Sexism in Information Technology

I was recently at a technical presentation that has me wondering about the state of the information technology industry (IT). This presentation was the most extreme example I’ve seen of inappropriate and sexism content. It presented women as sex objects more blatantly than any other presentation I’ve seen and contained content that could have been seen as trivializing violence against woman. I can’t imagine that any reasonable person would attempt to justify this type of content and I’m not sure what the speaker was thinking to create a presentation that so clearly crossed the line. However, I’m more concerned about what it says about our industry that he has a customer facing position on a recognizable product.

It’s possible that this presentation was just an unfortunate outliner. I can’t recall another presentation that I’ve seen at any tech event or conference that came close to this level of inappropriateness. I also don’t have any reason to believe that the attendees approved of the content. In fact, when I contacted the head of the group afterwards, he fully agreed that the presentation was inappropriate and he will now tell future speakers that their presentations cannot contain offensive content. It would be wrong to overly generalize based on a single event however, it’s worth noting that geekfeminism has a long list of other inappropriate presentations.

Within IT, we have an affection for the socially inept nerd stereotype. Some have said that we value brilliance or apparent brilliance above all else often with dire consequences. (See, for example, Are Quirky Developers Brilliant or Dangerous? and its Slashdot discussion.) However, this speaker projected the faux macho persona of a high school or middle school locker room rather than the traditional nerd stereotype. Furthermore, socially inept but “brilliant” engineers are usually kept away from customers. But this individual is product evangelist for a recognizable project. (The speaker seemed to be giving the presentation for himself and not for his company but his company’s product was mentioned prominently in the introduction.) I can only suppose that this individual is socially aware enough to restraint himself in a work context. However, there is also the more disturbing possibility that he deals with mostly male customers who tolerate this type of behavior.

Unlike some other types of socially unacceptable behavior, sexist and offensive content can have real consequences. Although this presentation was not typical of the group, first time attendees might not realize that. It is likely that some audience members of both genders were uncomfortable with the talk and will not attend the next event. The hosting organization has a program to recruit more women members. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the women in attendance and will not attempt to speak for them here. However, the content was certainly not consistent with a policy of promoting gender diversity. More importantly, presentations like this don’t just reflect badly on the speaker. This type of unprofessionalism can tarnish everything associated with it — the event, the organization, the attendees, and the community as a whole.

Like it or not, communities are often judged by their most visible and flamboyant members. There are always individuals whose conduct does not reflect that of the broader community. The way the community responds to these individualise determines how it is viewed. Those outside the community often view silence and a failure to set and enforce behavioral norms as tacit approval or they may simply think that the behavior of these individuals reflects that of the broader community. It certainly does not reflect well on us that this speaker has a public position within the industry. It is important that we set a higher standard not just for reasons of community growth and inclusively but also to protect our own reputation. We must not allow the offensive and unprofessional conduct of a few individuals to be seen as representative of our community as a whole.

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