The pervy and disconcerting nature of a male-dominated technology show

The tech on show is breathtaking. Sadly, so is the treatment of women

Katie Colby
8 Mar 2016

Ever walked through a mass of people and thought “thank God I didn’t wear the tight dress today”? No? Well, that’s probably either because this is a technology publication and statistics suggest you’re most likely a male, or you’ve never visited Mobile World Congress as a female delegate.

This was my first MWC, and I was excited. And while I expected it to be dominated by males, I didn’t expect there to be so much sexist and inappropriate behaviour.

Day one, meeting one. Three male millennials arrive, half-cut from the night before and reeking of booze. Instead of opening the meeting with polite conversation about the show, they proceeded to boast about boozing until 4am the night before, telling me that three out of four of their team pulled last night, oh, and then asked if I would complete the set. FYI, I declined.

Minutes later, while sidestepping handsy businessmen, I’m rescued by the sweet man I sat next to on the flight over. Handshakes and niceties were exchanged. So far, so good. Until he dropped the bombshell that his client had taken him to a place that “isn’t suitable for my pretty little ears,” but that I could “use my imagination,” *wink*. Ugh.

What is it about trade shows that’s like catnip to grown businessmen? Is it the “lads on tour” vibe – an overseas, all-expenses-paid, testosterone-filled “business trip”, with men who take delight in egging each other on. Sadly, I think the answer is yes. This isn’t the kind of behaviour you encounter day to day at home.

This behaviour shouldn’t ever be written off. It’s intimidating, rude and completely unacceptable no matter what the circumstances. But that’s just on the surface: underneath, there’s the larger issue of the massive underrepresentation of women in technology.

I’m pretty thick-skinned. But the chauvinistic, sexually demeaning actions of many (trust me, it’s not just a few) really did put a downer on my MWC experience. Not only did it make me feel uncomfortable as a female, but it really made me question just how far society has come. I may not be a 1950s-style housewife, stuck cleaning 24/7 with a life that revolves around my bread-winning husband, but men’s animalistic perceptions of a female in a “man’s world” seem just as archaic.

Being a MWC newbie, I was left in awe at the tech – it genuinely is one of the most exciting and interesting tech shows in the word – but also scared by the almost complete lack of women around.

Cruising around football-pitch-sized exhibition halls, looking across the stands in search of a fellow female was a pointless exercise. The women I did see tended to be wearing a wings and hotpants combo (a timeless classic) and handing out chocolates, or manning the reception to escort me to my next business meeting with the next businessman. Of course, there were also some female executives there – but my god were they hard to spot.

MWC: a real-life, women-in-tech infographic

Women still represent only 14.4% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce. But the future of the country’s STEM industries looks worryingly bleak. Research suggests that the UK will require almost 1.3 million STEM professionals and technicians by 2020, but universities are only turning out around 90,000 STEM graduates a year. It’s predicted that there will be a deficit of 300,000 digitally skilled workers in four years’ time.

If the number of women working in STEM increased to 46% of the workforce – which is the total female workforce average in the UK – this undersupply issue would vanish. But these male-dominated industries are not progressing that way – not in the slightest. Why not? I don’t have all the answers, but I have some ideas.

Let’s start with pop culture. Why couldn’t Mr Robot have been played by a female lead? In The Big Bang Theory, the geek ratio is 4:1 men, with the female techy character portrayed as very unsexy, unpopular and awkward – not a stereotype many women I know would want to relate to. Yes, the male characters are also stereotypical, but they’re also a more diverse – and some would argue endearing – set of characters.

We need a Steffi Graf of science, a Tina Fey of technology, an Emma Watson of engineering – strong, relatable female characters who have broken down gender barriers and are making waves in traditionally male-dominant professions.

Then there’s education. Young women need exposure to the world of technology and the roles they can play in it. And thankfully, there are some strides being made here.

WISE’s (Women in Science, Technology and Engineering) latest findings reported that not only was there an increase in the number of girls entering into STEM GCSE exams last year, but they’re continuing to get higher results than their male counterparts.

However, don’t think this means there’s no problem. Go past GCSE, and the gender splits become even more obvious. In 2013/14, for every one male studying computing at AS-level, there were just 0.09 females. And just 55% of those females continued to A-level, compared to 62% of male students.

What happens is education is largely down to the government, but technology companies must play their part too – whether it’s offering graduate schemes, apprenticeships or even just talking to kids about how cool it would be to work for them. A good example to follow is Google and its “Made With Code” campaign; the idea is to show young girls that the things they love – from apps on their smartphones to their favourite movies – are all created using code, and encourage them to apply the skills they learn to their own individual passions.

Until the representation of women in technology increases, the “boys’ club” atmosphere I experienced at MWC will continue to be accepted. To the men there, it’s largely invisible. Men rarely understand how intimidating and downright rude that kind of atmosphere is, and when you’re (often literally) the only woman in the room, highlighting that atmosphere is extremely tough. Having more women present would give women an opportunity to support each other in speaking out, and would also temper the more laddish behaviour of the “boys on tour”.

Sadly, the efforts of governments and companies to redress the balance sometimes feel tokenistic rather than wholehearted. To me, the issue labelled “Women in Tech” is a bit like a fringe friend; always there on the outskirts, harmless enough – never truly the centre of attention they ought to be. People are sometimes nice and pay them a bit of attention, but no-one is stepping up and making a real effort to include them in the party.

Read next: Five women in tech to watch out for in 2016.

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