Dancers and dongles: a week in tech shrouded by sexism

Does the old boy's club need a shakeup?

Samsung dancers

The last seven days has been a big week in tech news, with key products announced, ogled and analysed, but a dark cloud of claims of sexism has cast a shadow over all of it.

The tech industry has earned a reputation for being a notorious boys club, and it persists despite recognition of this fact. There has been an inequality in the number of men and women working in all aspects of this field, and this lopsidedness is taken advantage of by marketing departments, resulting in models exhibiting products at major tech expos, and sex being central to tech advertising.

This trend that is still alive and kicking as evidenced in this embarrassing photo gallery on PCMag, or this blatantly sexualised website selling smartphone battery extenders.

Samsung has come under scrutiny twice this week. Firstly, with CNET's Molly Wood describing its Galaxy S4 launch in New York as being "shockingly sexist", and more recently when the company issued an apology for its use of "scantily-clad" female dancers at a white-goods launch event in South Africa following complaints from journalist Samantha Perry.

A third, unrelated incident occurred at programmer's development conference Pycon where US developer evangelist Adria Richards named and shamed two men sitting behind her during a presentation for making jokes about a 'big dongle'. She didn't speak to them but instead photographed them with her phone and tweeted the image, resulting in a reprimand from the conference organisers and one of the men losing his job.

This description oversimplifies the incident, but you can read her lengthier description here, reactions here, and an apology from the man who was fired here.

Backdraft

Obviously, the first two examples are completely different from the third. Samsung staff made the decision to use broad stereotypes to sell products, and in both cases they backfired. No one I know described the Galaxy S4 launch as anything but embarrassing.

The Galaxy S4 debacle was full of broad stereotypes, of men and women, of different races and ages, none of whom were presented as particularly tech savvy. For every socialite mum character on stage, there was a bumbling man or shirtless male gardener. Samsung made us all look like idiots.

As for the dancing girls? I understand where Perry is coming from. As a journalist, launch events can be more about spectacle than information, and though I don't have a Footloose-ian aversion to dancing, it can get in the way of us doing our jobs. I don't find it offensive in the same way, but then that doesn't mean it isn't offensive to someone else.

The incident at Pycon I find far more disturbing. As I see it, Richards is eavesdropping on a private conversation between people sitting behind her at the conference and decides not only does she find the content of their conversation offensive but believes that "the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for [the next generation of female programmers]...to learn and love programming."

Seriously?

If these jokes had been made on stage, or in a conversation with Richards, then I'd agree that they were inappropriate, but I would still think that the reaction was excessive. Being fired from a job for this is a grossly disproportionate response, in my opinion. Even Richards' choice to shame these men publicly rather than speak to them privately goes too far.

If I'm honest, I have reacted strongly to these opinions because I see myself in the examples, especially the incident at Pycon. I can easily transpose myself into the seats of the men in that shaming photo (though I'd like to think I could do better with a dongle joke). Would I deserve to lose my job, which I love, for making a lame double entendre to a friend? Is it wrong that I roll my eyes at the Galaxy S4 launch without identifying the ways it could be offensive to others?

I have worked alongside many women in my career so far, and want them all to continue enjoying this industry as much as I do. We are friends because we share our passions and I would hate to think that I contribute to them feeling uncomfortable at work just because I find dongles amusing or snigger sometimes when I hear people talking about hard disks.

What do you think about these examples? Any get your blood boiling? Let me know in the comments.