SXSW

SXSW: Women talk tech industry sexism and what to do about it

A recent tech industry survey exposed problems with sexism or sexual harassment in the tech industry. 

Posted March 13th, 2016

Story highlights
  • SXSW panel tackles sexism in the tech industry and what to do about it. 

After Silicon Valley investor Trae Vassallo testified at a highly-publicized gender discrimination trial about an unwanted sexual advance she had received from a male colleague she was flooded with emails from women with similar stories. 

That sparked an interest in understanding how widespread problems like sexism or sexual harassment were in Silicon Valley. She and consultant Michele Madansky helped create a survey called "Elephant in the Valley."

That survey found widespread sexism and sexual harassment in Silicon Valley

  • Seventy-five percent said  they had been asked about family or children in job interviews. 
  • Sixty-six percent felt excluded from social and networking activities because of gender.
  • Eighty-eight percent had experienced questions being directed at male peers that should have been directed at them. 
  • Sixty percent had unwanted sexual advances. (Interestingly, SXSW attendees were asked to fill out a similar survey and Madansky said they saw similar results, with 60 percent of women saying they experienced sexual harassment.)

These survey results were the foundation of a Sunday keynote panel at South by Southwest Interactive that dived into uncomfortable issues of sexism and sexual harassment in the tech industry. Madansky and Vassallo were joined by Megan Smith, the White House's Chief Technology Officer, and Laura Powers, CEO of Code2040. 

The wide-ranging conversation touched on the lack of women getting computer science degrees, to the gender pay gap and what tech companies should be doing to have a more diverse workforce of women and minorities. 

Here are some of the key takeaways: 

  • The best way to reduce sexism in the tech industry is through men. Though the audience was predominantly female, though there were a surprising amount of men in attendance. That's a good thing, Powers said, because "we need the people who are in positions of power and authority, the CEOs and investors, to change the way they do things to be more inclusive," she said. Vassallo gave the example of a tech industry limited partner (the person who gives money to investors) who, after hearing about the survey, decided to create a new pool of capital for diverse investors. Women-owned firms typically get about 3 percent of all venture capital investments, she said.
  • Make Grace Hopper a household name. Young girls and women need more role models and mentors in the tech industry. Hopper invented one of the first computer coding languages. She should be as well-known as male investors, Smith said, but American history has not properly recognized the contributions of women and men. It's key for young girls especially to know these names and feel that these are jobs they can aspire to, she said. 
  • We have to talk about sexual harassment. The survey found that most women who had experienced sexual harassment didn't report it. Smith said this is a serious problem. "We have to dive right into this, be transparent and start talking to each other," Smith said. She pointed to Chris Rock's opening monologue at the Oscars this year, in which he tackled the racism issues in Hollywood, as a great example of starting the dialogue. "His line about being sorority racist was fabulous," Smith said, questioning whether the tech industry was "fraternity sexist." 
  • Force girls out of their comfort zone. For parents, sometimes you have to force your daughters to do things they don't want to do. Vassallo has a daughter who is excelling on the math team but it was hard to convince her to try out for it. "I felt like a bad parent at first," Vassallo said. "Once I got over the threshold, she realized she really did fit in. Don't be afraid to push on your daughter to do some things that are our of her comfort zone."
  • Megan Smith should run for President. Madansky asked the women what they envisioned for 2040 and when she go to Smith, she told her to run for President. The crowd erupted into cheers and applause. Smith really impressed the crowd (and me) at this panel with her intelligence, passion for the topic and charm. Smith worked at Google for 11 years before being the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, a job she called "the honor of my life."


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