Sexism in Tech: A Good Apology is Better than No Mistakes

We all make mistakes. How we handle them is what differentiates the good companies from the bad. Some of us learn the hard way, like Geeklist did, when someone pointed out their sexist ad in a public twitter debacle.


This is a story with a lesson: how to respond when your company is accused of sexism.

If you only take one thing from this post, it should be this: when people raise an issue, they want acknowledgment and support.

The story.

It all began with a tweet about HyperMac’s booth at the Consumer Electronics Show. It featured eight professional female spokesmodels and a display of naked, painted women.


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The widely-tweeted image of HyperMac’s body-painting exhibit

 

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HyperMac hired 8 female spokesmodels with “HYPER: GET MORE” tattooed above their left breasts.

HyperMac’s booth was yet another example of how tech companies frequently alienate women, so a bunch of us techies passed it around the twitter-verse, rolling our eyes and having a good laugh.

I also re-tweeted it to a non-profit organization, Miss Representation. They tackle much larger issues in society like the objectification of women and sexual harassment.

Miss Representation responded immediately, launching a #NotBuyingIt campaign against HyperMac. Their message reached tens of thousands of people who are trying to reduce the use of women’s sexuality in marketing.

That campaign resulted in a FLOOD of #NotBuyingIt tweets @HyperMac and hundreds of #NotBuyingIt posts on their facebook page.


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This is the point in the story where HyperMac starts making (bigger) mistakes.

HyperMac very quickly released a defensive and inaccurate blog post describing what happened. It includes this quote, and still stands today:

Daniel Chin, CEO of HyperMac on Miss Representation and #NotBuyingIt:

“I would like to go on record to say that there is no damage to control and we are not apologetic for anything. The overwhelming majority who were at CES and saw our display appreciate and understand what we were trying to do. We will continue to engage the rest who were not present yet were quick to pass harsh judgment based on a single photo taken out of context. HYPER is co-owned by men and women. The hardworking men and women who worked to put together the CES booth were deeply offended by said fraudulent organization that ultimately aims to profiteer by attempting to hurt our company’s image. The impression of an uproar and stirring controversy has given us more publicity than we could’ve imagined.”

In summary, HyperMac:

  • Completely ignored the issue raised about their campaign. Is it sexist or not?
  • Explicitly stated they have nothing to apologize for. In other words, they don’t care about making amends with the people they have offended.
  • Defensively made the issue all about them. They describe the amount of work and passion put into the booth, what it means to them, and how this will damage their company. They ignore the concern raised.
  • Used straw man attacks against their protesters, painting them as hateful crazies. They even accused a non-profit civil rights organization of fraud.
  • Made the illogical point that because women work there, their company can’t be sexist. Also, because some women weren’t offended, the booth wasn’t offensive.
  • Lied about the fact that they would continue to engage in a discussion about this (instead, they have been deleting and blocking facebook comments and commenters they disagree with, or just ignoring them).
  • Effectively said “jokes on you”, we got tons of publicity from this!


Needless to say, I was disappointed by the blog post and so was Miss Representation. HyperMac’s booth was mildly offensive; their response to criticism was insulting.

What HyperMac failed to realize was that all the community wanted from them was acknowledgment and support.

While the public criticism looked like big problem for HyperMac, it should have been seen as an opportunity. A positive reaction (for example, a message of support for women in technology) would have have reached this audience:

  • MissRep on facebook: 86k followers,
  • MissRep mailing list: 85k followers
  • MissRep on twitter: 28k followers,

Instead of a positive HyperMac response going out to that followership, this response went out:

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Want to see an example of a company who did it better?

Klout recently reacted to ongoing criticism of their 2010 “brogrammer” recruiting tactic by: 
- acknowledging that it offended some real people (not just crazy people)
- acknowledging the issue raised (gender bias in tech)
- stating and demonstrating their support for the cause (sponsorship of women’s tech initiatives)
Klout’s Apology

I think this tweet, coming from one of klout’s protesters, sums up my thesis:

@bbinkovitz: @klout’s apology completely reversed my opinion. I’ve said it before: A good apology is better than no mistakes.

- Michelle @michellewetzler


By the way, Skin City Body Painting, the company that did the amazing paint job at the HyperMac booth, posted this response. Robin Slonina, the author and owner of the company, aligns herself with the feminist cause,  acknowledges the issues raised (and the complexity of them), and responds in a very positive and thoughtful way. Thanks Robin!


Note: There is extensive discussion about this post on Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5152298







M. Wetzler

Director at Keen IO.