This week, a start-up called Sqoot got their brush with “fame” when they offered women as a perk for hackathon attendees. No, really, that’s actually exactly what they did. Under “Great Perks“, they listed this gem: Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.

It’s almost sort of impressive what they’ve done here. They’ve managed to be offensive on four levels simultaneously.

  1. They’ve implied that all coders are male.
  2. They’ve implied that all male coders are straight.
  3. They’ve sexualized women. (Possibly fine when you’re out drinking with your buddies; totally inappropriate when you’re at work.)
  4. They’ve treated women (and their female staff, no less) as objects offered as a perk. [define:objectify]

Congratulations, boys.

What’s really remarkable here is that many people are still saying that it’s “just a joke” and we just need to lighten up.

I get the impression, from Sqoot’s terrible apologies, that they think much the same thing.

Apology #1 [snipped - read the full thing]

While we thought this was a fun, harmless comment poking fun at the fact that hack-a-thons are typically male-dominated, others were offended. That was not our intention and thus we changed it.

We’re really sorry.

Apology #2 [snipped - read the full thing]

When we put together the original event page, we used language that we now realize was reckless and hurt efforts to diversify gender in tech. We immediately and deservedly received an enormous backlash. While we aimed to call attention to the male-dominated tech world through humor and intended to be inclusive, the gravity of our wording was just the opposite. Our words completely undermined our intentions and went further to harm the world we’re trying to have a positive impact on.

Their first apology failed to actually recognize what they’d done wrong; in fact, it blamed those who were offended.

Their second apology was much better. They recognized the harm and admitted that people had a right to be offended. But… then there’s that little part where they claim that they “aimed to call attention to the male-dominated tech world through humor” and “intended to be inclusive.” How on earth would explicitly offering women as a perk to bring the men beer be “inclusive”?

So their second apology is insufficient because, well, it’s a lie. They were most certainly not trying to be inclusive. They probably didn’t have malicious intent, but they obviously didn’t care too much that they were making sexist comments. Probably because they thought, “Who cares?!? It’s just a joke!”

Why This is a Big Deal

Here’s what Sqoot, and everyone saying we’re just being “too sensitive,” need to realize: context matters. When I read Sqoot’s hackathon ad, I’m coming at it from this context:

  • I hear language everyday that just “forgets” that female coders / execs exist. Language like “we needed to have a business guy as CEO” is not okay (Paul Graham, I’m looking at you…).
  • I frequently get emails directed to “Mr. Gayle” or “Mr. McDowell.”
  • 70% of the comments on my Cracking the Coding Interview YouTube video are sexual or sexist. Things like this charming comment: “wow shes hot. she should be a in strip club.”
  • People at networking events ask which company I’m recruiting from. Or just ask me out.
  • Articles state that I was a recruiter, despite my very clearly telling the reporters that I was a software engineer.
  • I’m always “the girl.” I can never blend in. I will always be different. (Different is great! But I’d prefer to be different because of what I’ve done, not how the genetic lottery played out.)
  • People assume I’m a PM or a tester (or marketing / recruiting). Anything but a programmer.
  • If my husband and I ever go to a tech event together, I’m assumed to be just “tagging along.”

And this is just the stuff that I see, regularly. There’s a lot more happening in people’s minds that isn’t vocalized.

So Sqoot and others may say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a little joke!” But I, and many other women, see it as one of the many, many instances of sexism that we see on a daily basis. You try being harassed about something regularly and see if you think the “joke” is funny.

Speaking personally, it’s the little stuff that’s the hardest. Because I see it everyday. Because it adds up. Because if I say something, I’m hypersensitive and I will certainly get no support. Because it’s a lot harder to brush it off as “well, that person is just a jerk” when it happens all the time. If that person’s a jerk, then I’m surrounded by jerks and by people who will only see me as technical / smart / whatever when I fight a little harder. And, frankly, it’s exhausting.

So this is the context that I, and many women, are coming from. This is why we’re so offended by it. It’s not just a little joke. It’s one more example of the crap we deal with everyday.

What Sqoot Needs to Do

#1. Understand what you’ve done. This was not just “one mistake.” This is the third time that Sqoot has unnecessarily used sexual imagery / remarks [see one | two]. You’re a daily deal company. These images have no place on your company blog:

I get that you’re trying to make a cute little pun. But eww. And why? You’re not Pepsi. You don’t need to use sex to sell. This isn’t even good marketing for you!

So you need to start talking with people to understand – really understand – why they’re offended. Because I don’t think this was a one-time mistake, and I don’t think you get it. Yet.

#2. Issue another apology. Yes, I know that you apologized twice already. But those weren’t good enough. Sorry. Try again.

Your apology needs to

  1. Take full responsibility. Do not blame those who were offended.
  2. Explain, in your own words, why what you did was bad. This shows people that you understand.
  3. Explain yourself — but not make excuses. Your explanation can be “we were stupid and immature;” it shouldn’t be “we were trying to be inclusive.” Because you weren’t.
  4. Explain why a commitment to non-sexist and other (*ist) language is so important. This will help show people that you believe in diversity and also hopefully educate those who maybe don’t, yet, “get it.”

#3. Demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. When the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer Science club proposed making “brogrammer” shirts, many people were offended (and many were not). The idea was eventually rejected. But afterwards, they held a forum to discuss sexism in Computer Science. That shows that they care, and that matters.

You need to do your own thing, but you need to do something. Maybe it’s a hosting a forum to discuss sexism. Maybe it’s a new hackathon sponsored with some women’s groups. Maybe it’s just finding ways of recognizing more women in Computer Science. I don’t know. But you need to do something.

Show us that you care.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the founder / CEO of CareerCup, and the author of Cracking the Coding Interview, Cracking the PM Interview, and The Google Resume. Gayle has worked as a software engineer for Microsoft, Apple and Google. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Wharton School. She currently resides in Palo Alto, CA.

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