Speak Up, Silicon Valley

I had an interesting experience at Mega Startup Weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited to help judge the startup pitches at the end of the weekend. It’s remarkable how much a dedicated team can accomplish in just 54 hours.

But my most interesting experience took just a few seconds.

During one of the pitches, the all-male team used a gratuitous photograph of leaping bikini-clad women. The bikini-clad women had little to do with the app; I think the entrepreneurs simply thought it would amuse the (extremely sleep-deprived) crowd. But rather than simply flashing the image once, the pitch returned to it several times, and the team even switched to the image as the background for their onstage Q&A at one point.

Gender balance is rare in Silicon Valley, but the Mega Startup Weekend team did a good job of attracting a diverse set of entrepreneurs and audience members, including quite a few women. I watched a few of them during the pitch; while they didn’t display any extreme reactions, I could see at least some signs of (perhaps resigned) discomfort.

So when it was my turn to speak on the judging panel, I took a few seconds to do something really simple. I lifted the microphone and said, “I hate to be a buzzkill, but I just have to point out that using that bikini picture seems inappropriate. It doesn’t have anything to do with your product.”

The whole thing took less than 15 seconds, but even before I finished speaking the women in the audience applauded loudly–and because there were a good number of women in the audience, it brought the proceedings to a brief halt.

Afterwards, several women made their way up to the stage and thanked me for speaking out. They wanted to underline how much it meant to them.

I’m sure that the startup in question had no bad intentions. They didn’t want to offend anyone or make them feel uncomfortable. They simply displayed an image that they liked and thought was entertaining.

The high tech community is undergoing a transition. Traditionally, high tech has been dominated by young Caucasian and Asian males (go back another 20 years, and it was just Caucasian males). Like many other parts of society, entrepreneurship has become more inclusive.

There are far more women and non-East Asian minorities involved now than when I started my own high tech career in 1995, nearly 20 years ago. This is a good thing–we Caucasian/Asian males have no monopoly on ambition or ability. But the traditional demographic still represents a solid majority of participants (I believe the kids these days would call it a “sausage fest”). And it’s still all too easy to forget that other perspectives exist.

If you’re a woman or a minority (and I have to make the distinction because women now make up the majority of college graduates in this country), it’s much harder to speak up when something occurs to make you feel uncomfortable. Were I in the same situation, I’d be worried that I’d be seen as “oversensitive” or “think-skinned.” And with good reason.

Check out the recent Geeklist incident (short version: Shanley Kane (a woman) noticed that Geeklist had made a promo video with a woman in her underwear. She tweeted the company for an explanation and suggested that they take it down, using some profanity. The founders did not respond well). Charles Arthur of The Guardian does a great job of letting the entire tweet stream tell the story. I think it’s pretty clear that the founders of Geeklist acquit themselves poorly and that nothing Kane did was out of line. Yet some of the commenters still defend the company and criticize Kane for her actions.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who speak out regardless of the potential fallout. Yet if those of us who aren’t affected speak up, the effect can be even stronger.

Speaking up when you see someone else wronged sends a powerful message. It simultaneously demonstrates the wrongheadedness of the action to the perpetrator while showing support to the wronged party.

And in my case, it didn’t take any special courage or eloquent words to have an impact.

If you see something wrong, speak up. If just a few more of us speak up, in time, none of us will need to.

65 thoughts on “Speak Up, Silicon Valley

  1. Now in one sentence please answer this:
    What is wrong with using that bikini picture? No one gets offended (women in show? why should they?), there is nothing inherently evil

  2. Anonymous

    Were they selling bikinis? No. There is perhaps nothing "evil", but who are you to say people wouldn't be offended?

    In a professional setting you don't want to give people any excuse to call you out for being a douchebag.

  3. Isn't that obvious? There are several reasons why it's bad to use such pictures as a background for your product, but the most important one (to me) is that it reduces women to their bodies and appearance, which — believe it or not — is not everything a woman has to offer. (male talking here btw)

  4. "that it reduces women to their bodies and appearance"
    False. It doesn't. It's like saying that picture of apple reduces it only to it's appearance.
    If it's nice body, why not show it? You think that woman who was in that photo got offended because someone thinks she has nice body? Hell all this sexism thing looks like some women getting jealous of these rare with nice bodies

  5. How can one compare the picture of an almost naked woman to a picture of an apple? But anyway:

    It sure does reduce women. If _everything_ you see of women are pictures of them almost naked – what view do you and (maybe even more important) children get of women? A very reduced one – you won't honour their real qualities such as intelligence, creativity, empathy, …

    It's not about this one picture or the woman in this picture (who — hopefully — agreed to take this picture). It's about a general attitude that it's okay to show women almost only in the context of sex. As long as this is the case, it's not possible that women will be treated equally to men.

  6. "If _everything_ you see of women are pictures of them almost naked…"
    I don't need pictures. Look how they dress. And once again, what is wrong with showing what is beautiful?
    "A very reduced one – you won't honour their real qualities such as intelligence, creativity, empathy," It's not pictures that does that, its being stupid that makes you see woman like inferior, both sexes has their own strengths and weaknesses.

    I for example understand that woman are equal to men (equal very wide word, and technically we are not equal, but intelligence, creativity etc… yes), but I still don't understand all this nonsense about sexism.

    Oh and "it's not possible that women will be treated equally to men" newer will they be treated as men, because every time ship is sinking it's "Woman and children first", if there is no woman working in your company they can sue you and get place in company… It's advantage to be a woman. And if you are good looking one you even get your pictures everywhere.

  7. Anonymous

    “No one gets offended (women in show? why should they?)”
    Hell yeah I do.
    If I'm at a conference– or any geek event, for that matter, I'm there as a coder, fellow geek, person interested in Technology.
    What I really don't need there is another constant reminder of how my value as a person is directly tied to my appearance (and believe me, it is– try voicing an opinion on the Internet, let it seem as though you were a woman and start to count the voices discussing how fuckable you are if you want a quick demonstration). What I especially don't need is the Message that in nerd/geek spaces, Women exist for decorative purposes only. And that message is exactly what presentations like these send. It makes me feel excluded and unwelcome. Women are not there for your entertainment purposes, they're at these events to learn and geek out just as much as you are. Show some fucking respect.

    If I would give a talk about, say, Monads, and illustrate it with Pictures of ripped dudes in Speedos, how would that make you feel if you were sitting in the audience?

    Don't get me wrong: naked people (or people in swimsuits) are nothing horrible. I love looking at beautiful bodies. But I don't think they have a place in any professional Geek-related setting if you're not working in the adult (or swimsuit) industry.

  8. "If I would give a talk about, say, Monads, and illustrate it with Pictures of ripped dudes in Speedos, how would that make you feel if you were sitting in the audience?"
    I would think that you think that such men are good looking. I would compare them to myself to came to sad realisation that I am not as good looking. Yet I would not feel offended or anything (that's why I think it's not that women get offended but they get jealous).

    "…reminder of how my value as a person is directly tied to my appearance…" It is not. But being beautiful adds to your values (same goes to men).

    "Women exist for decorative purposes only". "ONLY"?! Really? Yes someone added picture of woman because they thought of it as a nice picture. Did they come to you and said that you are only decoration? They didn't even meant that. Hell you know what? Men are only to dig in coal mines and oil drills. Why? because no woman is fighting for "right" to work there.

  9. You can't directly compare the feelings and the whole situation of women and men in this case.

    You, as a man, maybe not feel that harassed as women do in those situations – for several reasons. You seem to be unable to understand what those women feel, because as a man you're not in these situations that often (it's about the frequency, I can't point it out enough).

    But there is a very simple solution to this whole discussion: Just don't use such pictures in public.

  10. Anonymous

    Somehow "It makes me feel excluded and unwelcome." Strikes me as odd.

    That is how I as a male feel in the same community. I think you're expecting far too much from a very isolated group of people. It's not just women. Everyone in the group tends to feel this way in one degree or another.

    Inappropriate usage of images can be discouraging to even males. That doesn't mean it's sexism; it's part of the culture, and unfortunate.

  11. Anonymous

    I Know that not only women are confronted with the feeling of being unwanted or unwelcome in geek spaces. There were aeveral very interesting Panels on the Topic at the 28c3, including the Geeks and Depression Panel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnfOOoTOrDE ) and the queer geeks panel ( http://signal.hackerspaces.org/archive/2011-12-28-2100-28c3-queer-geeks.ogg ).
    That doesn't make the point any less valid.
    (Fun Fact: the “But other people feel uncomfortable, too” line is called derailing and considered harmful. It is suggested to listen to the person and their problem. After you've fully covered that topic, you can bring up your issue, and they'll probably gladly discuss your issue as well and will try to help if you respect theirs as well.)

    I really don't get what's so scary about trying not to hurt other people in our community that consists almost exclusively of people that have been bullied or harassed at some point of their lives. By exploiting your privilege (in this case the Male privilege, there are several others like White, Cis, Able-Bodied… Privileges as well. The Male Programmer Checklist http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Male_Programmer_Privilege_Checklist gives you a pretty good impression what your privilege means), you are putting youself in the position of a bully. Because of your privilege, you can do so without being held accountable for it. It's like punching somebody while goofing around and not realizing that your punch was actually pretty hard. The nice thing to do is apologizing to your buddy, not defending your right to punch others.

    This Video explains the whole Let's Stop Being Assholes, Mkay issue pretty awesomely:

    It's only 5 minutes long and it's fun. Please, go watch it. 🙂

    “"ONLY"?! Really? Yes someone added picture of woman because they thought of it as a nice picture. Did they come to you and said that you are only decoration? They didn't even meant that”

    You see, the problem is that with human communication, you don't have headers or exceptions or any of that fun stuff that makes sure that things are being interpreted the way they were meant to. If the only representation of women in Hackerspaces is „Alice can't use xy and Bob has to explain it to her“, „Alice looks pretty damn hot in a bikini and is thus a nice decoration for our Hackerspace“ and „Alice is The Nagging Girlfriend which I'll use in a series of metaphors in my lengthy Presentation about Android Security“ (had that one a few weeks ago, nobody stood up and said anything ad I didn't want to be the Nagging Complaining Chick), it sends the Message „we don't see women as coders.“
    It doesn't matter if one of you best co-workers is actually a woman or if you don't actually agree with the Message– the message is out there for everyone to see. And very often this is the only message Geek environments send about women. Because of that, I sometimes have a hard time feeling welcome in a space where I'm sitting next to a screen where a develish catwoman is half-raped by a goat figure.

  12. LifeBar,

    Thanks for being willing to post a contrary opinion. From the thoughtfulness of your replies, it's apparent that you're not trying to troll, but rather are expressing honest opinions and thoughts.

    The other commenters have certainly done a good job of explaining their position, but I thought I'd share more of the specific situation at the conference.

    If the team had just flashed the photo once to make a point, I probably would have let it go. We get it–men want to go to beaches where there are attractive women.

    What pushed it over the line was the repeated use of the photograph, sometimes to illustrate points that were only tangentially related. It was as if they felt it was a punchline that they could use to get the audience on their side.

    If someone says something off-color once, I might let it go, figuring I misheard. But this was a repeated use. No other photos from the presentation were repeated like this one. It was clearly singled out.

    There is nothing inherently sexist about a photograph of women in bikinis. This was not some kind of cheesecake photo; it was simply the kind of stock photo that a beach resort would use in its advertisements. The sexism came from the way it was used–as a punchline that was clearly offending the women in the audience.

    One of the anonymous commenters provided a link to a very good video that pointed out that while free speech gives you the right to speak, it doesn't give you the right to be heard:


    (Side note: I think it's telling that many of the commenters chose to remain anonymous, fearing the exact kind of labeling ("oversensitive") that I described in my post)

    As a society, we've learned to avoid offending people. There's a reason why we disapprove of racial slurs. This is simply another aspect of being civilized in the classic sense of the word.

  13. As a black female in the audience, I was not Immediately offended the first time I saw the image. As the team went along and struggled to really sell the idea (perhaps even amongst themselves) they chose to show the image a second time for no reason. when they chose to use the image the third time and kept it up for the entire duration of Q&A section, it became complete overkill and I did not take the team seriously.

    Most ppl get that sex ( even the hint of it) sells. They wanted ppl to laugh. In this culture, no matter if you are male or female a sexy image is supposedly funny. Perhaps the first time. But in a power point presentation of like 8 slides and 3 slides were of bikini clad chicks, with an app not about bikini clad chicks, it became obvious that the picture was a crutch for lack of substance.

    My next point is that they were building an app largely about connecting with friends for activities to plan events. I don't know what the gender split is for that activity but even if it's 50/50, why would you want to risk alienating potential users. When I put my future investor cap on, I would question the team that can't figure out how to engage potential users without alienating a large chunk of them. As someone who has worked on tv commercials most ppl (men and women ) are guilty of this. Creatives types in the industry always start with sex, and then the creative directors would come back and say something like " okay ppl, now that we got that 10th grade thinking out of the way, I really want you guys to think"

  14. Sorry for repeating you thought Chris, I was typing my comment on my iPhone and yes it took like 40 minutes for me to get my ideas out and as soon as I published it, I saw your quote .

  15. A pity that a contrary opinion (however well expressed) derailed the comments. I've been a leader in the open source world for a considerable length of time, and one of the things I am happiest about is having got my small community to understand that it's about the way women want to be treated.

    Showing pictures of gratuitously semi-naked women is something that men still appear to feel is OK, but it seems that women's feeling about this are often ignored or negated by men—out of ignorance rather than malice in most cases.

    More people in leadership positions should take a stand about this issue. While women's feelings are important, probably the best way to get this across to men in a way that will be actioned is to point out (as someone did above) that it isn't professional behavior, and as such might be expected to put your organization at a disadvantage in some circumstances.

  16. Steve,

    Well put. I was just telling a friend over lunch that it's rare that people intend to be offensive. That's what seems to cause the offenders the most consternation.

    It's as if they're thinking, "But I wasn't trying to hurt anyone's feelings. You shouldn't punish me."

    Intentions matter, but impact matters more.

    Besides, the "I wasn't trying to hut your feelings" has a nasty tendency to morph into, "Why do you have to take things so seriously?"

    1. Anonymous

      There is a term for this… It's called gaslighting.

  17. I just want to say: Thank you for speaking up. I really appreciate it.

  18. Anonymous

    Thank you for speaking out! More women (and I'm sure, men who understand the value of an inclusive space) appreciate this than you may ever know.

  19. Thank you for speaking up! That was really awesome.

    For people wondering why photos of women in bikinis are sexist, I recommend:


  20. James

    Chris, I respect your opinions generally, but in this scenario I believe you went too far.

    Bad taste is bad taste, and I agree that it should be called out. But it is taking the matter entirely too far to call this instance out as "sexism" — which I see you do, as you tagged the post as "sexism" even though you do not use the actual word in your article.

    Sexism is a very serious charge, akin to calling somebody out as a racist. It should not be leveled at individuals lightly. Especially not in a public forum.

    Furthermore, campy uses of irrelevant sexual images are common in business, and my experience is that it's not about attitudes towards one particular gender, but rather it's simply the way our culture works when men are the target audience.

    For example, being gay myself, I am rather often exposed to mostly naked, sculpted men in a commercial setting: as I walk through the Castro, when I receive targeted Facebook ads, when I see certain gay-targeted social media startups. In many of these scenarios, the sexualized pictures are not directly relevant to the products being sold.

    Do I ascribe this tendency to a reverse-sexist conspiracy to objectify and degrade men?

    No, it's just sexuality. Not sexism. In the gay community's case the arrow (ahem) just points in a different direction than for most men.

    On the evidence, I simply take the most charitable position, which is not that these men intended to discriminate against women (or whomever else), but that they were straight men acting in an immature way. And they were aping the sexualization they see around them in society at large, not reflecting some endemic attitude found in the startup world.

    Boys will be boys, and these happened to be straight boys speaking to an audience full of others like them.

    And again, calling out their bad taste is fair game in my view. But not writing a blog post about them and labeling them "sexist."

  21. Hi Chris –

    Aaron here, I was the winner of the Mega Startup Weekend Gaming Vertical in September 2011, and returned last weekend to organize the Gaming vertical for this most recent Startup Weekend. I didn't see the pitch in question, but wanted to comment.

    Context is everything. The kickoff meeting on Friday night referenced a study that showed having a woman on your early-stage tech startup founding board was a significantly positive indicator for the outcome of the company. Plain English – women entrepreneurs add something important to the mix, which yields success. So "The Role of Women in Startups" was on everyone's mind, and was being celebrated. Within that context, the images are especially poorly-chosen.

    The folks on the thread who are standing up their straw men are choosing a context in which their arguments make sense – but only within those contexts. Walking through the Castro != pitching at a tech-focused entrepreneurial event. In fact, it's the exact opposite – in the Castro, you are being *marketed to*. That's the whole point. More on that later.

    On balance, it probably only crossed the line when it came up for the third time and stayed onscreen for Q&A. I would agree with the poster who said the first occurrence was just…marketing. They're pitching. Advertising is a component of advertising. Shrug. (See "walking through Castro")

    Somewhere along the way it crossed the line, and you spoke up. Well done.

    So I'd like to thank you, for a few reasons.

    For women, who have to deal with unwanted advances in the workplace, thank you. Can you imagine what it must be like to go ask a co-worker a question, and wonder if he's checking you out as you walk away? To wonder if people were just talking about you when you walk into the break room? To just want to go in and do a good job and instead spend the day wondering whether you're going to be ogled? Uncomfortable as hell – and once that atmosphere starts to take hold, the entire workplace becomes toxic. You didn't flip out, blame, or villainize. You said, basically "Hey, guys – careful with this stuff. It can blow up in your face, and this wasn't a great idea. It doesn't belong here like that."

    For men, such as myself, who were there to meet awesome people, build cool shit, and learn – thanks. Inappropriate imagery may be 'common in business', but it doesn't make it ok to use it as your desktop background. Or put printouts on the wall. Or talk about it in the break room. In the context of advertising, for a business purpose – cool. Them's the facts. As a pervasive, always-on, low-grade testosterone buzz? Not cool. It's a distraction. It makes you look immature (as a person, as a company). It exposes you to litigation.

    Finally, thank you from the team. You spoke up – which is EXACTLY WHAT THE JUDGES ARE SUPPOSED TO DO AT THAT CONFERENCE. Which makes all the arguments thus far on the thread irrelevant.


    Maybe you weren't even really that bothered by the image. You do the team no great service by shrugging it off and letting them go on thinking it's ok. They then leave the weekend thinking they have a great pitch – until they walk in and are opposite a group of hard-nosed investors…who DO care about sexism. Because of your comment, the team grew and learned.

    Context is everything. People are making this about whether it is or is not ok to show attractive, semi-naked people. It is – in the right context. However the context here was mentor – mentee, and you did the right thing. You mentored.

    (These are my views, not reflective of SW or any other entity.)

  22. Chris,

    Thank you for figuring I am not troll. I just don't get all that "sexism".

    "No other photos from the presentation were repeated like this one." So I use bikini woman on my wallpaper (painting, not photo, but that doesn't matter). Am I sexist? What if I do presentation and that picture gets shown few times (accidentally, switching from slides to example code lets say. Yes quite unprofessional, but let's say so happened.) Am I sexist now? A lot of painters of old days used to paint naked women, was that sexism too? Because as I see now, every time you look at woman you are "sexist" because you "objectify" her, judge her body… Like they don't "objectify" men.

    I just don't get all that "it reduces women to their bodies and appearance" argument. Because it doesn't in my opinion. Good looking woman will be complimented for her body, is that sexist too?

  23. Sitting in the front row at Startup Weekend MEGA, I saw this go down right before my eyes. I am a woman (and a woman of color and Jewish) and was the first to go up on the stage and thank Chris for speaking up.


    I agree that choosing to share anonymously is a form of self protection on the web. I sometimes feel the same way. I don't want to have to "own" every single gender and race issue that pops up like the death of Trayvon Martin or the Geeklist debacle online so I have conversations about it offline. It's safer to watch from the sidelines. Thank you again for gauging the audience and saying something. I'll be posting a video of the session tonight.

    @aaron Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and it's great to hear from someone who has been to these events in the past (and won!). Sharon, the CEO of Astia was the one who shared those findings – Women in CxO roles roles boost the bottom line because diversity is good for business – http://techcrunch.com/2012/02/19/why-your-next-board-member-should-be-a-woman-why-your-next-board-member-should-be-a-woman/

    @kimberly You're a good friend of mine, attended Startup Weekend, have an extensive business and marketing background so your opinions matter to me. Thanks for taking the time to discuss your thoughts this morning and leave a comment with your name attached here.

    @steve thanks for addressing logical fallacies people throw in to derail and distract. Women in open source, it's getting better!

    @james sexism is not a "charge" but more of a measure like, "It's chilly" so you'd say, "Wow! It's feeling a bit sexist in here. Can we turn up the relational heater?" – And I could disempower you by saying there were at least three gay men in the audience who did think it was sexist…but I wouldn't do that as it discounts your experience. I hope we all can learn how we can be supportive of each other's success and life journeys.

    After reading the post, I too wondered if this was sexism. It turns out that it can be how you treat someone but also if you encourage stereotypes or social roles based on gender (Wikipedia).

    I was also sitting next to the first woman who pitched on stage, Elizabeth for 500> and immediately wondered what she was thinking.

    I wrote up my thoughts here: http://butyoureagirl.com/13451/everyone-has-a-voice-when-it-comes-to-tech-and-sexism/

  24. James


    You clearly have taken my post out of context, and you ought to apologize. I referred not only to "walking in Castro" but to actual (funded) startups that are aimed at gay men and which treat men as objects. I can name names if you'd like.

    How about the fact that I can no longer log into Facebook without seeing objectified men, for only the simple reason that I indicated my sexual preference on my profile? Or do you consider the marketing practices of a major successful tech company with 700+mm users to be a "straw man" in this discussion of how tech companies deal with inclusiveness?

    Or maybe you can make a compelling case for me that what they do is just "advertising" and I should feel good about it? Because it's not "pitching?" (as if that is some kind of special form of marketing)

    My point is that the experience of treating human beings as sexual objects is absolutely not unique to women. I know several men with thousands of man-hours of gym time who can attest to that. Maybe you don't care about the "context" in which I'm speaking, but that says more about your biases on the matter than my perspective.

    Anyway – that was my basic point, and it was in response to the idea that the problem here is "sexism" and not the more general issue of treating human beings as sexual objects at the level of primates — a problem that cuts across genders in our society.

    As you say — context is everything. So why don't you read my post thoroughly and grok the context before replying? Your post was brash, arrogant, and ill-considered.

    Finally — how precisely is it "mentorship" to accuse bright, eager kids of "sexism" in front of the whole world? He did not name names, but it's not as if we can't figure out who it was. This is clearly a public shaming, not mentorship, and that is precisely where Chris went too far.

  25. James


    I disagree wholeheartedly regarding whether sexism is a "charge." If somebody walked up to you in broad daylight and called you a "sexist" to your face, or accused you of an incident of "sexism," I think you would be rather offended, taken aback, and defensive about it.

    And how much worse is it for an individual who is both an investor and a mentor, who has the bully pulpit of this blog, to shame some specific individuals in public as engaging in "sexism?"

    As to your gay friends — good for you. If anything my goal is to simply to state the obvious, that people objectify each other for reasons other than their attitudes towards gender. Namely, bad taste and haplessness — both forgivable attributes compared to holding anachronistic views on the roles of women in society.

    My hypothesis is simply this: if those guys on stage had been gay, they would have been objectifying men and not women. So where is the "sexism?"

  26. I think it's not about sexism and Chris just chose that term a bit uncarefully.

    It's about respect and acceptance (and this of course towards all genders).

    But this lack of respect can lead to sexism for sure.

  27. Aaron Cammarata ,

    "Can you imagine what it must be like to go ask a co-worker a question, and wonder if he's checking you out as you walk away?" I am sorry but if I look at woman I instantly think about how good she looks. Every men does that. It's our genetics. Also women does that to men too. What's more, didn't you notice that most of women try to attract attention of men by their clothes? And the call everyone that is not up their standards sexist?

    "To wonder if people were just talking about you when you walk into the break room?" I don't need to wonder. I heard women speak about ME countless times. And it was between lines "not doable, not worth attention…" Yah.. because it's only men that is sexist.

    Anyway youtube for "it's only sexist when men do it" video by AmazingAtheist Must warn that it contains some bad language, but has few fine points.

  28. Anonymous

    Comparing a picture of a woman in a bikini with a picture of an apple seems to me as if these pictures are comparable since both the woman and the apple are seen as objects. I don't think this your intend, I just wanted to point it out as something to think about.

    Also, I wouldn't go "yes, that's a nice body" on a picture of an almost naked man in a technical presentation. I'd rather go "Why the fuck is there a picture of an almost naked man in this completely unrelated talk?" and I suppose most of the audience would do the same.

    @James: Yes, there are advertisements that objectify man. But that doesn't change the fact that there are loads of woman-objectifying ads out there and that objectification in general is bad. Neither the article nor the comments I've read claim that only woman ever get objectified, but that woman were objectified by the picture shown in the presentation.

    Pointing out that there are also pictures objectifying men is certainly true, but in this context, the message you convey is "Hey, it happens to men, too, so stop fussing about it, there is no problem." But there IS a problem when a group of humans gets objectified.

  29. I've seen posted here several times points along the line of "this is common", and "boys will be boys" and "women do it too".

    I want to live in a world where it's not 'just accepted' and 'ok', regardless of who's doing it. Chris apparently does to, as do a lot of people. Others, however, think it's fine. Thus the discourse.

    Everyone here is allowed to have their opinion on how the world should be and express it respectfully, so no, there will be no apology for having a different opinion.

    Good luck with your firestorm, Chris. 🙂

  30. Thanks, Chris. I wasn't there, but I'd say these would-be entrepreneurs just don't know any better – or at least they DIDN'T know any better. You spoke up and so now they, and any others who might have thought the same thing was acceptable, should know better.

    There's a reason I have a deep fear of giving birth to a female child – it's great to be a girl, but there's a lot of BS that comes along with it, and the thought of a child of mine having to deal with any of it is very upsetting to me.

    The upshot is that a lot of men – whether they realize it or not – ultimately judge your worth by whether or not they'd have sex with you. When I was younger, I thought, "So what?" Now at the ripe old age of 34, I have a bit more perspective on how this affects a female – in the start-up world and elsewhere. To say that it's a drag would be a massive understatement. I've been in the uncomfortable position of thinking that a valued professional contact wanted to work with me because of my experience, abilities, and proven track record in driving results, only to be confronted with the reality that those things were dwarfed by something else.

    A lot of guys think, "Gosh, you should be flattered! Who cares?" To them I say, take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. Don't tell women – or anyone else – how we "should" feel. It's not your call.

    Chris, sorry to blather, but I really appreciate that you did this. Truth is that using this photo in such a way was plain bad manners. Only a boor would debate that.

  31. Anonymous

    Chris: thank you so much for this post. Altogether too often, we wome in tech don't speak up because we know that getting labeled as "the one who points out sexism" is adding one more strike against us – and we are already trying to cope with being the minority in the room as it is. So it's incredibly appreciated when a guy in a position to be heard calls it out instead.

    To address a few of the dissenting comments?

    1) Intent isn't relevant to whether an action or attitude falls under the description "sexist." Simply saying "well I didn't mean to be offensive or belittling" doesn't mean that what you said wasn't.

    2) "It happens all the time" is also not an excuse. At one point, it was common for racist stereotypes and characterizations to appear in films. That didn't make it okay, it just meant that those in power in the film industry had yet to realize that it was offensive and wrong and needed to change.

    3) Sexualism, sexuality, and sexism are not the same thing. The words aren't interchangeable.

    The fact that more than one woman went to thank Chris after he pointed this out? Should not trigger the response in you of "Geez… Don't they get that it was just supposed to be light-hearted and funny?" It should trigger "Wow, thanks for being willing to point that out." But if you experienced the first instead? You might want to reset your internal voice to say "Wow… Apparently that did make the women in the audience feel uncomfortable. So that must be inappropriate since it made them feel that way."

    It's not rocket science. If you offend part of your audience? You apologize. Even if you were unaware at first that you were doing something unacceptable, you know -now- so you apologize and don't make the same mistake in the future. You don't try and justify it by saying "but I dont think they should be offended."

  32. James,

    I hear what you're saying about using the word "sexism." The founders who erred didn't intend to discriminate against women. But they did create an uncomfortable environment for them.

    The problem is, our vocabulary is insufficient. Creating an uncomfortable environment is best described as "sexual harrassment," but I feel like that term is even more problematic for describing what happened.

    In terms of your experiences in the Castro, the key question is whether or not you're predictably being made to feel uncomfortable. The Castro might make some straight men feel uncomfortable, but by the same token, it's not intended to include them. A Startup Weekend is a different animal. It is intended to be inclusive, which makes what happened inappropriate.

    As for public shaming, I tried to walk a fine line. I didn't want to single out the entrepreneurs or their company, but it's impossible to anonymize everything…especially when there's video of the event. Ultimately, my goal was to deliver a message to everyone: "This is not okay." Sometimes, there is no single action that can accomplish every goal. If I talked with the team privately afterwards, the crowd would have gotten the impression that this sort of thing is "okay." I couldn't allow that to happen.


    For me, at least, sexism is a matter of context. Take exotic dance clubs, for example. I'm not a fan, but I would defend their right to exist. Other people wouldn't, citing their tendency to objectify women.

    The difference is that the exotic dance club is intended for a specific audience. In fact, there's a bouncer at the door and a hefty cover charge to make sure that everyone there understands the deal. I might not like it, but I'm not going to try to shut it down.

    The picture in question was pretty innocuous; it was its impact in context that was the problem.

  33. > What is wrong with using that bikini picture?

    Hey LifeBar – try this: find several women you know. Aim for a good mixture of ages and personality types if you can.

    Explain the situation to them. Ask them what *their* reaction is. You never know what you might learn…


    I did what you said first day after reading this article. Since it's irrelevant I newer mentioned it. But here : Problem is I am Lithuanian. We newer had all this "sexism" nonsense. Women here can study wherever they want, can go to parliament (Our president is a woman. Why? Because she was best candidate in that election. Also women here has few bonuses that makes them easer to get jobs, and easier to work…) . Anyway, I let 7 women read this article (and even translated to some of them) (ages 21 – 30). They saw no problem in that bikini picture. Most of them said something like "childish stupidity" but saw no sexism in that. One said that author of this blog stood up just get attention of other women and some easy respect points (not my words. But I think that's possible) All of these women were from IT field except one mathematician and one economist(going to ask my mom when I go to her).

    Why I newer mentioned that? I live in Lithuania, we have intelligent women here, and very few feminist that cry how "sexism is wrong, and men are pigs".

  35. innos

    I at first thought, after reading your comment, that your country might be that "developed", that they don't have any discrimnation at all – but it seemed unbelievable to me, so I did a little search and found: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/15/lithuania-anti-gay-law-pr_n_233654.html

    Enough on that I guess, right?

    AND: Just because people don't talk about or don't realize that there is sexism, doesn't mean that there is no sexism.

    Racism used to be normal many years ago – so nobody had a problem with it, nor did people really talk about that. It was just usual, so it "was not there". Think about it.

    If the women in your country are just used to how they are treated, etc. it doesn't mean it's okay in general – it only means that it's okay in your culture.

  36. innos,

    From defending women from silly placed bikini photos to gay rights? I newer told my country is "developed". By the way, you read only title didn't you? Law is not against homosexuals, it is mean to shield children from inappropriate things. If you say homosexuality is appropriate to children as they must know of the "other way", I say hardcore pornography is appropriate to children because it's "what they need to know".
    Why we "dislike" homosexuals?
    1. Family values. Seeing two equal family members of opposite sexes live together makes you respect opposite sex more.

    Why we ban "gay parades"?
    1. People here was grown in families of mother and father, we don't want grand children.
    2. these "parades" are only attempt of getting more publicity and showing off.
    3. We don't want blood bath.

    You are master of derailing…

    Back to topic.

    "Just because people don't talk about or don't realize that there is sexism, doesn't mean that there is no sexism."
    Just because you think there is something, it doesn't mean there is. In here I see more sexism against men than women(women has more privileges), and blog posts like this is what makes it happen.

    "Racism used to be normal many years ago" Slavery too, I might add. These are disappearing, but they did not took 180. Men and women are equal, they both objectify each other, they both make jokes about each other, so why only men are punished for that?

    "If the women in your country are just used to how they are treated," Or they are just not paranoid. Yes men like women, yes they look at them, no they are not going to rape them, make them slaves…. I get a vision that if you compliment woman in you country you get sued for sexual harassment, because to compliment woman you must "check" her out.

    I suggest watching http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-N9daqANcw
    and all of her videos.

  37. innos

    About the derailing: If this discrimination against homosexuals is legal in your country – why not discrimination against different genders? That's what my statement is about.

    The principle is the same, just the target is different.

    Nothing to add about the other statements you made – I guess it's just about cultural differences.

  38. Balancing cultural attitudes with what you feel is right or wrong is a tricky thing.

    On the one hand, since I'm arguing that context matters, if an action doesn't offend people, it doesn't deserve censure.

    On the other hand, I often feel like there are cultural values that are simply wrong. Practices such as foot binding or forced female genital mutilation are wrong, and you won't convince me otherwise.

    There are even cases where an action changes once it's taken into a new context. During the recent Secret Service/prostitution scandal in Cartagena, the mayor of that city wondered to a reporter why this was such a big deal to the Americans, since prostitution was so common and accepted in his town.

    Another incident I recall is the Spanish national basketball team getting ready to play the Chinese national team, and taking a team photo using their fingers to modify their eyes in a way that they found amusing, but which generated international accusations of racism.

    There is no simple answer. American feminism is viewed very differently in different countries. I know that it fills the French with horror, for example.

    But I do know that in the context of Silicon Valley, the actions taken were inappropriate, and that is the context I was focused on when I spoke up.

  39. innos

    "If this discrimination against homosexuals is legal in your country" What? In my country you can be homosexual and no one will say you anything (by no one I mean most of population like 90%.). Homosexual has same job opportunities, education… Yes we don't want them parading – not even going into that. And shielding children from homosexual images (what that law was about it also included violent images, sex, racism, and if you put somewhere something sexist same law you are attacking now will come to rescue). Is not discrimination, it's protection of youth, it's wishful thinking that we will have next generation which will bring next and so on.


    "forced female genital mutilation are wrong" Oh… This is GOLD. And american male genital mutilation is ok. Prostitution is bad? Once again I don't get it (prostitution is banned in my land and is deemed plain wrong) so much fight over women not hawing any rights, and you take away woman's right to sell her body? It objectifies woman you would say. But what if woman likes to have sex, chooses her partners herself – why not legalize that?

    Back to topic. I guess that whole incident wasn't recorded? I would like to see it myself.

    Also: Unless I get to see what really happened, I will not comment here any more. I must be real annoyance.

  40. innos


    > Why we ban "gay parades"?
    > 1. People here was grown in families of mother and father, we don't want grand children.
    > 2. these "parades" are only attempt of getting more publicity and showing off.
    > 3. We don't want blood bath.

    This IS discriminating against homosexuals – no debate about that. If you "ban gay parades" you're robbing a right from those specific (in this case: homosexual) group of people – this is exactly the definition of discrimination.

    Don't understand me wrong, I'm not judging you, because I still have the feeling this is caused by your culture – and it takes more to get you away from it then a few comments on a blog post. But to be honest, I also have the feeling that you just don't realize that the accurance of the different representations of discrimination.

  41. James


    Thanks for your reply. You have done much to assuage my basic fear in the ongoing debate about sexism in the tech industry, which is simply this:

    Calling out bad taste is like performing a public service, rather like picking up litter on a sidewalk.

    Using labels like "sexism." however, that came from the great and ongoing contemporary Civil Rights struggles in modern America is to brandish a rather powerful weapon. It can create a chilling effect where people are afraid to speak out for fear of offending against a climate of inclusiveness. We must walk a fine line, and as I noted, I felt you had crossed it. I am glad that you are cognizant of that line.

    But I feel I must take a moment to reply to your objection to my Castro analogy. You said:

    "The Castro might make some straight men feel uncomfortable, but by the same token, it's not intended to include them. A Startup Weekend is a different animal. It is intended to be inclusive, which makes what happened inappropriate."

    That is absolutely untrue. The Castro is a public neighborhood, accessible to and inhabited by many straight individuals. Furthermore gay culture is intended to be inclusive because that is its definitional goal: to integrate gay individuals into modern society.

    I was calling out the displays in the Castro as bad taste in the same vein as the founders' pictures.

    Many gay individuals would agree with me. They are bad taste precisely because they offend against the goal of inclusiveness that fundamentally must motivate any attempt at integrating a minority group into broader society.

    And I was using that example as evidence that there are other explanations for those co-founders' motives than biases towards gender; but rather, the general bias in society — gay or straight — towards inappropriate sexual imagery in the normal course of commerce.

    Given the existence of other rational explanations, I felt you had an obligation to choose the most charitable one when addressing the matter in public. Which is, again, simple bad taste.

    So while I imagine we will ultimately agree to disagree on this, I do hope you will not continue to see the Castro as an example of intended exclusion. And do consider my other examples: why does Facebook blast me with inappropriate imagery simply for expressing my sexual preference?

    Good taste ought to be a standard of commerce in any setting. I think we can agree on this, even if we may disagree on the broader issue of sexism's role in the tech industry.

  42. LifeBar:

    I believe the FGM, which is usually carried out against a woman's will, is wrong. I won't defend circumcision per se, but I think there's a big difference between a medical procedure which confers proven health benefits (hygiene, reduced STD infection rates, eliminates penile cancer) and a custom which provides zero health benefits and serious affects female sexuality.

    As for prostitution, I'm in favor of legalizing it. My point is simply that context matters. Actions that are normal in one context are inflammatory in another.

    You can actually see the whole presentation here:


    No worries about annoyance–the whole point of speaking up is to trigger dialog, not to shout down those one disagrees with.


    Great link on "Lighten Up." I've already tweeted it out.


    You make a good point about the Castro. In fact, since I notoriously hate traveling to San Francisco (http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com/2006/06/why-i-hate-san-francisco.html) I don't know if I've ever been in the Castro. I appreciate the clarification.

  43. Anonymous

    There is nothing wrong with admiring the physical appearance of another human being. We all do it. Most of us have a line that we draw, where anyone below that line in terms of ugliness is simply not an option. And the idea that this is a primarily male phenomenon is an absolute myth. Though I might find it annoying, I would in no way be "offended" by a presentation peppered with photos of Orlando Bloom. He's a good looking man. Even as a heterosexual male, I can appreciate that. It's nothing of the sort that should upset me.

    I completely agree with you if you are making a pragmatic argument. Over-using sexual imagery of any kind in a presentation completely unrelated to sex, especially if it alienates a part of your audience, is stupid. No more no less. No more. No less.

    Inappropriate? Offensive? Immoral? Please, avoid the urge to mount the moral highhorse. Everyone seems to be riding it these days, injecting morality into places where it doesn't belong because it gives them a feeling of superiority–or wins them brownie points from "the offended." Too easy.

  44. That's all I needed to know. Deleting comments that proves you wrong, trying to win easy "respect" points from women by calling sexism where is none. Did you even listen to their presentation? What should have they used as example for other kind of park? Gay park – intolerance, black gangsters park – intolerance, Muslim park – … oh that would have worked since in US everyone already hates them.

    If I had more time I would start blog about your kind. But go ahead, delete this too.

  45. LifeBar,

    I don't know what comment was deleted. I don't delete comments unless they advocate violence or are clearly hate speech. I've even resigned an advisory board position over this.

    If you send your comment in again, I can promise it won't be deleted.

  46. Anonymous

    this compares to the billions spend on attack ads. Anything to brainwash the thoughtless

  47. It's not that there's something wrong with women in bikinis, or with the photo in general—context, context, context.

    Thought experiment: If the conference's demographic were all-female, would the startup have used that picture? (probably not)

    Okay, now if the demographic were 50/50. Still no?

    The picture is a reminder that the tech world is still very much a man's world. The startup probably didn't think that it would offend the women there, but that's exactly the problem—they weren't thinking about the women there at all.

  48. Anonymous

    Thank you for speaking up, Chris.

  49. Alyssa Royse

    Having been asked to speak on the subject at a conference in Seattle over the weekend, I found myself diving deeper into the "brogramming issue" than I ever thought I would. The conference itself wound up being an incredibly heated disucssion about if sexism even exists, in tech, if it's an issue…. And it was tough, as a woman, to listen to it.

    That said, I think it's important to frame this discussion around the idea that no one is intentionally being an ass. Most of these guys genuinely don't realize that it is a problem, (which is hard to believe) and genuinely don't see how their behavior makes it hard for women to get into, much less stay in, tech.

    To a large degree, I think it's a much bigger problem than anyone realizes. Additionally, we're not going to get anywhere until both "sides" lay down arms and listen.

    I did my best to write up the talk, in which I mention this post. http://alyssaroyse.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/brogramming-sex-sexism-in-tech/ I hope we can think of this as an open discussion and find some way to keep it going. As a woman, formerly of the tech startup world and slowly heading there again, and one who focuses entirely on female sexuality, I think we can all come together, as it were.

  50. Chris:

    Thanks for speaking up and raising the issue. The comments here are interesting and present a more nuanced discussion of this topic than I typically see.

    I particularly appreciate your statement that over use of images like this "makes Silicon Valley look bad."

    In the eyes of many, overuse of sexuality is seen as marker of lack of substance or maturity, which are some of the insults that are often thrown at the Valley.

  51. @Life Bar. I don't really know if you read this post anymore…

    While I understand you seem like you're genuinely trying to understand why women can view this as a sign of disrespect, sexism, etc. etc. (phrase as you will…at best, it was unprofessional), you're still kinda just passing over the main point. And it's honestly hard for YOU to judge as a male the experiences of a female.

    Tech is very male dominated. From grade school, society classifies tech as a man's world. That it's only for guys who stay at home who play video games, etc. And growing up, women are just 'not as good' as men are at math, tech, etc. etc. It's an entire culture.

    That's why it's a problem putting up pictures of bikini clad women. We've been told we don't belog our entire lives. It's just another way of telling us you're not here because you're at our level.

    There's a reason they didn't put up pictures of men playing computer games, or something else irrelevant.

  52. Anonymous

    I've never seen a man get offended by a picture of a male model.


    People get offended in Racism, Sexism and many other areas because they think they have a right to, not because they are directly affected. This is inherently the problem: by supporting the feeling of offense in relatively unoffensive situations, you're reinforcing that it's ok to believe that such things are offensive. This keeps the misunderstanding alive, and maintains the racial, sexual and other separations. You might have good intentions, but you're long term having the exact opposite effect than you intend. *Action* after *irrational* *judgement* is what *prejudice* is, not displaying artwork. It's way past time that activists learn this.

    I have been subject to prejudice several times in my life, so I'm not just living on the other side of the fence.

  53. Anonymous

    An Australian here.

    Just curious, is there some sort of code of conduct guidelines for conferences? What about in schools and universities in the US?

    To share my experience being a teaching assistant in an Australian university. We were informed from day one that displaying such picture in a university premise is something that could result in the person being sued in court.
    The problem is not the picture itself, but it's about the display of such picture in university.

    I don't know if there's a correlation, but I have never encountered such sexism in Australian tech conferences/meetup (maybe not yet, I hope not).
    And yes, Aussies drink a lot! So drinking culture doesn't have anything to do with attitude towards women.

    The example in this blog along with the incident with geeklist founder made me wonder, is it just pure ignorance? or lack of education?

    And just a response to LifeBar:
    "I would compare them to myself to came to sad realisation that I am not as good looking"
    That's how you would feel and think. Wait until you have a daughter (I can imagine you arguing that you already have a daughter and she's ok with such picture in such context :p), and put it in such position, not only she might feel sad, but that could also lead to feeling hurt, disrespected, objectified, anything that causes pain and unhappiness.
    You might think that it's ok for you, but other people might not look at it that way.
    Trust me, you won't be able to tell every women that such thing is ok, specially you won't be able to tell everyone's daughter that it's ok.

  54. As a heterosexual male, I like seeing pictures of pretty women in bikinis. That being said…

    Chris is 100% on the money with this. The picture was, apparently, completely incongruous with the content. Unless the startup pitch was for something like a swimsuit company, how does this represent the business starting up?

    And, lastly, there's no use in feeding the troll named LifeBar. He is either intentionally trying to instigate or truly believes what he says. Either way, there's no reasoning with irrationality.

  55. Lifebar,

    I'm from Lithuania as well. I left the country about six years ago.

    The situation of women's rights in Lithuania is terrible. The reason your female colleagues term this story as a "joke", is because they are numb – they experience similar treatment through the workplace, the culture, and through the environment around them every day. What counts as a "joke" in Lithuanian workplace would be a sexual harassment here in the states.

    So yea, please don't bring up Lithuania again, it's really not a good example of a society that is not sexist. Quite the opposite.


  56. Lifebar,

    I'm from Lithuania as well. I left the country about six years ago.

    The situation of women's rights in Lithuania is terrible. The reason your female colleagues term this story as a "joke", is because they experienced much worse treatment. What counts as a "joke" in Lithuanian workplace would be a sexual harassment here in the states.

    So yea, please don't bring up Lithuania again, it's really not a good example of a society that is not sexist. Quite the opposite.


  57. Anonymous


    Reading your post (drive-by from Geek Feminism), I looked over to see your profile and learn more about the person who made this great post — and realize with pride that I knew you when. Rock on; clearly you've stayed awesome.

    -Deborah from DESCO

  58. Anonymous

    Fuck you.

    Marry little girls.
    (old testament, islam, hinduism, bhuddism, support this)

  59. Anonymous

    "The picture is a reminder that the tech world is still very much a man's world."

    In a man's world men can keep little girls as their brides.

    This is not a man's world.
    Not one country on earth anymore, officially.


  60. Anonymous

    "is that it reduces women to their bodies and appearance, which — believe it or not — is not everything a woman has to offer. (male talking here btw) "

    Sweet Little girls have those extra things in spades, women only have their bodies.

    You good people won't let us have and keep the little girls.

  61. Vela

    Thanks for pointing out the use of the picture, Chris. I know this is old, but I wanted to post my thoughts too. Not only were the presenters focusing on the bikinis, but when the picture was flashed some of the audience laughed and clapped. Maybe the first time out of surprise. I would have probably laughed too. But I would feel women were being objectified as it continued to be pushed as a selling point.

    It was interesting seeing LifeBar's comments. He obviously comes from a different culture where people are probably treated differently too. It seemed the women around him were treated as intellectual equals and he even valued the opinion of his mother. But he can't judge how a woman who lives in the US culture should feel by how women of Lithuania feel.

    The same goes for a man in a situation where a picture of speedo guys is flashed. They're not on the receiving end of most of the sexism, and in a many fields of work and government men are still the majority and probably wouldn't feel as sidelined.

    But even if that situation happened and no men were offended, it's still not right to openly objectify someone. Sure, humans are "genetically programmed" to judge people based on appearance, but we should also be socially conditioned to value the persons ideas. It's not ok to discuss fuckability in the breakroom, (It seems you were upset by this and sorry you experienced that LifeBar) or catcall someone on the street, even if our minds or nether regions are screaming "SUPER HOT!" Remember they have a brain with ideas and goals too. Don't interrupt their thoughts with unsolicited physical judgment. Respect their personhood and be polite instead.

    And regarding the anonymous person who wrote about morality being injected into places it doesn't belong… this person is a troll. You can see by the short, callous sentences and affirmation that "stupid" issues don't bother him that he's been riding his own high horse of blind privilege. Morality definitely belongs in a professional presentation and isn't there just to spoil a good time. Other people exist too. Being an asshole doesn't make him awesome.

    Summary: This is an example of sexism through female objectification and ostracism, and calling it out is not “white-knighting.” It’s the right thing to do.

  62. Anonymous

    Great post, Chris! Thank you for speaking up!

  63. Anonymous

    Really old post, I know, but down at the bottom there are a couple of comments advocating underage sex/marriage. Don’t know if you get much traffic to this page now but thought you might want to consider whether you should leave them there (I know you have views about comment deletion).

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