Women in Tech: The Case of Adria Richards

March 22, 2013 – For those who are unfamiliar with the storm that has hit social media and the blogosphere earlier this week and is now quickly gaining traction in mainstream media as well, here’s a quick summary: Adria Richards, a software developer at SendGrid, was attending a convention for the programming language Python last weekend when she overheard sexist comments made by male developers sitting behind her. Annoyed and offended, she snapped a photo of them and shared it on Twitter, accompanied by a complaint about their behavior. The conference organizers took notice and addressed the issue with Richards as well as the men who had made the comments. When news broke that one of the men had been fired from his job at PlayHaven as a consequence, hell broke loose on the web. One thing led to another and at the end of it all, Richards found herself fired from her job as well.

As this case is being wildly discussed up and down the internet, it highlights yet another facet of the struggle women face when pioneering into male territory: How to deal with a male majority that has yet to adjust to sharing their space with female peers.

There is no question that the technology industry is the most fertile ground for entrepreneurial ventures today. Since women made up 31% of business school students in 2012 and earned 18% of all computer and information sciences degrees in 2008 (The Diana Project), one might logically conclude that women are a vital part of this growing sector. However, what should be good news for women entrepreneurs in the technology sector is not: in 2010 venture capital went to just 6% of start-ups with a female CEO, 7% to those with a female founder (Dow Jones Venture Source). Training on entrepreneurship is also out of reach for most women overall, with just 25% accessible to women.

What is the disconnect between common sense and reality? As a nation we talk a good game about equity and how much we value creative entrepreneurship, but the playing field is clearly not yet level for women. We don’t talk as much these days about the good-old-boy network and the barriers it presents to women in our economy, but perhaps it is time to revisit that conversation. To suggest that there is no correlation between the overwhelmingly male constituencies of both the venture capital and tech industries and the difficulties women encounter when they attempt a tech start-up seems disingenuous at best.

In fact, things are trending in the wrong direction. In May of 2012, Forbes reported that: “According to a new survey the number of women in senior technology positions at U.S. companies is down for the second year in a row.”

And even more telling than the decline of women in tech leadership is that it seems to go unnoticed by the male management. The same Forbes article goes on to report that: “30% of the 450 American tech executives polled said their IT groups have no women at all in management positions. What’s more, when the same group of executives was asked whether women were underrepresented, roughly one half said no.”

While there are a variety of reasons for this reality, it is highly likely that the Adria Richards controversy will have a negative effect on women’s aspirations to enter traditional male domains or to speak up against offensive comments made in their presence.

Rachel Sklar, a media entrepreneur and co-founder of Change The Ratio, which strives to increase visibility and opportunity for women in tech and new media, wrote on the website of Business Insider: “Adria doesn’t represent all women in tech – that is a huge, sprawling, diverse range of people across what is now a massive and diffuse industry. But the hateful reaction to her has been breathtaking, and frightening, and unequivocally gendered. You cannot brush off repeated threats of rape. […] It’s when things blow up that it becomes impossible not to notice that women get treated scarily, threateningly and very specifically worse.”

There may not be a lesson to be learned from this week’s events – but there definitely is a reality to be understood.

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