Women in tech fight for tipping point in sexism debate

A string of events centered on women and the technology field this month have led to a blaze of online dialog. Yet many believe that a "tipping point" in the gender inequality debate may have finally been reached.

Despite the volume of unfettered dialogue, some believe it has been constructive to the discussion of narrowing the gender inequality gap in the tech industry.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg recently launched her debut new book, "Lean In," which details the struggle by women, in which men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in private businesses and public office. The book and its writer were met with both praise and criticism, reviving an old debate on gender roles in the workplace.

Two weeks ago, tech evangelist Adria Richards created a firestorm online when she posted a photo of two men at a programming conference who were allegedly making jokes about "dongles" and "forking" in a sexual manner.

Emotions ran high on Internet communities, such as 4chan, Reddit and Hacker News. Ultimately, both Richards and one of the men were fired from their jobs. Richards' case remains for many the personification of the ongoing gender equality fight.

Only days before, Samsung was heavily criticized by the tech media for what was described by CNET executive editor Molly Wood as a "shockingly sexist" display of "female stereotypes" during its recent Galaxy S IV launch. Two weeks later the same company apologized for a distasteful launch event in South Africa donning scantily clad female dancers.

Women's physical beauty was at the center of another controversy, when the lifestyle website Complex.com published a list of "40 Hottest Women in Tech." Some of the women on the list were offended at being included on what they deemed a sexist roundup. To add insult to injury, the author claimed that his editors added women to the list that were thought to be more attractive in place of women who were considered "not-as-attractive."

Another strand of the gender debate came when Elise Andrew, the owner and publisher on popular Facebook page "I F**king Love Science," revealed she was a woman; the reaction from the community was mixed and quickly spiraled into debate about her gender, rather than the topic.

While such discussions are not rare, at no point in recent history has such dialog been so ferocious and seemingly divided. The voice of women fighting back is louder today than it has been in a long time.

"Things have blown up because people are incredulous, outraged and frustrated," Denise Howell, a lawyer and TWiT.tv host, told CBS News. Howell was one of the women included on Complex's list of the "40 Hottest Women in Tech."

"Conversations about gender imbalance in the tech community have gone on for a long, long time, but the Adria Richards story, a particularly silly and ill-timed 'Hot Women in Tech' piece, and Sheryl Sandberg's book have cranked up the volume substantially of late," Howell says.

"It's clear the hostility women experience online -- and sometimes off -- has and will continue to have a chilling effect," says Howell. "But women aren't going anywhere, and for every one who opts out of engagement on grounds of ugliness, there are others who keep plugging away. "

Internet explodes, discussion erupts

The explosion of discussion was taken to the online forums, websites, social networks and microblogging sites, such as Twitter weeks after the actions of Richards catalyzed a string of unconstrained discussion.

"This isn't just coming to light now," entrepreneur Peter Shankman told CBS News. "Look at what Twitter has done in the past. There were no revolts in the Middle East before Twitter picked it up? When you have a medium designed to share information, things that create flashpoints are going to burn a lot brighter because of that."

Shankman argued that this discussion came to such a head online due to the medium in which it was reported. "The story broke on Twitter because of an action that was placed on Twitter," he said, referring to Richards' original tweet. But the storm surrounding the PyCon conference was a story of "overreaction that didn't need to happen," he said.

The recent onslaught of sexual harassment and abuse by mostly male technologists from some online communities has become more prominent after recent events because the society today that allows anyone the ability to make those views worldwide, according to Shankman. "There will always be people who use any difference to find an inequality," he said.

VentureBeat reporter Jolie O'Dell, who was also on the Complex list of "40 Hottest Women in Tech," told CBS News that some groups of male-oriented communities who have been particularly vocal in recent weeks have been insulated in a world where they have only been working with other men.

A prominent sub-section of the technology industry is the developer community, where coders develop software for computers and Web services. But women have "only a foot in the door," according to O'Dell. "The developer world is one of the last enclaves of hardcore sexism because it is so male-dominated."

In a field where female numbers are low, the hegemonic masculine attitude towards women is not being actively challenged partly due to lack of opposing views.

Julia Gazdag, a contributor to HelloGiggles.com, a website founded by Zooey Deschanel that describes itself as a "positive online community for women," argues that it's an unwelcoming environment, not the lack of interest that deters women from joining the tech field.

"The indication of the steady decline of women in a specific industry is much more indicative of a culture within that industry that is not welcoming to them, as opposed to a lack of interest on their part," told CBS News on the phone.

However, Gazdag describes the Internet as one of the most democratic tools there has ever been. And, she says, the online platform has given more people a chance to show that these things are happening out loud.

"That itself is beginning a movement forward."

  • Zack Whittaker On Twitter»

    Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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