in the industry.

RICHARDS: I mean, there's so many tech, geeky things I love. But when things like this happen, I just want to, like, shrink away. You know, I feel like a little kid again, in a bad way though, like a little kid who feels unsafe.

HU: Making the tech industry a place where all workers feel welcome will take more cultural changes. But for starters, the TechCrunch editor says, going forward at their conferences, sexism will no longer get a stage.

Elise Hu, NPR News.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.