Why It’s Not Okay To Disenfranchise Women In A Technology Keynote

Thursday, November 27, 2014

I’ve been at many technology conferences this year and heard a lot of different speakers, but one struck me in particular: a well-known analyst from a large analyst firm gave what was likely a very well-paid keynote. He’s known as being a “funny” speaker (a label that is up for debate), but he definitely crossed a line from maybe-funny to definitely-unfunny when he made references to his wife in jokes. In particular, he was talking about how he’s a big audiophile, and he started with the statement that “no man should have speakers smaller than his wife”. Okay, a bit cringe-worthy, but I would have let that pass. Not content with the first laugh, he followed with “If your speakers are smaller than your wife, you need to get rid of your wife”.

Aside from the veiled reference to how women are to be judged on their size – by a man who is well beyond the normal range of the BMI scale – there are two explicit problems with this line:

  1. The “wife” in his joke is a commodity; another piece of chattel like his stereo speakers.
  2. The line was specifically delivered to the men in the audience –  “if your wife…” – which sends the message that he considers the women in the audience to be invisible and unimportant.

This is not funny, it’s just misogynistic bullshit. It’s completely unacceptable from someone who is in a position of authority in the industry, and it’s completely unacceptable for companies to continue to hire a speaker who includes material like this unless they want to be considered to hold the same opinions. I’m pretty sure that customers of both the analyst firms and the vendors would hesitate to support this behavior, and might choose to spend their budgets with companies more aligned with their values.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: in another keynote at another enterprise software conference, a senior executive from the host company used an analogy about children playing with bows and arrows, with the comment that that activity only pertained to boys. I had to double-check to see if I misheard that, it was so blatantly gender biased. How can we expect women to feel welcome in an industry that has “thought leaders” with those sorts of thoughts?

I suppose that it’s a small mercy that enterprise software vendors behave somewhat better than their startup tech counterparts, where there have been a number of gender discrimination scandals lately and this sort of crap has been going on for years. And enterprise software conferences don’t have the toxic environment of sexual harassment that many geek conferences do, I suspect because of the high number of women customers attending. But those are minor victories in the overall landscape of the treatment of women in the technology industry: it’s slowly shifting, but a few old dinosaurs still need to evolve or go extinct.

3 Comments

  1. John H Morris says:

    (Cross posted from G+)

    Sandy,

    Bravo for calling out this misogyny.

    I’m the Dad of two daughters and I’d like them to be welcome and succeed in whatever fields they pursue, including fields with lots of technical content. (However, I’d like to think I’d find your comments important even if I wasn’t biased.)

    When you add up lots and lots of similar incidents, you have a systems effect. In fact you could do a nice event-driven large-scale systems analysis of how misogyny works.

    #HighTech, #Misogyny

  2. Ita Ryan says:

    As John said, well done for calling this.

    I’ve been a contract programmer for nearly twenty years (C++ and now C#) and I think misogyny in tech is getting worse. Last year was the first time anyone ever said to me with total seriousness “Women can’t program”.

    Idiots like the speaker you refer to perpetuate this kind of thinking. But I sense a new, growing, industry-wide wave of indignation that I hope will sweep some of the nonsense away.

    1. I think that you’re right about an industry-wide awareness, although it will likely still take years to act upon. Interesting to note that several people who I spoke with at this conference were also put off by the speaker’s comments; in the past, it would have just been laughed off.

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