Yahoo! and the Objectification of Women

hack-girls-2During Yahoo!’s Hack Days, developers create web applications relying on Yahoo’s APIs (application program interface) or open source libraries. Initially started as an internal Yahoo event in 2005 by the then CTO Chad Dickerson, Hack Days for the public are also scheduled with the first one appearing in 2006 at the company headquarters in Sunnyvale California. The event typically involves scheduled talks along with hacking time, demo sessions, and prizes for the top hacks. This year’s event on October 17th in Taiwan added a somewhat controversial aspect to the gathering, the objectification of women.

In addition to the winning entry, Location Plus, which shows hot topics by location in Taiwan, this years event featured what appear to be lap dances by scantily clad ‘hack girls’. The ‘hack girls’ actually aren’t new, they featured in the 2008 event also, but this year brought more risque pictures and more of a backlash.

In its initial positive coverage, Yahoo! Developer Network provides references to this aspect of the event as follows: The evening entertainment (Hack Girls) was an interesting contrast to Girltalk at Sunnyvale Open Hack Day the weekend before.


But after sharp negative public reaction on Monday, Chris Yeah the Head of Yahoo Developer Network issued this statement:

All, 

I wanted to acknowledge the public reaction generated by the images of female dancers at our Taiwan Open
Hack Day this past weekend. Our hack events are designed to give developers an opportunity to learn about
our APIs and technologies. As many folks have rightly pointed out, the “Hack Girls” aspect of our Taiwan 
Hack Day is not reflective of that spirit or purpose. And it’s certainly not the message we want to send 
about our values here at Yahoo!. Hack Days are about making everyone feel welcome, including women 
coders and technologists. 

This incident is regrettable and we apologize to anyone that we have offended. Rest assured, it won’t 
happen again. 

Best,
Chris Yeh
Head of YDN
twitter: @ydn
email: cyeh at yahoo-inc dot com
Posted at October 19, 2009 5:20 PM

Source: Sorry

Women in Technology

As Chris Yeh noted, the Hack Days event in spirit is about making everyone including women technologists welcome. The photos released from this event come at a bad time as the industry and companies like Yahoo struggle to recruit young women into technology roles. As many on Twitter noted, this controversy does little to promote women in technology and reinforces negative views that technology career paths are difficult for women. As the chart from the NY Times below shows, the number of women entering the technology field has been in a slow decline since the 1970′s, a negative harbinger for productive capacity in information technology.

Alarming Trends

Some statistics:

  • Women account for 46% of the labor force, but hold only 22% of science jobs (National Science Foundation).
  • Women make up 5% of computer programmers, 10% of systems analysts, and lead only 6% of high technology companies.
  • In 1984, women made up 37% of computer science graduates, by 1995 this number fell to 28.4% (National Center for Education Statistics). By 2005 it was 22% (NY Times).
  • Only 17% of the takers of the AP Computer Science examination in high schools are female (American Association of University Women).
  • The AAUW in a 1998 report states that stereotypes of appropriate careers for girls, a lack of female role models, and the absences of career information is responsible for the low level of interest in technology related careers.

The Big Upside – Women in Technology

One does not have to look far for major technology companies that benefited from having women founders or co-founders. A very short sample as example:

Information security has its share of prominent women innovators as well:

  • Dorothy Denning, author of four books including Information Warefare and Security
  • Mary Ann Davidson, Chief Security Officer, Oracle
  • Susan Hansche, author of The Official (ISC)2 Guide to the CISSP Exam
  • Shon Harris, author of two CISSP books, former instructor in the Air Force Information Warfare unit

…and many more. Finally we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Yahoo’s own CEO: Carol Bartz.

Past Events

Ironically, until now, Yahoo’s Hack Day event had been known for providing visibility for women in technology:

Women are present and in droves. On a trip out to an internal Yahoo! Hack Day about a year ago, I was surprised to enter the final presentation room and find that over one third of the presenters were female. Not only were there a surprising number of females presenting, the winning team also happened to be made up of two females. The winning hack was the ability to transfer your Yahoo! Travel data to your iPod for easy portability…”Where are all of those awesome hacker women I witnessed at Yahoo! Hack Day?”
Hunt, 2007.

A False Argument

Some have made the argument that this is simply a cultural difference. We’re not sure we agree, woman’s rights movements in Taiwan appear to have similar values as those in the west albeit with a regionally specific approach: Selling a Feminist Agenda on a Conservative Market–The Awakening Experience in Taiwan. Further, a company such as Yahoo!, founded and headquartered in the United States, must consider how its corporate actions abroad reflect on the firm here at home.

A second point is put forth in many comments suggesting that this is simply America exporting its values abroad inappropriately in condemning an activity happening in Taiwan that is normal in Taiwan. So assuming that this is culturally acceptable in Taiwan, what is the issue? Well, let’s follow some thought experiments/examples:

  • Would it be wrong of a citizen of Canada to object to Canadian mining companies in Guatemala manipulating the country’s political structure? How about U.S. citizen’s objection to the American United Fruit Company’s interference? Instability was the norm in the politics of the time regardless, can these company’s actions, or their influence on government actions, be condemned at home?
  • Would a citizen in an Arabic country be wrong to object to an Arabic garment company that has a U.S. office that sells T-shirts picturing Islamic religious leaders? But depicting Jesus, Moses, whomever will produce little reaction from an American, why should an Arabic citizen get to object?
  • Can a U.S. citizen object to Union Carbide’s handling of the industrial disaster in Bhopal, India? The disaster happened in 1984, India only addressed it legally after the fact in 1985 with the Bhopal Gas Leak Act. So it wasn’t necessarily illegal in India, a number of companies operate unsafely in India, and it didn’t happen in the U.S.. Can U.S. citizens still object to the company’s actions?
  • Can citizens of every tier one economic country in the world object to companies that import goods made through child labor or related worker exploitation in China? Workers lack of rights there making exploitation normative, can European, Japanese, or American citizens openly object to countries incorporated within their borders taking advantage of this exploitation for cheaper goods?

We’ll ignore that near free speech is a fundamental philosophical value shared the world over for a moment whether a country’s citizens are actually able to practice it or not. In these above cases, a plurality of people would think that whether or not they agree with the point of view of the home country on what’s acceptable versus not acceptable, they would respect the rights of the company’s home country’s citizens to object to corporate behavior abroad that would not be acceptable at home. Further they would realize that whether they respect the views of the citizens of the corporations home country or not, the company must take into account those views. Why? Because the company found its original success in its home market, hires workers from that country, sells its products there, and must operate within the law, social morays, and politics of that country.

Don’t get hung up on the examples above, we’re not here to make some grand political statement on any of them and there are those of you who understand each better then we do, just see if you agree with one. If you don’t, consider whether you believe you have the right to criticize the actions of a company headquartered in your country if they did do something you don’t agree with abroad, and conceive of your own example.

Don’t confuse these examples with the Yahoo Taiwan case, no point about relative severity is being made here one way or the other. The point is that whatever the norm in the country where the controversial corporate action took place, the home country’s citizens can reasonably object to those actions as inappropriate when the company is from that home country.

Others have suggested that Yahoo cannot be responsible for the actions of its subsidiary, that likely no one in the U.S. had anything to do with this. Only Yahoo can comment on who approved what, but sufficed to say Yahoo is responsible for its global brand and how it is perceived in all the countries in which it goes business, especially in the country where it is headquartered.

In that sense, whatever Yahoo slaps its brand on around the world it takes responsibility for. A U.S. company can operate in Taiwan in a way that would be acceptable to a majority of people in Taiwan, and yet still face criticism in the United States for the actions of a subsidiary or division in Taiwan. You may not care, but Yahoo does, because it must operate in the U.S. market, hire U.S. workers including women, trade on U.S. stock exchanges, and market its services to women to be successful.

Reactions:

In the age of Twitter, its not hard to measure people’s general reaction:

  • Robert Scoble: “This is NOT cool Yahoo! Someone should be fired for this…”
  • @iamdanw: “…there seems to be a slight gender imbalance at hackdays. I don’t think lap dancers are going to help that.”
  • @anna_debenham “I hope there were some nice male dancers at Taiwan's Yahoo Hack Day but somehow I doubt it.”
  • @simonw: “Yahoo! Hack Day Taiwan had lap dancers!? That’s SO not cool – way to alienate 50%+ of the population”
  • @estellevw: “Are the only women at Yahoo’s Open Hack Day in Taiwan scantily clad lap dancers? How offensive and degrading. Shame on you @yahoo.”

We mentioned Caterina (@Caterina), co-founder of Flickr, earlier in the article, here is what she had to say: “@Yahoo, for shame : I’m frankly disgusted.”

And you remember from the beginning of the article we mentioned Chad Dickerson (@chaddickerson), here’s what he tweeted: “i am so disappointed: http://flic.kr/p/78btX1. remember, a team of women delivered the winning hack at the 1st one”

Finally

Yahoo has not yet come to grips with the impact of the images of this event, the apology was a good but incomplete first step. The apology did not go far enough, an apology ‘if you were offended’ does not fully acknowledge that there is a problem. More needs to be done, and this includes being transparent about the actions that will allow all to “rest assured that this won’t happen again”. This kind of thing can happen to any company, the culture of that company is best revealed in the effectiveness and timeliness of its response to controversy.

Updates

  1. Based on analysis/research provided by xiaoma, we’re removing the statistic on wage disparity between the genders, as it does not appear to hold up to scrutiny or at the very least is effectively debated/contested to the level where it is no longer reliable.

References

Filed Under: Technology in Society

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