Revenge of the Nerds: Fighting Sexism at Tech Events

Wendy Norris

From soft-core pornography to unwanted groping, it's not easy for women at technology conferences.  Reported incidents are becoming fewer, but blatant sexism remains.

From soft-core pornography embedded in Power Point slides to unwanted groping, it’s not easy for women at technology conferences.

By all accounts the reported incidents are becoming fewer. Yet, in the last year alone, both men and women geeks have been subjected to big-screen presentations sporting:

  • a female crotch shot featuring a see-through G-string with “drink me” embroidered on the front
  • a Flash graphic simulating a crudely drawn penis ejaculating on a woman’s face
  • various depictions of oral sex, skimpy lingerie and stripper pole contortions

It seems neither prudes nor professionals are welcome at some of the top U.S. software meetings where sadly some panelists displayed all the pimply adolescent grace of He-Man Woman-Haters Clubs.

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Now the grown-ups appear to be taking charge after enduring some pretty humiliating public outcry by offended men and women attendees offended and the smart use of social media to draw attention to improving gender parity to quell the locker room antics at the events.

Ahead of the Sept. 2009 TechCrunch 50 event, co-organizer Jason Calacanis advised trade show sponsors to stop using scantily-clad female models to lure attendees to their sales booths:

Unless you work in the modeling, strip club or porn business, don’t hire models, strippers or porn stars to work your booth–it’s insulting to women. Now, that doesn’t mean the folks in your booth can’t be attractive and well manicured. It just means, have some taste. At last year’s conference, someone had a bunch of stripper types in hot pants and absurdly tight t-shirts. It was totally cheap, cheesy and lame. It’s 2009, people, really.

South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the enormous five-day creative technology festival in Austin, Texas, for developers, media mavens and entrepreneurs has taken a less shaming approach to rooting out sexism.The secret sauce to their success: seek out women to participate at all levels as event organizers, panelists, keynote speakers and attendees.

“I’m a big believer in affirmative action,” said Hugh Forrest, event director of SXSWi. “Diversity across the board is much more interesting than sameness. So the more diverse we are and the more different opinions that we can pull into this mix, the more people get out of the event.”

Forrest attributes the massive growth of the festival to deliberate outreach to women and people of color in the tech community. Organizers estimate that a record 15,000 people trudged through hundreds of panels, trade show demonstrations and parties that wrapped up March 16. That’s a 40 percent uptick in attendance during the worst economic recession in modern memory.

You win when they call you a ‘bitch’

Cinnamon Cooper, a Chacago-based blogger and entrepreneur, has her own theory on why SXSWi is no longer plagued by the Beavis and Butthead attitudes at other conventions.

In her panel “You win when they call you a ‘bitch,” Cooper explains how the parity conversation is changing:

So when you’re called a bitch, instead of letting the argument get derailed, recognize that you’ve outsmarted them. Reply with “I win! You aren’t smart enough to continue the conversation, so thanks for ending it.” Once they bust out the ad hominem attack. The personal attack that has absolutely nothing to do with the conversation at hand, the conversation is over. And you win, cause they don’t know how to continue.

Cooper and other long time festival attendees reached out to Forrest about their concerns over the lack of women on panels and in the audience.

Instead of complaining, they worked with festival planners to implement a written diversity policy and incorporate more social media outreach. The festival also takes advantage of crowd-sourcing by encouraging attendees to vote online for proposed talks to determine the final line up of events. Forrest says that community engagement spurs panelists to recruit dynamic experts rather than cubicle buddies to win votes.

With that strategy in place over the last five years, 30 percent of the SXSWi panels now include women — a figure that grows each year with close monitoring by organizers and direct requests to panels to diversify. Cooper found that other like-minded conferences typically bottom out at 20 percent or less.

Though the success of “Black Blogging Rockstar,” “Bumping Up Against the Glass Ceiling” and other diversity-focused discussions, Forrest is still dissatisfied with the lack of equity.

“This year, we specifically had a session on gay concerns with the Internet,” he said. “I would love to see more of that. As the event grows bigger we need to do more to create micro events to reach out to these communities. That’s what people like.”

Girls! Girls! Girls!

But even encouraging a spirit of inclusiveness from on high, poor judgment can still seep in.

A crowd-sourcing panel displayed an image of a woman licking a stripper pole in a PowerPoint slide to describe a competitive workplace where collaboration is not valued.

SXSW staffers explained that the image was merely a cultural reference from the controversial 1995 film Showgirls a fictional account of a woman’s aggressive pursuit of fame and fortune in Las Vegas. The film was slapped with an NC-17 rating and was widely panned for its use of gratuitous sex and violence.

The point presenters, Jeremy Kalmikoff of Digg.com and Scott Belsky of the New York design firm Behance, were trying to make was legitimate but the image was distracting and unnecessary in an otherwise knowledgeable discussion.

Kalmikoff and Belsky did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

“That’s so inappropriate,” said Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, after hearing about the questionable slide. “It is in no way acceptable to put porn in presentations at technology or social media conferences. The only time I should see porn in a presentation is at a sex conference.”

Not one to go quietly into the night, Kapin has been at the forefront of helping conference organizers provide richer discussions and new perspectives through more diverse speakers.

Kapin was instrumental in launching a 2009 Twitter petition to call attention to the lack of women presenters at important technology conferences, like the Web 2.0 Summit.

It caught plenty of attention, as she related in a column at the business magazine, Fast Company.

The flood of tweets quickly grabbed [tech media impresario Tim] O’Reilly’s attention as well as several other conference organizers and sent a clear message – the lack of women panelists at tech and social media conferences is a serious problem and will no longer be tolerated. Was this an aggressive tactic? You bet. Did I get results? You bet. O’Reilly, bloggers, and other conference organizers responded immediately. O’Reilly used the petition to post his experiences about his own conference’s selections process based on each conference’s objectives. We also setup a conference call to discuss the lack of women and diverse speakers at O’Reilly conferences and the rest of the industry. But it didn’t end there. Other conference organizers got in touch with me admitting they have been struggling with similar issues and needed suggestions from the women in tech and social media community.

Equity but at what cost?

The encouraging trend of integrating more women into these conferences may have an inadvertent effect on marginalizing tech industry women even more.

As the SXSWi and O’Reilly’s events have grown they are becoming less oriented toward technology how-to sessions. Social media, online news and business strategies now dominate the conference agendas —sectors that tend to employ more women.

That shift isn’t lost on Dawn Green and Stacy Chapman, Austin-based software programmers, who were staffing a booth for Women Techies United, a consortium of 10 groups that serve as social and professional havens for women working in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and entrepreneurial ventures. 

Both Green and Chapman have attended SXSWi since 2005. They’ve each noticed the slide toward flashier panels on social media and design. And with that the tech-oriented gatherings were relegated to smaller, out of the way venues that were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with hung over geeks clamoring for codemaking tips.

Green, who runs her own Web development business, applauds SXSWi’s efforts to expand but points to a growing sense of isolation in Austin among coders of any stripe. But especially for women programmers who are already vastly outnumbered in a male-dominated field.

“I think it will be difficult [for women] who go to other conferences because you lose that sense of community,” said Green of the increasingly watered-down tech confabs.

Beta Test: Verified techniques for recruiting women panelists
Allison Kapin’s six tips for improving conference diversity.

  • Look at your programming committee. Is it diverse enough? Two women out of 10 are not diverse. Also, consider having 1-2 committee members solely focus on recruiting diverse speakers.
  • Take on a 50/50 keynote challenge.
  • Edit panel acceptance notices to include a section on the importance of having panels filled with diverse panelists.

Commentary Violence

The Orlando Massacre Response Must Not Obliterate the Realities of LGBTQ People of Color

Katherine Cross

Even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased. Omar Mateen's actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.

The thumbnail image of a news piece posted on my Facebook timeline was just a Puerto Rican flag. As soon as I saw it, I knew what the headline would be: “Over half of the dead in Orlando were Puerto Rican.” Upon seeing what I was looking at, my partner wordlessly swaddled me in one of her best hugs, the kind that could keep the whole world at bay, breaking upon her strong back like a tide. Though Latinxs are often stereotyped as uniquely patriarchal, we nurse large and thriving queer communities in the tenement houses, projects, and barrios of this nation, in the shadows of broader stereotypes about who LGBTQ people are and what we look like.

Until I came out, I never knew that my old aunt Iris had several trans woman friends who often came to her home to drink, laugh, and smoke. Her acceptance of me was mirrored by much of my wider family, the same people who might seem gauche to middle-class whites who imagine themselves so much more tolerant and might pity me for my ancestry. When I think about the fact that it was precisely Latinx LGBTQ people—those often hidden by the mainstream—who fell to Omar Mateen’s bullets, numbness takes hold. Its grip tightens when I see that even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased, save for a few comprehensive news reports sprinkled amidst the unending grind of rolling news’ speculations and non-updates.

What leaves me without breath is when that erasure is the first part of a larger gesture that asks us to lay this crime at the feet of the whole of Islam and anyone who might be thought to belong to it. In the wake of this demand, Mateen’s actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.

This tragedy joins many others that have taken place over the last decades. What these crimes all share is less a religious motive than a hateful, fearful one, which manifests in the profound violation of open, welcoming spaces that model a pluralistic society.

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How these acts of mass violence are framed says a lot. I needn’t cite any examples of Omar Mateen being called a terrorist; the word has become like the air we now breathe, inescapable in its consensus usage. From random tweets to the words of powerful leaders and writers, Orlando has become an act of “terrorism” by dint of the shooter’s name alone, in the midst of a discourse where the appellation “terror” is only applied to the political violence of self-professed Islamists.

But what is terrorism if not politically motivated violence? Why, then, is Thomas Mair, who was arrested for the murder of Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox just last week, already being painted as a “loner,” with the word “terrorism” conspicuous by its absence? The lips of the British elite seem unable to pronounce it, suddenly. Eyewitnesses suggest the handgun Mair allegedly wielded looked homemade—a craft he might have learned from a handbook he purchased from the neo-Nazi National Alliance, of which he was a longtime supporter.

In Mateen’s case, meanwhile, much has been made of his claim to support Daesh in his final phone call during the attack. Though details of the case continue to emerge, a more thorough look at his history suggests a more mundane explanation for this: Like so many of the shooters in these types of crimes, he seems to have sought to puff himself up and make himself appear more frightening, if only for the sake of his ego. Indeed, some investigators now suggest that he made his widely discussed Daesh pledges simply to ensure more media coverage, a strategy that some in the press have rewarded by posthumously crowning him a “jihadi.” His past flirtations with expressing meaningless support for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would tell anyone well acquainted with foreign affairs just how confused this man was; those two organizations and Daesh are all enemies motivated by different types of extremism.

If we are to take the concern trolls at their word and have a “serious conversation” about Islam in the wake of this massacre, then we should critically examine how knowledgeable and pious Mateen actually appeared to be.

Mateen committed his killing during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when observant Muslims typically refrain from even uttering swear words, much less killing; there is no evidence he was fasting in observance of Ramadan, either; Pulse patrons say Mateen was a drunkard who became belligerent and had to be ejected more than once, but alcohol is forbidden to practicing Muslims.

Just as I felt my Latinx queer community rendered invisible in the wake of its own tragedy, so too do I empathize with the many queer and LGBT Muslims who feel the same way—their sexuality, their genders, their piety washed away by the caricature of Mateen that has emerged in recent days.

Mateen’s motivations seem to have been, based on available evidence, garden-variety self-loathing and prejudice inflected by violent, masculine, and homophobic demands placed upon him. A former colleague described Mateen as making so many racist and homophobic remarks that he complained to his superiors about the matter—who promptly did absolutely nothing.

Perhaps Mateen felt hatred and envy for those who appeared to live without the internal conflicts he had; perhaps his own noted racism against other people of color played into his choice of target. What seems clear, from his time in a police academy, to his love of NYPD shirts, to the fact that his job at the time of the shooting was working as an armed security guard for G4S, is that Mateen sought to affiliate himself with entities that often demonstrate strength and inspire fear, as a way of making up for his own inadequacies and quashing any self-loathing over his sexuality. His pledge to Daesh in his final moments appears to have been, then, less a statement of religious belief than his final way of pathetically latching himself onto another gaggle of armed strongmen in an attempt to make himself seem more frightening, more manly. His boast about having known the Boston Marathon bombers, which the FBI later found to be empty, can be understood in the same way.

All the same, the portrait of Mateen as a pathetic wannabe-badass-cum-possible-closet-case should not individuate his crime. He was born and raised in the same United States that brings the homophobia and transphobia of many violent men to a boil. None of the people who have literally threatened gun violence against trans women using washrooms this year were Muslim (many were ostentatiously Christian, as it happens). This is, after all, the year of North Carolina’s HB 2; that is part of the context in which this mass killing must be understood, in which this murder has now become a one-word threat issued by plenty of non-Muslim homophobes. Take, for example, this man in New York who, upon being kicked out of a gay club promised “I’m going to come back Orlando-style!” The cultural issue here is not Islam as a faith, but men who feel that any slight must be avenged by mass violence.

Yet beyond this, we must return to the streets of Britain, where makeshift memorials for Jo Cox are blossoming as I write this. She was killed as she was leaving her constituency surgery—a kind of public, face-to-face meeting with the people she represents that is both a requirement and tradition of MPs in the UK. All and sundry could come to her and discuss their views, grievances, and problems. Such events are free and open to the public, lightly guarded, and easily accessible by design.

They appear to be the polite, respectable mirror image of a gay club’s beats and grinds, but both sites speak to something about our aspirations as a liberal democratic society: pluralism and openness. Much has been written about gay bars and clubs as shelters from a hateful world; they are our little utopias amidst the chaos of our times, a brief flash of what we would like to see and feel everywhere: safe, accepted, in community, loved as ourselves. The constituency surgery, meanwhile, is an attempt at correcting the signature failing of representative democracy, providing a forum for people to speak directly to their elected officials and influence their government.

Each in its way is an innovation athwart darker times and darker impulses, a way of building community through trust and openness. This, too, was at the heart of Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the prayer meeting that welcomed in a young and listless white stranger a year ago this month; the people Dylann Roof killed had accepted him into their spiritual home for prayer and healing, had placed their trust in a stranger, and invited him to join them, unguarded and without fear.

All three places—the surgery, the church, and the gay nightclub—were paragons of openness and trust, open to all who observed only a most basic compact of decency and tolerance. All three were shattered by the overflowing hatred of men who needed to write their will in someone else’s blood.

It is actually true that our democratic societies face a mortal threat, but it does not come from Islam. It overwhelmingly comes from within: the unchecked entitlement and easily stoked rage of rudderless men who keep being told that women, people of color, and queers are taking something away from them that they need to violently reclaim. They believe they are entitled to a birthright that immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people and religious minorities, are pilfering from them.

We should open society further in response. For instance, we can do that by eliminating these divisive and prejudicial bathroom bills and allowing LGBTQ people to fully participate in society by protecting them from discrimination in all areas. Or, for that matter, increasing support for victims of domestic violence while identifying and rehabilitating abusers before they do worse might also go a long way toward preventing this from happening again.

The open and pluralistic society that many of us dream of is under threat from men with guns who feel that violence is the only way to solve their problems, making a public tragedy of their internal traumas. If we allow our focus to drift to Islam, we shall only hasten that demise: a dramatically upscaled version of the bigot’s extroverted suicide that must claim the lives of innocents even as we destroy our own.

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.