Why is it so hard for the tech community to discuss sexism?

Posted by Gina Rosenthal in women in tech | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Last week I went to #startupfest in Montreal.  I was there on vacation (meaning I was not there representing Dell in any way). It was great. I could go to sessions, I could hang out with people, I could pay attention to what I wanted to pay attention to. And Montreal is definitely my new favorite city. If only it didn’t snow there, it would be perfect.

I will write another post about my take-aways from the conference. Here’s a hint – planning and executing a startup is just biz dev! Not sure why that is so shocking to me, but it was a nice reminder for me that the struggles we face in large organizations also challenge scrappy startups.

Was startupfest sexist?

I want to address a post that was written by Shannon Smith titled the Price of Admission. Shannon wasn’t happy with an event held during startupfest called The Granny’s Den. I also think she was very (understandably) angry because she was pulled from participating at the last minute in favor of a sponsor.

Disclosures: Before I go on any further, let me disclose that I’m friends with one of the organizers. My friend Julie also wrote a blog post describing her experience working with the ladies of the granny’s den and it sounded fabulous….put some experienced women in front of these cocky boys and knock some sense into them. I’ve written many posts of the challenges of being female in the high tech industry. Also, I guess I should also say that my children are old enough for me to be a grandmother, so I was defenitely one of the old ladies at this event (somehow that is more palatable than granny for me..).

I also want to point out that participants in the event weren’t free from sexist behavior. I tweeted this during the conference:

sexist-startupfestIt really pissed me off. A very young guy said it to me, and I honestly wanted to punch him. In the face. Instead I told him what I did for work and asked a lot of hard questions. And then I vented with my guy pals who were part of the conversation. The kid was sorta lacking social skills and had annoyed the guys at well. That ‘s not an excuse – but maybe an opportunity.

That being said, I didn’t feel that the conference was sexist. There were lots more women than there are normally at enterprise tech events. I had that one issue, but otherwise I had deep technical conversations with men and women. I had a great time.

So what happened?

How can one conference been seen so differently by members of the same community? I think its the filters we all have. I know the person who organized the granny’s den, so I had a head start with understanding his intent, where he was coming from, what he wanted to accomplish. Maybe that could have been articulated better. It would also be great to know what role the grannies will play next year, or what happens from any relationships they began during startupfest. So maybe the lesson is – make your intent crystal clear. Report back on the impact your event had in six months or a year.

I have no idea what happened to bump Shannon for a sponsor, but perhaps that is an area to look at how things are perceived by others. Someone who was put off by the premise of part of the conference, still agreed to participate, and then was asked not to participate. That would put any one off.

It should be ok for someone to raise problems they see from their vantage point. I think telling someone to get over it is the worst thing we can do. We need to talk about this openly, we need to help each other understand how words and actions impact others.

We also have to give people the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t mean to offend with something they said. Like the awkward kid who pissed me off …. I know he didn’t even realize what he said to me. I’m still wondering how I could have handled that better so he won’t do it again to someone else.

I had so much trouble writing this post…maybe that is the problem. We don’t seem to have the collective vocabulary, customs, and rituals to come to a common understanding of the issues that impact women in technology. There has to be a place for women to tell the bad stories, for men to react, and for all of us to get to the next level. I don’t think we’re there.

What will get us there? I’m not sure. Keeping communication open, realizing we need everyone to be in (men and women) to have balance and to be successful. Not marginalizing people who feel the need to point out flaws, and not assuming the worst when someone pisses us off so bad when want to punch them in the face.

Here’s my idea – maybe next year I can do a panel on what.not.to.say. And I will shake in fear if the grannies are in the audience….I can only imagine what my mother would say. What ideas do you have?

9 Responses to Why is it so hard for the tech community to discuss sexism?

  1. edsai says:

    Awesome post. A question though… Do you think the polarization of the topic encourages more women to get more involved or to give up?

  2. Donald says:

    I think I know what you’re speaking of, in a general sense, not this specific one. In the military scene, clearly a male-dominated social group, my job tends to lend itself to a much higher ratio of women than other job types. It’s inside, therefore it must be an office job. The reality is that the facility is a command and control center that advises on operational decision making and coordinates air, space and ground forces as well as perform emergency management. And the women who do it are better than many of the men who perform similar duties. I think their edge comes from the intense mentoring that we “force” our senior leaders to perform. This mentoring, which both sexes receive, make it easier to assimilate different groups and genders into an organization. It helps us “grow up” to be responsible to(and for) each other, and I wonder how much of this mentoring takes place in the civilian world.
    Just a thought

  3. Kelly says:

    This is a very good post. I’m going to make a statement or two and ask a couple of questions based on typical tech events or tradeshows, only for clarification, and that of your post. First, until recently, i did not know you whatsoever on twitter but saw people I respect talk about you or refer to you/RT you, etc. gained you cred with me. “Gminks” means nothing on twitter, right, i.e no gender. The ony defense i can offer for this poor young sap is that maybe he thought you were in sales/marketing/booth babe status (which is a whole other discussion there……….)and didn’t understand. Young IT folks tend to assume incorrectly and do that A LOT. That being said,it is difficult to think about how everything we say affects all people. Gender differentiating statements are made all the time without recognition of what they actually mean. Anything that suggests a male or a female perspective as superior or different can actually be construed as sexist. The correct reference, in my personal opinion, is always the person. You, she, he, did or said that, or thought that, or brought that. You cannot judge the orchard when you speak of an apple.

  4. Hey Gina, really nice post. But however is reading this story is allready on your side I gues. Or elseway: preaching the choir.

    I have to concur with @Edsai: do we really think polarization will help or can’t we just lead by example? Right now there is a law here in Belgium that sets a quotum on women in top jobs for listed companies.Does this feel right? How about black people, disabled people or for that matter Irish Lepricons?

  5. Mark Browne says:

    Great post Gina. And it has stirred up some bad memories for me in my early Tech Support Days. I have a multicultural angle on this because “engineers misogynism” is a global affliction in my experience. In my DEC days I was a Tech lead for European Multilingual support teams and I witnessed things like you encountered from that young guy to outright unacceptable shocking things. It was never tolerated by me or my techs. But it always wrecked my head, because I never understood how anyone could perceive an engineer / techie any less because of their gender. Things are a lot better these days but also have a long way to go.
    It does have a cultural background, but that’s no excuse. We could all (Women and Men) do with coaching on what not to say and also what the right thing is to say.

  6. gminks says:

    Donald – I’ve never worked anyplace where they had the type of mentoring you are saying the military has. That sounds really interesting.

    Kelly – the guy was a kid. I know he was acting his age, but to Donald’s point, who will mentor him to do better? I probably should have called him on it. Also love this: “You cannot judge the orchard when you speak of an apple”.

    Mark – you know some of my stories from when I was a sysadmin and calling into support don’t you? Have I ever told you the one about baking a cake? 😀

    And Ed & Hans…I think things are already polarized. Maybe that is the problem. There are women in tech (and other sectors to be fair, but I’m a techie so let’s stay there for now) have had horrific experiences. I’ve had one very bad experience and lots of little annoying ones, but nothing like what some of my friends have gone through.

    The environment is still polarized, and once you have had a career of a thousand little cuts, discussing these things or encountering another clueless person can feel like someone is pouring alcohol in those wounds.

    I think men need to realize that they are still in a position of privilege, that things still happen to women whether they notice it or not. Ed – you were standing right there when that kid asked me how deep he could go technically, and you didn’t catch it. But you knew after the fact how mad it made me. Maybe *you* should have said something to help mentor that boy. 🙂

    I think women need to realize that things happen that are unintentional. But it is hard to mentor and explain when you are feeling the sting of being treated as less than capable yet again. The natural reaction is to be angry, then the natural man reaction is to disengage, then things stay polarized.

    That anger probably leads to the polarization – but we need men to meet us half-way there. I think the more we talk about it, the better it gets. Women feel there are men that see them as equals, men are able to identify when some of the sexist behavior is happening. Then we at least get to a place where we can have a conversation (like we are now). That polarization has always existed, the question is how to get things to neutral?

  7. edsai says:


    I pick my battles. I tweeted and commented about it in general after you tweeted about it. That kid we were talking to has a lot to learn and I didn’t feel like having a social battle in the middle of #startupfest. I actually do have a discussion when I feel like I can make a difference and lately I’ve been burned by investing time in discussions which have no long term benefit. I’d love to be part of a panel at a conference on how to engage more people and encourage more diversity where a broader audience is listening instead of diverting 30 minutes from valuable conversations with others around me to teach a kid a lesson. That’s why I added to the discussion on twitter and these blog posts. They have a far greater impact.

  8. gminks says:

    Ed I think that is what I’m saying — you have the luxury to pick the battles you want to fight. I’ve been bombarded with the little skirmishes my entire career. I know how to throw the defenses up, get past the ground fire, and move on.

    It’s just exhausting emotionally.

    And I think that impacts larger discussions. I’m worn out emotionally from dealing with a career’s worth of sniper fire, so when someone I see as an ally chooses to opt out it disappoints me. Having a sane discussion is hard because its almost like I have PSTD from the constant posturing I have to do. And when I react emotionally, most guys (not all) don’t want to deal with the issue anymore, they think “well that’s a bad topic to discuss with Gina cuz it sets her off”, and it never is discussed again.

    I think men are in a great position to speak up every time they recognize something like this happening. It doesn’t have to be a 30 minute conversation, it can be as simple as – “hey don’t be a jerk” or “you have no idea who you are talking to” – a sentence of support. It shapes the offending party’s behavior, and it lends your female friend support. She is confirmed that no, she wasn’t the only person who heard it and thought it was inappropriate. It takes the sting out of it. Any ideas on how to get men to use some sort of sniper fire response to disarm these situations?

    And what’s with all the military references from me? Donald you are having a huge impact on this thread….

  9. Pingback: Tracking the Montreal Women in Tech Debate « Montreal Girl Geeks

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