Monday, September 09, 2013

Sexism in tech is a problem of the majority, and has to be solved by the majority

TechCrunch Disrupt is the most important conference for the early-stage startup scene in Silicon Valley.  Thanks to the combination of the biggest speakers, and the TechCrunch platform, it generates a huge media spotlight.  Which is why it's astonishing that the conference's main presentations kicked off with a completely inappropriate and offensive presentation about an app for looking at women's breasts, and later included simulated masturbation on stage:

To their credit, the folks at TechCrunch acted quickly to issue an apology, and make clear that a) the presentations were inappropriate, and b) the conference was taking steps to prevent a recurrence:
"Today’s issues resulted from a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear guidelines for these submissions.

Trust us, that changed as soon as we saw what happened at our show. Every presentation is getting a thorough screening from this hackathon onward. Any type of sexism or other discriminatory and/or derogatory speech will not be allowed.

You expect more from us, and we expect more from ourselves. We are sorry."
Improved screening is a good precaution, but the broader issue is that people in our industry still think it's a good idea to behave like they're inside a men's locker room, rather than in a professional setting.

Indeed, the Valleywag story reports that presentation actually got some laughter and cheering (I hope that's because the majority of folks in attendance were in shocked and silent disbelief).

Sexism in tech exists because it reflects at least some of the opinions of the majority.  If every entrepreneur and VC who said something inappropriate was universally criticized, the sexism would stop pretty quickly.  The issue is that any instance of sexism that is reported draws a near-instant response by critics who dismiss the issue and attack the accuser.  I'll bet that the entrepreneurs mentioned in the article above got plenty of emails and DMs telling them that what they did wasn't so bad.

It's good that brave people speak up, and it's even better that the official conference organizers take a clear stand.  But the sexism won't go away until the majority of people make it crystal clear that this kind of behavior is not okay.  Many of the offenders aren't bad people, just ignorant.  And the private support that they receive helps encourage them not to change.  That has to stop.

Sexism in tech is a problem of the majority, and has to be solved by the majority.  That means you.


Anonymous said...

The "app" and presentation were the products of grown men, actual adults, one at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.

I'm gobsmacked at the suggestion that us adults have to remind other adults not to do such things in public conferences, things most normal people would be mortified to undertake. As if the real problem here were just a lack of peer pressure.

But it's not an issue of peer pressure; it's a matter of incentives.

These guys knew what they were doing. They knew that the early stage market presently values "silly" ideas, because even if they're sexist or bizarre they can blow up quickly and create real "value." A bombastic, high-confidence, funny "pitch" can go a long way towards typecasting you as a founder willing to swing for the fences. It was presented as a joke in hindsight after the blowback, but that's beside the point. This wasn't just bad behavior, it was intentional marketing, branding oneself.

When the startup culture is based on the premise that virtually any idea, no matter how sleazy or inane, can be fundable and potentially huge, then don't be surprised when people take the bait.

For example, look at Snapchat. It's well-documented that it was the product of very real boorish, frat-boy sexism, not to mention deplorable "hallway user testing" on the homeless. It's worth hundreds of millions of dollars now.

The solution to this kind of sexism isn't just peer pressure from adults, it's changing how we value ideas and how social value is factored into such valuations.

I'll conclude with the following thought experiment: imagine if Titstare were launched and it got traction. A number of VCs are then interested in it. How do you convince them not to invest, because it's the wrong thing to do?

Chris said...


Your comments are spot on. VCs will invest in anything they think will make money and isn't clearly illegal.