A 40-ish man in a baseball cap stands in front of a crowd to present information about his girlfriend, Maven. While addressing the group, he refers to Maven as a woman who “looks beautiful” but “complains a lot.” Adding to the list of Maven’s flaws, it seems she also “demands” his attention, interrupts him while he works, and fails to “play well” with his other friends. Surprisingly, these comments were not part of a misguided keynote speech at a men’s rights rally, but were instead projected onto a slide shown during a presentation at AtlasCamp, a conference for software developers, right next to an image of a female figure with a decidedly sassy ponytail.
Maven is not a woman, however. She is nobody’s girlfriend. The presenter, Jonathan Doklovic, was actually discussing a plug-in execution framework created by his company. He apparently thought that likening Maven to a woman and throwing in some harsh putdowns would make his point. Could Doklovic have taken one of many far less offensive approaches in presenting his work? Sure, but instead he made his presentation a reification of the male-dominated climate of the tech industry.
The contents of the misogynistic segment of his speech were leaked via a photo of the presenter’s slide posted to Twitter by a conference attendee. The Twitter user seemed pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. In fact, he tweeted out the slide’s title (“Maven is my girlfriend”) as the photo’s caption and later reacted to the heat the post generated by reporting that folks in the audience were “not offended”. And while I’m sure no one booed, threw rotten vegetables, or anything like that, I’d still bet it stung for a certain portion of the crowd.
I do wonder, though, how the women in attendance reacted to this lame presentation. Did they take serious offense, or are they just accustomed to this pervasive boys’ club mentality? Presentations like this are a reality for many women in the field, and it’s not as if the event at AtlasCamp is merely a random occurrence—too often women in tech face sexism exacerbated by the fact that they are such a small minority within the industry. According to data compiled by Tracy Chou, a software developer at Pinterest, the average ratio of female engineers—which, in her study, refers to women working full time in a role that requires them to actually build software—hovers around 15%.
Based on the data available on the matter, it’s really no question that women are seriously outnumbered in the industry. Even before checking out some statistics, I doubt that one would question these numbers—the software developer stereotypes that come to mind are most certainly based upon male members of the tech community that we’ve seen championed as part of the nerd to CEO iteration of mobility narratives. The prestige associated with entering a leadership role within a company is no doubt harder to come by for the women who strive to attain these positions. Even after reaching an elevated position, though, things may not be so easy. Take for instance Yunha Kim, CEO and founder of the San Francisco based startup, Locket, who went public with a screenshot image of a weird and sexually suggestive message from an engineer with whom she corresponded in the hopes of bringing him onto her team. He declined her job offer, but expressed his interest in dating her instead. He then went on to suggest that if it was her intention to “lure” him from his company, maybe she could offer him something more “unconventional” (read: stimulating) than stock options alone. Wink wink. Smiley face.
After the unwanted Internet attention that Doklovic brought to Atlassian, his software company and the group that organized AtlasCamp, became sufficiently ripe, their leaders issued an apology in which they stated that the sexist ideas on the slide were “not OK.” Atlassian also reported that they were “going through all the events that allowed this slide to reach the public.” Certainly when insensitivities like these rise to the surface and get noticed, large organizations try to put out the fire with calm, reassuring words about their philosophies and well-intentioned, fluffy mission statements. Of course, their words, carefully crafted by spokespeople, are scrutinized at the highest level, but what about the daily degrading things that come up in casual work conversation? Women in tech, and women in any line of work, for that matter, are tired of hearing it. Like Maven, the would-be shrewish girlfriend, larger efforts to change this sort of flippant sexism truly “demand” attention.