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Just Because It’s Women’s History Month Doesn’t Mean It’s a Good Month for Women

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March is the month we celebrate the enormous contributions of women throughout history, but this year it was also a month with more than its fair share of sexism in the news.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Women’s History Month commemorating our impressive contributions to history is winding to a close. Too bad the celebrations this March were marred by so much sexism – particularly in the world of tech.

This month saw awesome celebrations around the world for International Women’s Day and special events to mark the 100th anniversary of suffragists’ march on Washington, all of which underlines how much has changed for the better. But sadly, here in the present, March has also given us plenty of reasons to remember that there’s still a lot of work left to get to full equality.

The most horrific news came out of India, where women are facing the threat of horrific sexual violence, a fact highlighted by several recent high-profile gang rape cases. (In the face of this sort of terror, the fact that a new study found female professionals in India are managing to juggle work and family surprisingly well is pretty cold comfort.)

The troubles of women in tech may pale in comparison to the threats faced by women in other parts of the world, but this month has shown they’re nonetheless very real and very nasty. Most notably, there was the tempest surrounding Adria Richards’ public shaming of a pair of guys making sophomoric ‘big dongle’ jokes at a tech conference, including a reprehensible sexist backlash online.

But that’s just one example (yup, sadly, such idiocy isn’t an isolated incident – prepare for rage). A Kickstarter campaign to send a nine-year-old girl geek to an RPG camp brought out the trolls who went so far as death and rape threats (over a nine-year-old? Seriously?). Marissa Mayer ended telecommuting at Yahoo! and faced a storm of criticism that continuously cited not the business merits of the decision, which you may or may not agree with, but her gender and personal choices. Would the reaction have been even remotely similar for a male CEO?

Meanwhile a female engineer currently employed at Google explained in a blog post that her time at previous employers felt like death by a thousand (sexist) paper cuts. Some examples:

At an old job, someone in authority pats me on the head to dismiss an argument I’m making about something at work. As though I was a child – a thing he’d be unlikely to do with a male coworker. Same person makes comments when I wear makeup to work – I feel uncomfortable doing so again. I’m asked to take notes in meetings where I am a technical lead and should be actively participating. Male coworkers make comments about stalking women on facebook and looking at images of booth babes in work meetings (some later apologize). Others say that front-end development isn’t real software engineering. I suspect I’m paid less than male colleagues.

If we haven’t depressed you to the point that you gave up reading long ago, at least know there is some upside to this litany of ugh. Faced with such blatant sexism, several prominent male members of the tech community have spoken out, taking to task the industry’s complacency about its woman-hostile culture. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian called out fellow geeks for subjecting women to the same sort of bullying many of them experienced back in the day:

Many of us were bullied. But what did we learn from it — empathy or hate?

We need to know the answer, because suddenly we are the cool kids. They’re making movies about us. We’re “rock stars.” Holy shit, the rest of the world is finally realizing how awesome we are. The geek has inherited the earth. And now that we’re the powerful ones, we need to remember: with great power comes great responsibility. It’s irresponsible to continue to act as though we are victims.

VC Chris Yeh also voiced his concerns about sexism in tech, publically chiding the community to face up to  “the endemic sexism and immaturity of the high tech/startup community” and realize that “allowing casual sexism is no different than allowing casual racism or religious discrimination. The same folks who complain bitterly about people like me needing to ‘lighten up’ would never accept usage of the ‘n word.’”

So that’s something. Women in tech need mentors and allies to validate their concerns and back them up in changing the culture. Etsy’s impressive progress in hiring more female engineers when the company made a real commitment to changing the ratio proves that with enough will, things can change. Some allies are stepping forward. Let’s hope more join the cause so in the future we can enjoy Women’s History Month without being bombarded with repeated, groan-inducing reports of sexist slights big and small.

What can be done to enlist more allies to the cause of combating sexism in tech?

jstillman Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter @entrylevelrebel.

Photo credit: Hesse1309