Why Microsoft should end Techweek sponsorship

by Katie Lettie
June 6, 2014

Two days ago Crain’s pulled their sponsorship for Chicago’s Techweek in light of a “Black Tie Rave” party invitation depicting scantily clad women.


Techweek has apologized, but the damage is in large part done. High profile figures listed in Techweek’s Tech 100 have been withdrawing their association and involvement with the conference. Microsoft, whose name is associated with the demeaning ad, has chosen not to revoke sponsorship, citing Techweek’s resolution as sufficient.


Lately there hasn’t been a pause in the discussion of women -- Elliot Rodgers’s ego-driven misogyny, #yesallwomen (#notallmen), and now Techweek’s Black Tie Rave invite lighting up the Chicago tech scene. But why are people reacting so strongly and so quickly to this particular Techweek incident?


In a fashion or teen magazine, these images would have had an utterly different response -- perhaps related to body image, or youth. But in the context of Techweek, a male-dominated conference devoted to a male-dominated industry, this invitation and these women are cast not as peers or even people but as objects, as a marketing ploy targeted for the predominantly male demographic invited to this Black Tie Rave. It’s all about audience.


The tech industry has a singularly troubled relationship with women. Google recently for the first time publicly unveiled their demographic report; unsurprisingly 70% of all employees are men, and in tech that figure reaches 83%. At other companies, the ratios look even worse.


Perhaps a little bit of context is necessary. According to the Census Bureau, a woman on average earns 77 cents to a man’s dollar. Much of this discrepancy, however, does not take the form of gender discrimination -- instead, women are simply underrepresented in the highest paying jobs, like those in technology. According to a report by the National Science Foundation, women account for only around 18% of all computer science degrees awarded -- a number that has decreased significantly in the past decades. It is no shock then that women are vastly underrepresented at tech companies. While Google’s diversity numbers sound shameful, they merely reflect (quite well) the impoverished reality of the diversity of tech talent.


The task of increasing the number of women in technology is not easy, and will require a joint effort with tech companies, educational institutions, and other organizations. Right now, however, the tech industry’s vast room for improvement in recruiting, hiring, and promoting women is a special opportunity. By making the culture of the technology industry welcoming and accessible to women, companies can simultaneously do good and reap financial benefits.


Microsoft is wrong to continue sponsorship of Techweek, and here is why.


It is tempting to say that this invite was outside Techweek’s agency -- that the ad was just an unwitting product of a bigger systemic problem: the “brogrammer” culture that has pervaded Silicon Valley, and which has apparently arrived in the Midwest. But if this kind of subtle, insidious sexism is to be challenged and eradicated, it must have real, measurable effects on business.


Ultimately, Techweek’s response is not enough. Techweek has been scrutinized before -- as recently as last fall -- for demeaning women, and conversations like the round table they propose have rarely resulted in systemic social and cultural change.


Talk is important. But it’s just a first step. If Moshe Tamssot, Paul Lee, Harper Reed, and Brian Fitzpatrick and others who followed have all disassociated themselves with the Tech 100, if Crain’s has ended its sponsorship, and if these conversations are so common and so sadly repetitive, then perhaps it is time for action.


*Edit: I want to be clear that I support the idea of Techweek, as a "professional and fun" space (thanks for those words, Mr. Cornelson). Conferences and places to share ideas are important -- but they also have an important responsibility in shaping industry culture. If Techweek can't get its act together, then some other forum for tech in Chicago should rise to take its place, preferably one that can take its responsibility to the community more seriously. I see sponsorship as a way for the community to guide what it sees as important in these professional and collaborative spaces.

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