The crowd at Telefónica’s Wayra accelerator Demo Day 2015 in London was rather bizarrely treated to a midway cheerleading show before the second half of 16 startups pitching their winning ideas today.
On Twitter at least, it very easily looked as if things had descended into a how-could-you-not-forsee-this, very-stereotypically-gendered tech event, with one audience member, who runs an all-female social enterprise, tweeting:
— Kathy Smart (@smartredkitty) November 25, 2015
Having got in touch with Wayra for clarification, a spokesperson said: “This has been taken out of context as the theme of the event was Thanksgiving, of which cheerleading is a huge element of that. We also had male breakdancers.”
Unless you’re a big NFL fan, you’re unlikely to encounter any cheerleaders this Thanksgiving, there were not cheerleader pilgrims FYI.
But if you are a big NFL fan, or a baseball fan, or even a football fan, then you see cheerleaders every single week at the game, Thanksgiving ain’t nothing special where cheerleaders are concerned.
Either way, the head of Google’s Campus London, Sarah Drinkwater, offered a sensible suggestion:
— sarah drinkwater (@sarahdrinkwater) November 25, 2015
There were 16 winning teams at Wayra today showing off what they’re working on ahead of joining the company’s accelerator programme.
Unfortunately this was overshadowed by an easily avoidable oversight, which should have been clear to organisers given the ongoing gender equality issues that the tech industry deals with every single day.
Indeed, Wayra itself released a report back in April called startupDNA where it highlighted continued problems with female founders getting access to the same levels of funding as men, as well as issues with gender diversity in leadership and technical roles.
The head of Wayra in London Gary Stewart sought to ease everyone’s concern by adding:
— Gary Stewart (@garystew) November 25, 2015
But that sounds like semantics to me. There were male breakdancers. There were female cheerleaders. Not the other way around, not a mix.
Wayra has a commitment to creating the best startups worldwide and acknowledges that having teams with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences is the best way to achieve this.
What cheerleaders have to do with Thanksgiving is one thing, what they have to do with tech is nothing.
And that’s aside from the obvious comparisons to be made with the Chinese companies that reportedly hired ‘pretty’ female cheerleaders to ‘motivate’ male programmers in August, receiving criticism accordingly.
Update: Wayra tells us that much of the demo day was focused on diversity and included the likes of ex-footballer Sol Campbell and Doteveryone’s Martha Lane Fox speaking about race and gender issues. The latest Wayra cohort includes six female and four black founders.
Still, the reaction to the inclusion of cheerleaders at a tech pitch day shows just how sensitive issues around gender roles in the technology industry continue to be.
Update 2: Gary Stewart, Director at Wayra UK got in touch with the following statement:
“A picture might be worth a thousand words, but those words are sometimes prone to misinterpretation. For that, I am truly apologetic, as anyone who knows me or the Wayra team knows that we are very vocal about promoting racial and gender diversity.
I can appreciate that without this context, it might look as if we had specifically intended to exploit and sexualize women at a male-dominated tech event. That could not be farther from the truth, and anyone who knows me knows that that thought never entered my mind. The only thing was we wanted to exploit was the fact that it was the day before Thanksgiving and we wanted to recreate the mood in the US, which was, in my experience, usually tied in some way to family, giving thanks and football.”