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May 17, 2013

When Geeks Attack

What happens when you tick off a computer programmer? Alissa Quart reports on the tech industry's outrageous, shameless, and totally out-of-control bad-boy "brogrammers."


Photo Credit: Nicolas Silberfaden

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In November 2010, Noirin Shirley, 28, a technical writer for Google, was sexually assaulted at ApacheCon, a software conference held in Atlanta. Though she managed to break away, she later chronicled the event on her blog in a post titled "A Hell of a Time." "I tried to push him off and told him I wasn't interested … He responded by jamming his hand into my underwear and fumbling," she wrote. It was the third time that year that she'd been assaulted at a tech conference, according to her friend Valerie Aurora, a 35-year-old Bay Area computer programmer turned activist who has worked for several big-name tech companies, including Sun Microsystems and Red Hat. It wasn't even the worst indignity Shirley would suffer. "After she named the man on her blog," Aurora says, "thousands of people attacked her for 'naming and shaming.' They wrote she was fat and ugly and deserved to be raped."

Those events inspired Aurora to help launch The Ada Initiative—named after Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician widely recognized as the first computer programmer—a nonprofit devoted to promoting women in tech and rooting out sexism in the developer and hacker communities. Among the initiative's biggest victories has been persuading more than 100 industry conferences around the world—where instances of sexual harassment and assault against women are so rampant there are even websites devoted to cataloging them (Programmers Being Dicks, Geek Feminism Wiki)—to adopt formal sexual harassment policies.

But for her efforts, Aurora, like her friend, has been besieged by hackers and trolls. Earlier this year, she coaxed BSides, a cybersecurity conference in San Francisco, to drop from its lineup a provocative sex-ed lecture titled "Sex Drugs: Known Vulns and Exploits" (hackerspeak for sussing out a system's weaknesses and exploiting them), which included a discussion of date rape drugs. When word of the cancellation broke, Aurora's inbox and Twitter feed were flooded with death threats. "Any woman who sticks her hand up or is in the wrong place at the wrong time can get it," says Aurora. "And you can't tell a woman to just be strong when 10,000 people on Twitter are attacking her."

IT'S NO SECRET that Silicon Valley has a woman problem, but until now that conversation has largely referred to the marked shortage of female chief executives, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and programmers. What's typically missing from the debate are the mounting reports of open sexism in the industry—and against female programmers in particular—which often rears its head at developer conferences. Think Tailhook for techies. The past year alone has been rife with egregious examples: At a Dell conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, a speaker referred to women as "bitches" and asked the paltry few in the room, "What are you actually doing here?" (Dell later issued a formal apology for those remarks.) To promote a hackathon in Boston, organizers promised "friendly (female) event staff" to fetch the beer. Scantily clad go-go dancers at the International Game Developers Association's annual gathering prompted Brenda Romero, a prominent video game designer, to resign her post as cochair of the IGDA's Women in Games committee. Last year, things got so bad at Def Con, the legendary hacker gathering, that some women started handing out "Creeper Move" cards (inspired by rugby's red penalty cards) to guys who behaved inappropriately.

"We are hearing this type of stuff over and over at various professional gatherings and conferences," explains Alicia Gibb, president of the Open Source Hardware Association. "For females working in a mostly male environment, it's an often occurrence, not occasional."

Though the industry enjoys a reputation as a beacon for visionaries and powerful female titans like Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, the status of tech's rank-and-file female engineers is hardly inspiring. In 1985, women received 37 percent of the computer science degrees conferred in this country; 42 percent of the nation's software developers were women during roughly the same period. Today, women earn just 18 percent of computer science degrees and account for only 19 percent of the country's developers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Come payday, the picture is especially troubling: A recent study by the nonprofit Social Science Research Council found that the Valley's female workers earn only 49 cents to every man's dollar—much worse than the national average of 77 cents to the dollar, but also less than the roughly 60 cents to the dollar women earned in Silicon Valley back in the 1950s. "It's this idea, 'If women were smarter, they'd be writing better code,'" says Valerie Bubb Fenwick, a Bay Area–based software development manager for Oracle. "Women get levels of criticism men just don't."

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