TechCrunch Disrupt is the most important conference for the early-stage startup scene in Silicon Valley. Thanks to the combination of the biggest speakers, and the TechCrunch platform, it generates a huge media spotlight. Which is why it’s astonishing that the conference’s main presentations kicked off with a completely inappropriate and offensive presentation about an app for looking at women’s breasts, and later included simulated masturbation on stage:
To their credit, the folks at TechCrunch acted quickly to issue an apology, and make clear that a) the presentations were inappropriate, and b) the conference was taking steps to prevent a recurrence:
“Today’s issues resulted from a failure to properly screen our
hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear
guidelines for these submissions.
Trust us, that changed as soon as we saw what happened at our show.
Every presentation is getting a thorough screening from this hackathon
onward. Any type of sexism or other discriminatory and/or derogatory
speech will not be allowed.
You expect more from us, and we expect more from ourselves. We are sorry.”
Improved screening is a good precaution, but the broader issue is that people in our industry still think it’s a good idea to behave like they’re inside a men’s locker room, rather than in a professional setting.
Indeed, the Valleywag story reports that presentation actually got some laughter and cheering (I hope that’s because the majority of folks in attendance were in shocked and silent disbelief).
Sexism in tech exists because it reflects at least some of the opinions of the majority. If every entrepreneur and VC who said something inappropriate was universally criticized, the sexism would stop pretty quickly. The issue is that any instance of sexism that is reported draws a near-instant response by critics who dismiss the issue and attack the accuser. I’ll bet that the entrepreneurs mentioned in the article above got plenty of emails and DMs telling them that what they did wasn’t so bad.
It’s good that brave people speak up, and it’s even better that the official conference organizers take a clear stand. But the sexism won’t go away until the majority of people make it crystal clear that this kind of behavior is not okay. Many of the offenders aren’t bad people, just ignorant. And the private support that they receive helps encourage them not to change. That has to stop.
Sexism in tech is a problem of the majority, and has to be solved by the majority. That means you.