Your Slide Show is Offensive, Dude: Why Sexism in Tech Needs to Stop

Sexism in the tech industry needs to stop

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.

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  1. I see what the guy was trying to do here; but quite honestly it was kind of a crap joke and certainly failed to engage the women in the room (presumably about 15% of the audience) in a positive way.

    That being said, I don’t think the guy was trying to generalize women. I think he was trying to engage the room (presumably mostly full of heterosexual men) on something he thought they could relate to – a less than stellar significant other. I don’t think he was trying to generalize women as a whole – I think he was trying to make the point of “we’ve all had that one significant other who really was a jerk.” In my mind that’s a very gender neutral concept. Pretty much every girl I know has that one ex boyfriend who was an ass and every now and then likes to laugh/complain/tell bad date stories about with her friends. Guys do the same thing.

    I think he was a bit tactless in his presentation but that’s obviously what the guy was going for. If he was trying to generalize all women he would have just put “Maven is like a woman.” Yes Maven is made up and is “nobody’s girlfriend,” the point here is that he is trying to compare a computer application to that one annoying significant other that most people have had at one point. If he was talking just about one specific person, that would be pretty rude to essentially single her out in front of a bunch of people. Maven is an abstract that each person relates to someone based on their own experiences/

    Now there is absolutely sexism in the tech industry – women are often regarded as less knowledgeable/competent solely because of their gender. This could cost women jobs, promotions, recognition for achievement etc. But there are sexism issues that are far more grievous and blatant than this one guy making a sort of tactless presentation. Why not focus on the real issues? The issues don’t lie in this guys presentation, they lie in corporate and tech business culture and society at large. Using such a minor and questionable example weakens the entire argument for which the article is trying to support.

    Also I would say that you cant classify women’s reactions to this presentation into “offended” and “not offended because they are used to it.” Some women might not be offended at all regardless of “being used to it.” The opinions on this are as diverse as women are.

    If this was a presentation with a female tech professional who compared the software to a boyfriend and put the same exact bullet points this would not even be a remote issue. We would think it’s funny (personally I’d laugh my head off) and we’d think it was awesome. Gender equality is only a reality when all genders are held responsible for their behavior equally.

  2. Non-offended lady here.
    These statements are as offensive as they are funny, which is to say, not much. “Demands my attention”? God forbid I receive such an insult!
    If the presenter was female and the slide was titled “Maven is my boyfriend” and listed “Tons of fun”, “Keeps me up to all hours of the night” and “Demands my attention” — It’s still not funny and still not offensive.
    There’s definitely sexism in tech (and elsewhere), but hypersensitivity to every possibly derogatory comment distracts from combating genuine sexism.