From Sexism to Ageism: Discrimination in the Digital World

Apr 04, 2013

I have to warn you that I was really hesitant to write this column. I even waited until the last possible moment to open my laptop and start typing. Given what I've been reading in the news lately, I knew it was something I needed to write about.

The idea for this column started a few weeks ago when I read an article about self-described "tech evangelist," Adria Richards. Richards had been on the road for a few weeks, checking out tech conferences all over the country. At PyCon, a developer's conference in California, Richards heard the two men using sexually suggestive language such as "dongles" and "forking" in relation to some of the topics being discussed. From what I've read, it didn't seem like these men were making these comments in reference to Richards, but in the long run, that's neither here nor there. In a professional setting, their words were inappropriate, period. To make a long story even longer, Richards took a picture of the men, tweeted her frustrations, and watched as the two were removed from the room by PyCon staffers.

Story over, right? Wrong.

The aftermath of her tweet and subsequent blog post had some significant consequences. First, one of the men who was removed from PyCon because of his behavior was fired from his company. Next, Richards started receiving death threats and her personal information was leaked on the web. To top it all off, not long after, Richards was fired by SendGrid Inc. because they felt the way in which she chose to report the incident was inappropriate. All from one little tweet!

Before I continue, let me stop here and issue a warning: I do not work in the tech world-not even close. I write about it and spend time thinking about it, but even then, most of my energy is focused on digital media and content, not the hardcore technical issues many conferences like PyCon address. I only tell you this because I found that my opinion on what happened to Richards lacks the proper context. Since I don't exist in the tech world, I don't know if sexist behavior is typical. Furthermore, while I want to believe all the media coverage of what happened is true, I know it isn't. Hence my hesitation to write this column.

Given many of the reactions I've read about this incident, I couldn't help but think of the tech world (and the digital media world as well) as kind of a "boys club." There are many professions that are dominated by one gender more than the other. From what I can gather, the problem isn't that there are more men in tech (or any profession) than women, it's that some men in tech (according to sources) do things like giggle and say "dongles" in the presence of their female counterparts, and that translates into women feeling (perhaps justifiably) disrespected. More so, many are claiming that when something of this nature occurs, some women don't feel comfortable reporting it because their profession is male-dominated.

As Laurie Seggall asked in her CNN Money article, "is the tech world, a sector largely dominated by men, a safe place for women to work and voice their concerns?" Judging by what happened to Richards, it sure seems like it isn't.

The fallout from Richards' situation ticked me off, as sexism of any sort often does, but what bothered me even more is that sexism is just one concern in the tech and digital content arena today. There are many other issues that are equally as problematic but sometimes more readily ignored. For example: Ageism. If there is one "-ism" that seems to be most damaging to the digital world right now, in my opinion, it is ageism.

When I started my career, I found I had to deal with discrimination because I was young, and inexperienced. I had to earn my keep. That was completely normal. Now though, it seems the tables have turned. I'm not sure how it happened, but many tech and digital media companies seem to value youth over experience these days. Just look at Nick D'Aloisio, the 17-year-old who just banked a few million dollars from selling his app, Summly, to Yahoo! He can't even legally buy a lottery ticket and he's a millionaire! Let's not forget that the biggest names in social media these days -- Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, David Karp of Tumblr, and Jack Dorsey of Twitter -- clock in at 28-, 26-, and 36-years-old, respectively. Do companies believe that in order to hit it big, they should ignore industry veterans and hire young kids?

It certainly seems like it.

Many workers who have been in the digital content and tech world for decades are incredible assets to companies. These men and women are experts. They know their audience and they know their products. Just because they didn't grow up Facebooking their friends and tweeting about anything and everything doesn't mean they aren't great additions to the workforce.

It bums me out that the topics of sexism and ageism are even on the table anymore. This is an industry all about innovation and creativity, not disrespect and stereotypes. After all, a great idea is a great idea, no matter who it comes from, right?