It’s no secret that the tech industry, for whatever reason, isn’t particularly hospitable towards women or racial minorities. Some say it’s because young girls are told that math and science are for boys, or that not enough women are encouraged to study computer science in college. Some people cite the ‘brogammer’ culture of some startups, or discrimination and harassment in the workplace or in the software development communities online. Whatever the underlying reason, people in the industry are trying to fix it.
Last weekend I attended Startup Weekend Nebraska in Omaha, a weekend-long event for designers, developers, and entrepreneurial-minded folks. The organizers made it clear from the get-go that they were committed to making the event diverse and inclusive. There were free tickets available for individuals who are under-represented in tech due to their gender, race, age, or financial ability. The 100+ people at the event ended up a nearly even mix of genders, ranging in age from college students to retirees. The women present weren’t just non-tech participants - a lot of female developers made it to the event. The weekend was certainly more inclusive race-wise than pretty much any tech event I’ve been to in the past. The other developer on my team was a woman, which was unexpected and awesome.
I’m still reeling from the thing I (retroactively) loved most about Startup Weekend. Last night on the Startup Nebraska Facebook group, organizer Shane Reiser posted that there were a few incidents of sexist or racist behavior during the event. I was a little thrown off- I hadn’t noticed anything. Shane wrote some suggestions on dealing with code of conduct violations, and linked to a post written by Sumeet Jain, a fellow organizer and co-founder of Omaha Code School (where the event was held). Go read Sumeet's post - the tone and content of his description of what that happened and how the incidents were handled is why I’m writing this.
One of the three main issues was an objectifying image of a woman during one group’s final pitch. When I read that, I immediately remembered the image in question. It was a distasteful and graphic, and contributed nothing of value to the presentation. I remember being momentarily disgusted at the choice of image, but then thought nothing of it. That’s just one of those things that happen in a male-dominated world, right? I would never think to report that to someone in power, because they’d probably just laugh at me and tell me to ‘lighten up.’
The organizers took it seriously, though. Not only did they address the issue with the presenter in question, they took personal responsibility for it happening and publicly apologized. Wow. Honestly, I got emotional about it. Casual sexism (or racism, as in another of the incidents mentioned) is something we take for granted because ‘boys will be boys,’ but Startup Weekend Nebraska’s organizers, in particular Shane Reiser and Sumeet Jain, publicly declared that it was not ok, and publicly committed to making sure it won’t happen again at events they’re responsible for.
I’ve been thinking the past few months about how inhospitable the tech industry can be, from harassment to outright threats towards women who dare to write about the issues they face in the industry. Will I, like increasing numbers of women today, end up abandoning my passion? My experience with Startup Weekend Nebraska gives me hope that I won’t have to.