Concentrate engineers and tech executives in one conference hall, and the ensuing sausagefest is bound to produce some moments truly offensive to women and foreigners. Just ask the organizers of TechCrunch 50 and Demo about their recent low points.
Reveling in over-concentration of males in Silicon Valley tech companies, TechCrunch's startup conference kicked off earlier this month with talk about strippers. Penn Jilette regaled the crowd with the story about how one made a ton of money off his magic app, and is set to publish a "Stripper's Guide" to the software, which helped her increase her tips. Twitter groaned. Then came the booth babes, despite organizers' advice against using the scantily-clad female models as a promotional gimmick.
Conference co-host Jason Calacanis also has to admonish attendees not to mock the accents of some presenters, whom he makes a point of culling from around the world. In response to our email, he wrote,
I've asked folks to be tolerant about language issues for three years because 15-year olds in chat rooms can say so horrible things about folks outside of our country. It's frankly embarrassing that I have to do that. When I speak in China, France or Japan they don't give me a hard time and I'm not even attempting to speak their language.
Over at VentureBeat's Demo conference, which ran the week following TechCrunch 50, some male participants freaked out about a presentation from a female fitness entrepreneur with well-toned arms and visible muscles (pictured left, via VentureBeat). "Whoa, presenter on stage has bigger deltoids and biceps than me, and she's wearing a red dress," wrote one participant. "The TotalTrainer presenters scare me," tweeted another. "Those muscles don't belng at Demo." VentureBeat's Kim-Mai Cutler blasted back in a post entitled, Internet spreads sexist tweets faster than ever: "You guys need to shut up."
Demo also featured complains about foreign accents; one columnist, CNET's Rafe Needleman, went so far as to suggest people with "a noticeably weak command of English shouldn't be allowed on stage," a native-language requirement that would see American entrepreneurs like Calacanis, along with their translators, banned from many global stages.
Calacanis said there's only so much an organizer can do about any of these issues:
I love these idiots who blame conference producers for social issues. In related news, terrorism is driven by action films! ...Sexism exists, sure, but a conference producer can't change the statistical conundrum that most of the CEOs in our industry are male (like 90%+ I would guess).
Of course, an organizer can at least set the tone, for example by imploring tolerance of accents, as Calacanis has done, or by avoiding inviting women reporters to serve as "cocktail waitress"es at their poker games, as Calacanis has apparently not done (he insists men get the same treatment and often have to serve drinks to join his games). And Valley geeks can use the tools they've invented, like Twitter, to shame the worst offenders. It would appear that process is, if not in full gear, at least underway.