by M Ursula Herrmann
Professional sexism? Not again…
On April 17, Christiane Vejlø attended a Dell partner summit at the Tivoli Conference Center in Copenhagen. Dressed in a red suit, Vejlø felt a little out of place among all the blue ties (scarves for women), but it wasn’t the only reason she felt out of place. In the crowd of 800, only 5% were women. And she herself was the only journalist.
Vejlø wasn’t the only one who noticed the paucity of women at the summit. The moderator whom Dell had hired for the event was Mads Christensen, a well known and controversial lecturer on the subject of the interactions between men and women. Vejlø was live-tweeting the event; when Christensen took the stage, she tweeted the following (translated from Danish): Then Mads Christensen put his agenda. “There are almost no women in this room and I am happy. Why are you here at all?”
The rest of what Christensen had to say was in much the same vein, and Vejlø says that she turned pale when she thought about the fact that a company like Dell made the decision to hire a man like Christensen as a moderator for a partner summit. This wasn’t a company sales meeting. This wasn’t a bachelor party. Christensen, while probably considered funny by some people, is not a professional comedian or entertainer. This was supposed to be a serious event. Christensen was hired to keep the energy going, but commenting on how wonderful it is that the IT industry continues to employ relatively few women was not an appropriate way to do so.
The talk by Christensen is just one of many such situations that a woman in IT faces. Not all that long ago, while doing consulting for a US Government agency, I was subjected to listening over and over to a woman’s work being referred to as “The Smoking C**t” (parodying The Smoking Gun), among other hateful comments. When I objected, I was told that I needed a sense of humor. At another position, on my first day, a “brogrammer” asked my supervisor why he’d hired a woman (I was the new tech lead). I’ve constantly had to deal with being taken less seriously simply because of my gender, never mind getting paid less for doing a higher level job in many cases. After a while, it’s true…I and many other women just don’t have a sense of humor about it. We’re too busy just trying to manage our careers – the careers that people like Mads Christensen don’t want us to have – to laugh.
Christensen, by the way, denies that his remarks were anti-female. He says that there is a lot of context that’s being missed by someone who doesn’t know about the way that women and men in Denmark relate. He says (I am paraphrasing) that men feel “dragged down” by the fact that women are seen as so strong in business and that he is making jokes about this situation, saying that men, too, need to address it with humor and not be so upset. Even though I am not Danish, and so don’t have the cultural context Christensen says I should have to understand his remarks, I can sort of see what he’s trying to put across here. But even if I’m willing to grant him that, it doesn’t follow that everyone there would have or should have had this context, which was what Vejlø was trying to say when she pointed out that she, herself, was not personally offended by Christensen’s words. It’s not that what Christensen said was necessarily so unacceptable on its own. It’s that he said it in an entirely inappropriate setting.
Some days, as a woman in IT, I feel pretty hopeless. But then I remember how Nicholas Kristof has written about how women are the key to ending world poverty. I remember that there are many examples of strong women in the IT industry who will not stand for a sexist, unprofessional attitude. And I remember that Dell did, in the end, apologize very sincerely for Christensen’s remarks and promised to be more careful in selecting speakers in the future.
It’s not all bad, and I continue to have hope that for women in IT, it will get better.