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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.

Sheryl Sandberg pushes women to "lean in"

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."

Education "not challenging" gender stereotypes

While much of this can be attributed to the unique dynamics of the technology community, or simply "boys being boys," many believe -- academics included -- that this stems far further into the science and technology fields, if not deeper in the cultural roots of Western society.

Computer science remains the only field in the wider science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) community that has seen a decline in female participation in the U.S., according to Laurel Smith-Doerr, an associate professor at Boston University's Department of Sociology, in speaking to CBS News.

"Despite the high growth in Internet-related information technology (IT) occupations, women were disappearing from computing," Smith-Doerr said. "When new occupations open up in high tech fields, women enter. But gender integration can be disrupted by stereotypes and bias becoming part of the gatekeeping process in the occupation, such as the experience of college student majors."

Smith-Doerr explained that during the 1980's, women rapidly moved into the field during an uptake in computer systems analysts' jobs and other occupations became popular, particularly those from Caucasian and Asian backgrounds. But a decade later, there was a precipitous decline in women's participation in computing.

In recent years, however, numerous schemes and in-roads have offered greater opportunities for women to enter the technology industry, particularly in coding and development. The once-seen high school social stigma of enjoying or engaging with computing or technology has significantly dissipated.

Howell spent much of her life engrossed with technology. Her legal specialty, intellectual property and other matters with a legal-technology crossover, keeps her feet firmly in the technology field.

To her more than 1.8 million followers on Google+, she described the addition to her name on Complex's list of "40 Hottest Women in Tech" as "being part of a cheap, culturally retrograde traffic ploy."

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Howell believes that sexism in particular runs deep in society, and not just in the technology community. "Several demographics of Western children have been raised on the premise that sexism, discrimination, and harassment were problems a long time ago that we sagely recognized and dealt with. As children, particularly young women, come of age, they see we've been deluding ourselves, and despite our best effort the problems still exist, though somewhat more subtly."

"Part is cultural," she said. "Even in 2013, women are more associated with the home, family, objectified beauty, passivity, and non-productivity than are men. Both genders continue to consciously or otherwise make life, career, and management decisions informed by these norms. Part is educational. The emphasis on STEM education in general and for girls in particular is still getting off the ground."

"It's not that we're not making progress, we are. It's just that it is aggravatingly slow, and difficult to speed up until the cultural equality piece falls into place," Howell argued. "We're still a long way from a critical mass of adults who are trained, ready, and emotionally prepared for equal participation in life's responsibilities and opportunities, regardless of gender."

The beginning of movement forward

Shankman says he was "amazed" that this was even an interview topic in this day and age. "If this brings about a way that we can all get past what shouldn't be an issue in 2013, that's maybe the only beneficial thing that has come out of this."

"The fact that this is a topic of conversation -- these events have garnered attention -- is indicative of the fact there is somewhat of a turnaround," Gazdag says. "There is movement towards gender equality because there's clearly an interest in the subject."

This ongoing rumbling of discussion about gender inequality and sexism in the workplace continues on. This is not a new topic, and surely will not be the last time events such as those seen in recent weeks will explode on the Web again. The discussion and debate may have reached a tipping point in which women are fighting the backlash from the community that they see is just as much theirs as it is a mans, or for any gender denomination.

"As much as inadvertent sexism as there is, there is just as much totally conscientious, totally intentional movement towards equality," says O'Dell.