Women In Technology: Dell’s Gaffe And The Geek Girl Struggle

What if you went to a corporate event and the emcee said the following?

“[Your industry] is one of the last frontiers that manages to keep women out… There are hardly any girls here today, and I’m happy to see that – why are any of you here in the first place?”

This is an actual quote from the ravings of Danish commentator Mads Christensen, who was hired by Dell as moderator and MC for an international conference in Copenhagen. Read this first-hand report from a woman in the audience and feel your blood pressure rise.

This isn’t the first time Dell has fallen afoul of females. Several years ago I blogged about their atrocious and short-lived Della ad campaign:

 ”“Della,” as it’s called, shows us ladies how we can use color-coordinated computers to check the weather, generate our grocery lists, and stay up on the latest fashion news. This advertising is more 1950s than 21st century.”

Dell has apologized for this most recent incident, just as it apologized for Della. It’s hard to believe we’re still being subjected to this, but as a women who has been in technology for over 20 years, I can offer my real-world experiences.

Imagine going to a computer store to pick up equipment for a customer. A sales droid with a tenth of your experience tries to talk you into hardware that won’t do what you need. You call tech support about an Internet problem and have to shout your way through four people to find someone with a clue. That person treats you like you’re in preschool, because obviously it’s impossible for female vocal chords to utter the phrase “configure the router in bridged mode” or we’ll turn into quivering wrecks sobbing for a man to fix it.

I’ll try to remember that, the next time I’m elbow-deep in the guts of a server.

My favorite story goes back to the days when I was a tech support supervisor for Large Organization That Shall Remain Nameless. A gentleman had just been hired for a prominent, if not executive, position. His email wasn’t working. He called the help desk. Since I’m a supervisor who likes working in the trenches, I happened to be the one who went to his office.

His first reaction upon seeing me was, “I want a tech support person.” I told him I was a tech support person. He demanded the help desk supervisor. I told him I was the help desk supervisor. He said he wasn’t letting a woman touch his computer. I told him he was welcome to call the help desk when he was ready to have it fixed, and left him fuming about “girls trying to do a man’s job”.

He lasted about two days before he gave up and called. I returned to his office with a smile plastered on my face and fixed his email. It took a total of five minutes. As I was leaving he muttered, “I could have done it myself.”

Welcome to the world of women in technology.

Look at all the tech ads this past Mother’s Day. For some reason, we rarely market technology to moms outside of Mother’s Day. And when we do, the gadgets are colorful and practical… with half the technical capabilities of the version marketed to men. You know what I want next Mother’s Day? A Gigabit Ethernet switch, just to prove the point.

As this latest insult from Dell hit the news, a new survey shows the number of women in senior tech positions is down for the second year in a row. 30% of the companies surveyed said they have no women in senior tech positions. And let’s talk about the “brogrammer” culture as reported by CNN:

At one of the world’s biggest gatherings of Web culture, a 28-year-old executive talks about landing a tech job by sending a CEO “bikini shots” from a “nudie calendar” he created.

On campus at Stanford University, a hot startup attracts recruits with a poster asking if they want to ‘bro down and crush some code.’”

And the world’s largest Internet registration company entices Web entrepreneurs with a Super Bowl ad in which two female celebrities paint its logo onto the body of an apparently naked model.

In March, daily deals aggregator Squoot advertised a Boston hackathon that promised (along with massages, access to a gym and “kick-ass cupcakes”) this tidbit: “Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.” The site has apologized.

This is why girls don’t want to be geeks. Imagine Career Day in high school. What am I supposed to tell them, that if they actually manage to score an IT job in this economy, their destiny is to suffer obnoxious users, sexist remarks, and a corporate culture that considers them eye candy?

Looking back on my own career, I can say that my decision to become a freelancer was based in part on this. Career IT is a hard road for a woman. Once family matters come up, your choice is Supermom or sidelines. I find that when people are paying for a consultant they tend to be more respectful. Of course, I’ve also lost gigs because I’m female. Some people just can’t wrap their heads around the idea of a woman fixing a computer.

I remember one nice elderly man. He hired me to fix his home computer because the techs from Nationally Well-Known Store screwed it up. I discovered they’d sold him new memory but not seated it properly (how hard is it to push a SIMM into a slot?). They also sold him anti-spyware but didn’t fully disinfect his computer. After an hour he looked at me and said, “You’re a smarter gal than any of the boys who touched this computer.”

A lot of women are, but not all of us will get the chance to prove ourselves. Here’s my message to today’s geek girls: Be yourself, and don’t put up with discrimination. If you have to you can wear this T-shirt from ThinkGeek. Helps to cut down on the smart remarks.

Top Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Comments

  1. This sort of attitude around women and technology is not limited to geekdom. I was tech support for Roadrunner for a while. No big deal, just Level 2 (we were the gatekeepers for the real geeks at Level 3), but anyway. I would get calls from women who couldn’t connect to the Internet and one of the first things we do is reset the modem. It is REALLY EASY. You can either hit the button on the back of the modem, if there is one, or you have them unplug the power for thirty seconds and then plug it back in.

    I lost count of how many women I’d get on the phone who, when we got to that stage of troubleshooting (and it was a very early stage), would hesitate and then say, “I… dunno. I think I better have my husband call you back.”

    I can’t even imagine what the *rest* of their married lives might be like.

  2. I think it’s ingrained by society. If you’re a woman you must be dumb about technology. I used to see it all the time – I did home and small biz tech support for 13 years as a freelancer. Many of my clients were women because they felt more comfortable asking questions of another woman than admitting their tech dumbness to a man. I tried to teach them that they are perfectly capable of using a computer just as well as the boys do. Or better.

  3. Apothion says:

    I think she was implying that it’s easier to “cop-out” and/or they on average just didn’t know (or care).

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