“We don’t have a women in technology problem at Business of Software Conference”

Brianna Wu, 9 Ways We Can Stop Hurting and Start Helping Women in Tech

I was very surprised to overhear this comment from a woman at BoS in September. Nothing could be further from the truth. If this is an environment where women feel that, then I can’t imagine how tough it is on other places. We can take some pride I hope in creating a community where people feel safe, introverts become extroverts for a few days. It is not perfect.

BoS is a very welcoming community, or we try to be. Many people tell us it is the only conference they attend, or that there is a unique ‘family’ atmosphere (thanks, you noticed!). But we sure as heck have a woman in technology problem and we sure as heck have a diversity problem. To be honest, I fear this is a tolerance and humanity problem.

Trigger Warning. This post contains links to sites that include some deeply unpleasant things. I would say it is NSFW but then again, imagine that you are at the receiving end of some of this and this stuff hits your inbox and social media accounts every (working) day?


Brianna Wu’s powerful and painful talk at BoS this year, 9 Ways We Can Stop Hurting and Start Helping Women in Tech, was understandably angry given the recent events of GamerGate.

For now, here’s a draft version. (Write up of this talk by Stephen Kellet at Software Verify here).

Someone reported back to me that one of the discussions in the lunch line at the conference was between two guys who couldn’t understand why this was relevant to software, that was about the gaming industry. We have no problem.

It starts with the small stuff…

Sexism starts in technology at the ’10,000 small cuts’ level. A colleague summed this up best sending me this 1 minute Fast Show sketch, The Invisible Woman. I wonder how many woman – and men – can relate to this.

Julie Pagano wrote about death by 1,000 paper cuts – often women don’t experience one single catastrophic event but a series of microagressions in and out of the workplace.

A few little things that made us think from recent articles.

The contributions of women are often ignored or written out of technology history. Walter Isaacson, the author, Steve Jobs biographer and father, only learned of Ada Lovelace, the first person to write code, through his daughter’s college essay.

Mr. Isaacson recalls saying as they stood in the living room. “What did you write it about?”

“Ada Lovelace,” she replied. This was followed by a long, awkward silence. Mr. Isaacson, who was just beginning work on a biography of Steve Jobs, could not recall who Ms. Lovelace was.

“She’s one of the women who has been written out of the history of computing,”

Ada Lovelace appears on the front cover of his new book alongside Steve Jobs.

Why women are leaving tech – While coders and brogrammers might maintain this is because they can’t code, do maths, hack it, guess what, it might not be that, it might be that they don’t like the toxic culture. Interesting article based on interviewing over 700 females who have left the tech industry suggests there are other reasons like: machismo, isolation, blocked career paths, no support. (Also, girls are doing better at math/s in elementary school these days, so it probably isn’t the math).

Everyone knows women are only interested in ‘casual gaming’ right? Almost half the gamer population is female.

Where this gets us: Women in Games and GamerGate

Dear Lord, where do we start? This is where it gets horrible and to be honest, there is so much stuff flying around about Gamergate that I wouldn’t know where to send you for a good summary. There are now so many threads of this argument it’s hard, confusing and frankly depressing to follow. For this particular online hashtag, there is a concerted and sophisticated effort to discredit and silence any woman who joins the discussion. It seems there is no pretence of civility in this debate or even that those engaged in trying to discuss it are humans with feelings.

The message for women seems to be, ‘Shut up or get the heck out of the games industry.

This started long before GamerGate

Anita Sarkeesian. Writer, video game critic and video blogger who explores female tropes in video games. She decided to raise money using Kickstarter to make a series of videos.  This turned into an unholy war where online hate groups rallied their virtual battle axes and harassed, defaced Wikipedia articles and left thousands of comments on her YouTube videos.  She survived and continues to speak aout about how the gaming industry portrays women.  This was 2012.

Fast forward 2 full years she is still being harassed.  There are the nonstop death threats, publishing her address and social security number online (also known as doxxing)  and an recently at an event she was speaking at, a threat was called in that a bomb would be detonated  to detonate at an industry awards event and that had the power to kill at least a dozen people.  Wow that is scary.  The event still had Anita speak but did increase security and pat downs.

Collateral damage

Watch out supportive men, journalists, and companies. Bombarding anyone, with patently fake accounts, with ‘the truth’, videos, ‘private pictures’ photoshopped, made up stories etc etc of the people who are speaking up.

Why not try this yourself? (This is not advised, this is rhetorical) See what happens if you tweet (or just use a fake Twitter account), something along the lines of, “I want to write the truth about #GamerGate, where do I start?”. You will be bombarded with tweets from fake accounts and if your avatar looks like a woman or a person of color, be prepared for several hours of harassment.

Gamasutra, a large games website ran this article suggesting gaming might be a bigger community than just the ‘gamer’ community As a result, Gamers have lobbied advertisers on the site to stop doing business. Intel pulled their ads on the site with one of the most pathetic, non-apology, non-anything Friday night press release you will read this week. (Friday night press releases are the ones the PR department has to put out but doesn’t want seen).

But real tech isn’t like that!

‘Of course, Gaming is a sexist, xenophobic, troll ridden space. But *real* tech – B2B, SaaS, OpenSource – that’s not like that!’

Oh dear. If the ‘Death by 10,000 cuts’ stuff and the invisible woman syndrome isn’t sexist enough for you, the x-rated stories are all over the tech industry and more are surfacing every day.


The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this week featured some incredible panels. (Incredible in the sense of WTAF, you are totally making this up right?) ‘The Male Allies Plenary Panel‘ featuring the CEO of GoDaddy(!) to encourage and inspire the 8,000, mainly female attendees, included such gems as:

“The best thing you can do is excel, and to push through whatever boundaries you see in front of you. Just continue to push and be great.”

“It will be twice as hard for you … but you can make a big difference in your company.”

“The only thing I would add is speak up … Speak up, be confident.”

“It’s more expensive to hire women, because the population is smaller.”

“The program was 96% diverse, we actually got anecdotal feedback they wanted some other men in the program.

“When a guy has an idea, he gets really pumped up about it, really vocal about it. Back to that notion of speaking up, if you have an idea … tell people your story and then execute it.”

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, at the same event, said women shouldn’t ask for a raise but embrace their superpowers and rely on karma.

“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” CEO, Microsoft.

He then clarified his remarks on twitter by explaining he had been inarticulate. Then 5 hours later sent a clarification to Microsoft employees. More on this here. Some of this would be seen as satirical and funny if it appeared in HBO’s Silicon Valley. But it wasn’t.

Car crash humour is one thing, but it gets a bit more personal and a bit more dangerous from here on.

For example…

Julie Ann Horvath – Front end designer at Github. She left the company after being sexually harassed and bullied by one of the firm’s founders. (GitHub incidentally just this week shut down the GamerGateOP repository, used to coordinate some of the activity that sits behind GamerGate. Better late than never I guess.)

[Content removed]


And that’s without touching on the grim tales of Witney WolfeGurbaksh Chahal and the lovely CodeBabes (because nothing says ‘learn to programme’ to a woman like a picture of cleavage).

So, maybe sexism is still present in the tech and gaming industries? Most women in tech know the deal, shut up, play the game with the guys or get a career elsewhere.

Other categories of humans

This is not just about women in tech. Other humans are involved too…

Brianna Wu spoke at BoS about Women in Tech and touched on racism in tech. She cited an experiment done by a young black guy who ran two Twitter accounts, one with his black face, one with a picture of a cat. He was able to show how his black faced profile was cut out of twitter threads with multiple accounts in conversation 93% of the time. His cat face was cut out of the conversation 14% of the time). His name is Jonathan Barronville, he was in the audience at BoS. Very interesting guy. I hope we’ll get a guest blog post from him about something he would like to write about soon.

Maybe this wasn’t about racism in the sense of actively attacking someone but it makes you think doesn’t it? I hope it does.

Brianna said in her talk that gay people are OK in the workplace now and not being discriminated against as homophobia is ‘literally career limiting’. Two LGBT delegates, one male, one female both approached me privately afterwards to contest this view.

Maybe, just maybe, there are some clues that the software community isn’t as clean as it believes? (Obviously not EVERY company, some make significant efforts to address this but it is hugely common).


And now, sadly, in related news, the internet has lost Kathy Sierra. [I am just not going to provide links here or name the guy. Trigger Alert if you start to Google]

Kathy Sierra. Everything that you have read about so far in this so far has happened to Kathy Sierra who was forced into walking away from everything, for SIX YEARS. After many, years, she came back. One of the things that makes me proudest to be part of the BoS community is she felt safe, included and welcome at our events. I am also aware that it is not widely known in our community that she has been put through this. It is not relevant to the things she talks about at BoS and to be honest, the people that know are fiercely protective of her privacy, rightly.

She wrote, this week after walking away from twitter:

“This month is the 10-year anniversary of my first online threat. I thought it was a one-off, then. Just one angry guy. And it wasn’t really THAT bad. But looking back, it was the canary in the coal mine… the first hint that if I kept on this path, it would not end well. And what was that path? We’ll get to that in a minute.

“Later I learned that the first threat had nothing to do with what I actually made or said in my books, blog posts, articles, and conference presentations. The real problem — as my first harasser described — was that others were beginning to pay attention to me. He wrote as if mere exposure to my work was harming his world.”

Full text here if you haven’t already read this online.

Kathy is an extraordinary person. Even as her chief persecutor, went to jail for his part in hacking AT&T accounts, she was public about the fact that she did not feel he should be imprisoned for this ‘crime’. Despite the horror he put Kathy through, she remained firm in her belief that this imprisonment was wrong. She was obviously greatly distressed that this guy has been feted as a hero by many in the community. TechCrunch awarded him a special Crunchie as it was the thing he said he really wanted more than anything else. It seems extraordinary to me that people would turn someone like this into some sort of hero for the tech community. The guy was imprisoned on trumped up charges. That doesn’t make him a hero. Or a nice human.

This man, was recently released from prison. A changed man, a self proclaimed, out and out neo-Nazi white supremacist in fact, complete with Swastika tattoos and a new manifesto. Be careful if you Google this and don’t like spending time on neo-Nazi websites.

Kathy walked away from Twitter at the weekend.

She published this blog post (which may be deleted soon). In typical fashion, she exposed the true horror of what trolling and intolerance can lead to for a woman in technology in a way that I don’t think anyone has quite written about it so powerfully. She gives specific examples of people continuing to circulate false information about her that the harasser had planned on websites, mailing lists and in the dark crevices of the Internet.  She exposed the true horror of what trolling and intolerance that can lead to for a woman in technology away from the industry because it’s just too much for anyone, man or woman.

Our community

Let’s not kid ourselves that none of this is happening in the tech community or that none of this is happening in ‘our’ BoS community. It is. I wish that this wasn’t the case.

Still don’t think think it is a problem? Here’s a comment we had from an attendee who raved about the conference, the talks, the people they met and when asked what speakers they would like to see next year, named Kathy Sierra, (@Seriouspony) as their number one choice. In the anything else you want to tell us section, they wrote:

“I had originally planned to skip Brianna Weis talk, since it seemed like the most irrelevant of the day’s talk. In what could only be described as an act of self-torture, I decided instead to attend and listen to the ceaseless stream of shaming, contradictions, and utter misinformation. In other words, typical feminist propaganda. It felt like a totally inappropriate venue for such politics, and I was shocked that I paid money to listen to it.”

At least they went in with an open mind! I am very sorry they paid money to listen to it too. If they had not left the comment anonymously, I would have refunded their money on the spot. If whoever wrote this will write a blog post for me explaining their view publicly, I would still like to refund their money.

I can’t help thinking there’s a connection between this sort of attitude and the news that Kathy Sierra, the person that you would most like to come back and talk with us, has chosen to walk away from the internet.

What we can do: Code of Conduct

We hate to have to do this but we will be implementing a Code of Conduct in future. We have resisted this in the past, preferring to believe in the goodness of people. There is an interesting open source one that a lot of conferences have adopted – here. I’m not convinced that it will change some people’s attitudes – the TL;DR reads, “Be excellent to each other”. It seems somewhat self congratulatory to me to be honest and a number of people who have been harassed at other events have remarked that it is being used to cover the organisers and make the people who act like civilised humans feel better about themselves while it is ignored by others.

We do not want to sit there hiding behind words. Actions, attitudes and open minds are needed more than pieces of paper. We are open to your thoughts.

What you can do

When you come to BoS, we will expect you to be, like the vast majority of the people that do, open-minded. Take the time to listen to others. Be nice to the people you don’t think can help you. You will be constantly surprised at what happens. Above all, we want to help our community be more tolerant and welcoming to others. We want people to be able to have fierce debates about important things and walk away as friends. It is filled with wonderful, great, inspiring, giving people and we want it to continue that way.

I implore everyone to be mindful of how your own behaviour and how it might affect others. As importantly, if you think others are out of line, talk to them about it. Yes, it’s awkward, but there is no better way than face to face discussion to understand perspectives and establish shared values.

Discussion is a great thing but it can be dangerous online or anonymously. It’s hard to make nuanced arguments on Twitter. Behind every face, there is a human being. Take a moment to try to understand their perspective and how you can improve their day. The little things really do matter.


“We judge a society by how it treats it’s weakest members” Gandhi

Women in Tech, LGBT in Tech, Hispanics in Tech, there is an almost endless list of groups that are underrepresented in technology and simply do not have the voices that they deserve. This makes them by definition, the weakest members of society, not in terms of ability, but in having their opinions, views and beliefs respected or even considered by the majority. But even White Men In Tech are Humans in Tech.

We are all  humans, with brains, emotions, thoughts, perspectives, points of view. Sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we are right. No one has a monopoly on human kindness. We have a duty to each other to discuss things civilly.

We have to address, not only women, but other historically underrepresented groups in technology.  Often their voices are not as loud as ours (me being the CIS White male with a loud voice) and we need to help amplify theirs.  I’m learning being an ally is not about speaking on behalf of people you support.  The goal should be to lift them up with our privilege.

I judge people by how I perceive they treat the people that can do nothing for them, or they see as less important.

  • Ever been taken to lunch by someone that wants something from you, really badly, and they spend a lot of time flattering, charming and ‘engaging’ with you? Then they treat the waiter like shit?
  • When we visit hotels to recce conference venues, we get treated well. Very well. We will be picked up by a limo, doors opened, shiny suited sales people meet us in the lobby and shower us with gifts and flattery. This is the time when I am most likely to be looking around the lobby looking bored. Not just because I hate people doing the suck up routine, but because I am far more interested in what happens to the random people who walk in off the street. Were the doors opened for them? Are people smiling and being nice to the people that aren’t potentially going to bring $1 million of business to your hotel?

Please remember to treat other human beings like other human beings.

Smiles are free, highly scaleable but priceless.

Thank you for reading this. Go and carry on doing your great work but why not smile at the next person you see and say, “Hello”. It might make their day better and it will almost certainly improve yours. Selfishly, it will improve mine.

[Note, I want to thank a number of people who have helped contribute their comments and thoughts on this, helped clarify facts, offer opinions on style and substance. I won’t name anyone as, honestly, I forgot to ask their permission to do so and, while I want to say a huge thank you to those who did, this is, and remains, my personal opinion].

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