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Carl van Tonder

In which brogrammers are sexist

22 March 2012

This month, we seem to be finding out a lot of things we already knew all along. People overwhelmingly think the Tories aren't green. Goldman Sachs' executives are morally bankrupt1. And this week, two stories reveal that something just might be amiss with the gender politics of the dick-swinging, "brogrammer"-worshipping, toilet-humour-infested world of the tech start-up industry.

Join us, we've got boobs!

Asinine NYC advertising (sorry, deals) start-up Sqoot made very public fools of themselves on Tuesday, responding like children to being called out on their sexist messaging. Check out this screenshot from a page advertising their upcoming "Boston API Jam" event (hackathon / hackfest / programmers' slumber party), and spot the mistake2:

Difficult to argue that putting "women" in a list with "Food Trucks", "Booze" and "A gym" isn't objectification, but marvel as the co-founders try. Complaints began mounting on Twitter (and in the feedback form on Sqoot's website): their first responses? "It's a joke", "There will be men, too", and – my favourite – "boom!" (to support some idiot who chimed in with some "At least it won't be a sausage-fest" nonsense).

Abandoning the "get a sense of humour" line, and realising that their event sponsors were leaving in droves, their next super-tactical plan was to send nearly 200 tweets3 linking to an "apology" on Google Docs. I say "apology", because although it featured the words "We're sorry", the tone was more "We're sorry that you're such a thin-skinned feminazi" than "We're sorry we said something sexist"; in their own words:

> While we thought this was a fun, harmless comment poking fun at the fact that hack-a-thons are typically male-dominated, others were offended. That was not our intention and thus we changed it.

Between the self-serving apology (I picture them typing it with their fingers crossed…) and the Grand Truth Cannon mechanism they deployed to ram it down the throats of their critics, people were not exactly satisfied, and Sqoot have since issued another apology, this time on their official blog. There are definitely some positive differences compared to anything else they've said recently, but don't take that to mean it's good:

> While we aimed to call attention to the male-dominated tech world through humor and intended to be inclusive, the gravity of our wording was just the opposite.

A cynic might say that "intending to be inclusive" would necessarily involve not listing drink-serving women as a "Great Perk" of your event…

I'm not sexist, I'm married. Also: fuck off.

Then yesterday, Geekli.st (an "achievement-based social portfolio builder", apparently) also made fools of themselves, similarly behaving like children when Shanley Kane called them out on a (similarly) sexist video showing off their merchandise.

The company has now (finally) taken down the video, but it's worth watching the shitty-quality Youtube mirror. Highlights:

  • Fully clothed male model, female model in a t-shirt and underwear (and, towards the end, a thong!)
  • Long, slow pans over all areas of exposed female skin
  • Male models watches female model dance, loudly fakes orgasm ("OH! OH! OOOOOH! I need new pants")

What's really interesting is not the video – which Geekli.st claim they didn't make themselves – it's (again) the social media PR disaster that was the corporate reposnse. Geekli.st executives weighed in on Twitter against anyone who raised concerns: the full conversation is online, and recommended reading as well: you've got the full spectrum of excuses and diversions, from "I have a family" to "Stop calling us names". As a couple of Twitter commentators note, an excellent time to be playing a slight variant of "Porny presentation bingo":


via Geek Feminism Wiki

Geekli.st have now oozed out some sort of half-apology, and engaged in a small Sqoot-esque Twitter storm of their own (with their CEO still hand-wringing and buck-passing all the way up to 6 hours ago).

Conclusion

I'm always uneasy when reading about incidents like these: of course, I'm thrilled that pressure was applied to kill off two public instances of sexism (Sqoot's invitation and Geekli.st's video), and neither company got more criticism than they could have expected if they had engaged brains before keyboards. What, though, of companies who are Too Big To Care? Godaddy, the largest domain name registrar in business, continues to advertise with the "Godaddy Girls" (they're not wearing full-body overalls, I'll tell you that much), and Yahoo! got off scot-free in 2009 when they hired actual lap dancers (to give actual lap dances) for their Taiwan Hack Day, for the second year running. The difference between Sqoot and Geekli.st and Yahoo and Godaddy is simply that the latter two didn't get into shouting matches online – so isn't that the real lesson that companies will take away from experiences like this?

It's satisyfing to argue on the internet when someone is arguing back (especially when they're as bad at it as Geekli.st's CTO and CEO), but if that's the only way you campaign then you'll only ever be up against company representatives who are probably too incompentent to be causing widespread damage in the first place. Our current political system has largely moved past suppressing dissent: now, it incorporates it in a way which channels most of that anger away from the underlying causes of our problems. Sustainability is about more than the number of tonnes of greenhouse gas in the air, workers' rights is about more than pay and feminism is about far more than two startups' dumb blunders. Clicktivists, take note.


  1. As opposed to Goldman Sachs' investors, defrauded with subprime mortgages, who are mostly financially bankrupt… 

  2. That's the basic not-being-a-sexist-prick mistake, not the raft of spelling errors. 

  3. I counted up to 120 then got bored and started scrolling. 

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