Women, Tech, And Tone

Earlier this week a startup named Geeklist was called out on Twitter for a promotional video which apparently featured a woman dancing around in her underwear. (I say “apparently” because the video has since been made private.) The Geeklist founders acknowledged that this was problematic — and then, inexplicably, they went right off the rails.

Click through that link to see some jawdropping bad judgement; they responded to the woman who complained by Twitter-cc’ing her employer(!) while calling on her to “take it offline” and explaining they “weren’t cool with the angry tone.” While their own haughty tone, of course, was perfectly acceptable…

At which the geekosphere erupted. This will be an interesting test of “no such thing as bad publicity”; I’d never heard of these guys before, and based on the available evidence hopefully never will again, but suddenly they were all over my Twitter feed, in a context of furious condemnation. Best of all was the darkly amusing bug report filed by Coda Hale, which, alas, has since been deleted. Thankfully, somebody managed to screen-shot it.

In the end, Geeklist apologized, more or less. End of story, right? Weird hyperoverreaction, public rage and shaming, concession and apology. Well, if you consider their apology an apology — and a lot of people don’t



I’m still baffled by why Geeklist’s founders went berserk in the first place. Baffled, but not surprised; a co-founder of a startup I mentioned in a recent TC post responded with a similarly bizarre and erratic (although, to his credit, not actually insulting, so I won’t link to it) Twitter rant. Have these guys never been criticized before? Are they so deluded and entitled that they think the slightest hint of disapproval gives them license to break out the flamethrower? Does everyone out there need online skin-thickening training?

More important, though, is the demonstration that sexism in tech is an ongoing trend rather than an occasional aberration.


I like to think — in fact, I genuinely believe — that the tech world, despite the fact that socially awkward young men are currently massively overrepresented in its ranks, generally wants to be helpful and welcoming. And believe me, it could be worse; a friend of mine is an NYPD cop, and she reports that the entrenched sexism there makes Silicon Valley seem like Utopia.

But it’s hard to argue that things are getting better. “This industry is one of subtle sexism. I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out.” It was especially disheartening to see a claim that the Hacker News community was flagging and downvoting posts about the Geeklist controversy; to quote that discussion, ‘Did you really just say “HNers aren’t ostriches, they just don’t want to talk about sexism”?’

Similarly, I expect comments on this post complaining that it isn’t appropriate for TechCrunch. Unfortunately, subtly but systematically excluding a huge pool of capable people from the tech community is a very large tech problem indeed, and all the ostriching and fauxpologizing in the world won’t help to solve it.

Image credit: Ostrich, by David Lewis, on Flickr.