This article was published on March 25, 2012

A week of sexism in the technology sector highlighted on the web

A week of sexism in the technology sector highlighted on the web
Jamillah Knowles
Story by

Jamillah Knowles

Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemi Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemimah_knight or drop a line to [email protected]

It’s been a week of unusual activity for gender politics online. Social media has amplified issues around a few incidents where mistakes were made, people were offended and apologies were issued. But can these networks also help to find solutions as well as shining a light on the problems?

The key word in the debates has been ‘sexism’, either the language used when referring to women, the imagery chosen to promote a tech product or even when trying to find ways for others to say sorry; this week has proven that getting it right when talking to and about women in technology is not entirely straightforward.

There are still fewer women working in the technology and startup field. This is a given for now, not one that I like to see but it’s true. This will hopefully change as issues are promoted and women are highlighted for their work. That said, I also look forward to a time where we almost take for granted that women are equal in the business and can be evenly congratulated for innovation alongside their male peers.

But even if there are not so many women working in this sector, they are certainly more evenly distributed as customers and in the online audience. Getting it wrong with that kind of gender balance can be damaging both to sales, funding and reputation.

The Internet allows any of your customers to make their complaint known to all of your (potential) customers.  This is a real problem.

Terence Eden is a mobile technology consultant who also works with sponsorship for hackathons, his thoughts are shared here as his own and not those of his employers, “The customer is always right. It used to be said that for every letter you received complaining about your business, there were probably another 99 people who felt the same but couldn’t be bothered to write.  We now have very young businesses with a huge customer base – they simply don’t have the experience or the staff to handle complaints, especially when it comes to corporate values.

“At the same time, the Internet allows any of your customers to make their complaint known to all of your (potential) customers.  This is a real problem.  Mishandled, a complaint can easily spiral out of control until everyone is baying for your blood.”

The damage to reputation can be equally devastating to a small venture. Loss of sponsorship is no small thing when you are starting out and hoping to promote your business. Ilya Braude is a co-founder and engineer at CloudMine, a company that pulled funding from an event because of sexist language in the advertising, “They made a bad call in an effort to be funny but we decided, along with other sponsors, that this was not something we wanted to be associated with because we support women who work in technology and we recognise that it’s a problem in the industry as a whole. They made a mistake and as much as it sucks, it didn’t just affect them, it affected all of us.”

Public outing

Mismanagement of a complaint or accusation can be embarrassing and lead to public arguments that will only make a situation worse. Selena Deckelmann is the COO of Prime Radiant, she followed the cases this week where sexism came to the fore, “Most people have not thought ahead of time about how they might react to someone calling them a sexist. Because they do not self-identify that way, who would? It’s like somebody punched you in the gut and so you lash out.

“Some companies could probably do with a bit of help to see that within that accusation, there is probably some feedback that might be relevant and useful. The issue is how to receive that feedback without lashing out.”

Eden agrees that the reception of a complaint requires consideration, “A person’s feelings are intrinsically valid. You have no right to tell someone they are not offended. Your first reaction should always be to check your assumptions and prejudices before telling someone they’re wrong.”

Hard call to make

For women online who see activity that they feel is inappropriate or offensive, it can be a difficult decision when it comes to reacting. There is a fear that your concerns may be handled badly with attempts to shame women or make their points seem irrelevant. Sexism in any environment should be taken as seriously as racism and ableism, but sadly it is often the case that sexism is either laughed off or not regarded with the same gravity.

“As more women enter the industry and grow in confidence at speaking out, there are bound to be more of these sorts of clashes. The crux of the problem is many men don’t think they are sexist – and as a consequence, don’t like being called out on it,” says Eden.

“Most adults in the 21st century would be highly offended if you accused them of racism and would react viscerally – especially to public accusations. Sexism “feels” as wrong as racism, but there’s been much less education around it and so unchecked male privilege doesn’t really understand what it’s doing wrong.”

Some methods of complaining make it very hard to take the complaint seriously.

It also bears considering the way in which an accusation is made. As grown ups on the web, we should try to attempt some form of civil discourse where possible, even when we are angered by the issues. “It’s my belief that there are some methods of complaining which make it very hard to take the complaint seriously,” says Eden. “If a complaint starts in an aggressive manner, or contains swearing and threats, that sets the tone for the whole conversation.

“Don’t forget, the people who run companies are humans too. They’re likely to have an emotional reaction to a complaint which attacks them personally.”

Compassion and forgiveness

Once an issue starts to snowball on the web, it is easy to spot a form of lazy amplification. Retweets are issued without the links being read properly, anger and rage appear to be out of control and the idea of a sophisticated conversation about the right and wrong of a situation seems almost unattainable.

When wrong decisions are made and then publicly called out, the crowd that can be so benevolent to one cause appears to be armed with pitchforks and fire. Should there be some compassion for those who need to learn from their mistakes?

Deckelmann thinks so, “I want people to have an opportunity to learn more than anything else. It makes me sad that some of this has been so painful. Hurt upon hurt isn’t what anyone wants to see.”

Be a part of the solution

There are ways in which companies can try to find the good in the bad. Geeklist is dedicating the rest of this month and all of April to highlighting the work of women in technology. In all cases this week, the mistakes made were acknowledged with an openness to further dialogue in order to learn.

Thinking back before the days when a problem would be whipped up so quickly and publicly, I don’t think that companies would have been anywhere near as open to further discussion on their own site. It would have been seen as a way to suffer further humiliation. Companies can also still choose not to open that door, so there is something to be said for the ability to learn from further engagement.

Education can only help to avoid these situations in the first place. “People should read up on the Theory of Privilege – just because you think you’re not sexist, doesn’t mean that’s how the world sees you. You have unconscious biases and behaviours which can be highly damaging and offensive. Take some time to look at how others perceive you.

Never get aggressive, and never attempt to blame or coerce the person complaining.  It’s all about mutual respect.

“Never dismiss or undermine a complainant until you have thoroughly understood their position. And never ever do it in public!  When your customer has taken the time to contact you about an issue, it’s because they feel strongly about it.  Show them some respect, listen to what they have to say. Never get aggressive, and never attempt to blame or coerce the person complaining.  It’s all about mutual respect.”

Though the events of this week made many of us angry or disappointed, they did bring sexism and the tech sector up as a discussion point. The ability to talk through the issues in order to find a solution, can only be to the good.

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.