Revenge of the Nerds: Fighting Sexism at Tech Events

From soft-core pornography to unwanted groping, it's not easy for women at technology conferences.  Reported incidents are becoming fewer, but blatant sexism remains.

From soft-core pornography embedded in Power Point slides to unwanted groping, it’s not easy for women at technology conferences.

By all accounts the reported incidents are becoming fewer. Yet, in the last year alone, both men and women geeks have been subjected to big-screen presentations sporting:

  • a female crotch shot featuring a see-through G-string with “drink me” embroidered on the front
  • a Flash graphic simulating a crudely drawn penis ejaculating on a woman’s face
  • various depictions of oral sex, skimpy lingerie and stripper pole contortions

It seems neither prudes nor professionals are welcome at some of the top U.S. software meetings where sadly some panelists displayed all the pimply adolescent grace of He-Man Woman-Haters Clubs.

Now the grown-ups appear to be taking charge after enduring some pretty humiliating public outcry by offended men and women attendees offended and the smart use of social media to draw attention to improving gender parity to quell the locker room antics at the events.

Ahead of the Sept. 2009 TechCrunch 50 event, co-organizer Jason Calacanis advised trade show sponsors to stop using scantily-clad female models to lure attendees to their sales booths:

Unless you work in the modeling, strip club or porn business, don’t hire models, strippers or porn stars to work your booth–it’s insulting to women. Now, that doesn’t mean the folks in your booth can’t be attractive and well manicured. It just means, have some taste. At last year’s conference, someone had a bunch of stripper types in hot pants and absurdly tight t-shirts. It was totally cheap, cheesy and lame. It’s 2009, people, really.

South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the enormous five-day creative technology festival in Austin, Texas, for developers, media mavens and entrepreneurs has taken a less shaming approach to rooting out sexism.The secret sauce to their success: seek out women to participate at all levels as event organizers, panelists, keynote speakers and attendees.

“I’m a big believer in affirmative action,” said Hugh Forrest, event director of SXSWi. “Diversity across the board is much more interesting than sameness. So the more diverse we are and the more different opinions that we can pull into this mix, the more people get out of the event.”

Forrest attributes the massive growth of the festival to deliberate outreach to women and people of color in the tech community. Organizers estimate that a record 15,000 people trudged through hundreds of panels, trade show demonstrations and parties that wrapped up March 16. That’s a 40 percent uptick in attendance during the worst economic recession in modern memory.

You win when they call you a ‘bitch’

Cinnamon Cooper, a Chacago-based blogger and entrepreneur, has her own theory on why SXSWi is no longer plagued by the Beavis and Butthead attitudes at other conventions.

In her panel “You win when they call you a ‘bitch,” Cooper explains how the parity conversation is changing:

So when you’re called a bitch, instead of letting the argument get derailed, recognize that you’ve outsmarted them. Reply with “I win! You aren’t smart enough to continue the conversation, so thanks for ending it.” Once they bust out the ad hominem attack. The personal attack that has absolutely nothing to do with the conversation at hand, the conversation is over. And you win, cause they don’t know how to continue.

Cooper and other long time festival attendees reached out to Forrest about their concerns over the lack of women on panels and in the audience.

Instead of complaining, they worked with festival planners to implement a written diversity policy and incorporate more social media outreach. The festival also takes advantage of crowd-sourcing by encouraging attendees to vote online for proposed talks to determine the final line up of events. Forrest says that community engagement spurs panelists to recruit dynamic experts rather than cubicle buddies to win votes.

With that strategy in place over the last five years, 30 percent of the SXSWi panels now include women — a figure that grows each year with close monitoring by organizers and direct requests to panels to diversify. Cooper found that other like-minded conferences typically bottom out at 20 percent or less.

Though the success of “Black Blogging Rockstar,” “Bumping Up Against the Glass Ceiling” and other diversity-focused discussions, Forrest is still dissatisfied with the lack of equity.

“This year, we specifically had a session on gay concerns with the Internet,” he said. “I would love to see more of that. As the event grows bigger we need to do more to create micro events to reach out to these communities. That’s what people like.”

Girls! Girls! Girls!

But even encouraging a spirit of inclusiveness from on high, poor judgment can still seep in.

A crowd-sourcing panel displayed an image of a woman licking a stripper pole in a PowerPoint slide to describe a competitive workplace where collaboration is not valued.

SXSW staffers explained that the image was merely a cultural reference from the controversial 1995 film Showgirls a fictional account of a woman’s aggressive pursuit of fame and fortune in Las Vegas. The film was slapped with an NC-17 rating and was widely panned for its use of gratuitous sex and violence.

The point presenters, Jeremy Kalmikoff of and Scott Belsky of the New York design firm Behance, were trying to make was legitimate but the image was distracting and unnecessary in an otherwise knowledgeable discussion.

Kalmikoff and Belsky did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

“That’s so inappropriate,” said Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, after hearing about the questionable slide. “It is in no way acceptable to put porn in presentations at technology or social media conferences. The only time I should see porn in a presentation is at a sex conference.”

Not one to go quietly into the night, Kapin has been at the forefront of helping conference organizers provide richer discussions and new perspectives through more diverse speakers.

Kapin was instrumental in launching a 2009 Twitter petition to call attention to the lack of women presenters at important technology conferences, like the Web 2.0 Summit.

It caught plenty of attention, as she related in a column at the business magazine, Fast Company.

The flood of tweets quickly grabbed [tech media impresario Tim] O’Reilly’s attention as well as several other conference organizers and sent a clear message – the lack of women panelists at tech and social media conferences is a serious problem and will no longer be tolerated. Was this an aggressive tactic? You bet. Did I get results? You bet. O’Reilly, bloggers, and other conference organizers responded immediately. O’Reilly used the petition to post his experiences about his own conference’s selections process based on each conference’s objectives. We also setup a conference call to discuss the lack of women and diverse speakers at O’Reilly conferences and the rest of the industry. But it didn’t end there. Other conference organizers got in touch with me admitting they have been struggling with similar issues and needed suggestions from the women in tech and social media community.

Equity but at what cost?

The encouraging trend of integrating more women into these conferences may have an inadvertent effect on marginalizing tech industry women even more.

As the SXSWi and O’Reilly’s events have grown they are becoming less oriented toward technology how-to sessions. Social media, online news and business strategies now dominate the conference agendas —sectors that tend to employ more women.

That shift isn’t lost on Dawn Green and Stacy Chapman, Austin-based software programmers, who were staffing a booth for Women Techies United, a consortium of 10 groups that serve as social and professional havens for women working in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and entrepreneurial ventures. 

Both Green and Chapman have attended SXSWi since 2005. They’ve each noticed the slide toward flashier panels on social media and design. And with that the tech-oriented gatherings were relegated to smaller, out of the way venues that were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with hung over geeks clamoring for codemaking tips.

Green, who runs her own Web development business, applauds SXSWi’s efforts to expand but points to a growing sense of isolation in Austin among coders of any stripe. But especially for women programmers who are already vastly outnumbered in a male-dominated field.

“I think it will be difficult [for women] who go to other conferences because you lose that sense of community,” said Green of the increasingly watered-down tech confabs.

Beta Test: Verified techniques for recruiting women panelists
Allison Kapin’s six tips for improving conference diversity.

  • Look at your programming committee. Is it diverse enough? Two women out of 10 are not diverse. Also, consider having 1-2 committee members solely focus on recruiting diverse speakers.
  • Take on a 50/50 keynote challenge.
  • Edit panel acceptance notices to include a section on the importance of having panels filled with diverse panelists.