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Tech industry comes under microscope for treatment of women

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From page A6 | October 08, 2013 |

By Nellie Bowles

The women at San Francisco’s recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference for startups had every right to be angry. The “boys will be boys” mantra was regularly invoked as presentations by male counterparts were crude, sexist and offensive.

In Silicon Valley, women earn 49 cents for every $1 a man earns, according to Catherine Bracy, director of international programs at Code for America, who spoke recently at the Personal Democracy Forum tech conference. Nationally, they make 77 cents for every $1.

Women own only 8 percent of venture-backed tech startups, according to Astia, a nonprofit that works with women-led startups; nationally, they own 40 percent of private businesses, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.

The scarcity of women in the industry and at tech conferences can lead to uncomfortable moments — and worse.

“As more females enter into a domain that’s implicitly male, there’s a culture clash,” said TechCrunch co-editor Alexis Tsotsis, 31, who had rushed from home to the hackathon to apologize for the presentations. “Like how people joke around in a locker room, except there are now people in the room who don’t find the jokes so funny. It’s been something I’ve had to deal with on a macro level throughout my career.”

The gender issues at the conference are by no means unique, but they’re symbolic because of Disrupt’s influence — Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Marc Benioff of Salesforce all spoke. General admission was $3,000, and for many of the young entrepreneurs, this was their first real opportunity to get attention for their companies.

But if the tech world needs to revolutionize its treatment of women, there was little call to arms at Disrupt.

“I’ve been in this industry for so long, I don’t even notice anymore,” said Susan Hobbs, the conference program chairwoman at TechCrunch.

Tsotsis and her co-editor, Eric Eldon, who were quick to call the presentations misogynist, will be making changes next year. They’re going to institute a screening process and create a comprehensive anti-harassment policy. Given TechCrunch’s clout, both as a conference organizer and popular blog, it’s likely that smaller organizations will follow.

The ratio of men to women at the after-parties was staggering — a casual estimate was around 20-to-1.

Ngan Pham, a 26-year-old who works for a company called Plinky, found that most of the card swapping at the after-parties happened around her. “It’s a club scene, but they’re all here looking for other guys. The men don’t give us any trouble — they just ignore us.”

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