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High-Tech Industry Focused on Babes and Boobs Needs Killer Sexism App

In the fight for equality, women in tech can learn from today's labor movement.

“Titstare?” It’s a new app that shows men staring at images of women’s breasts. Or you can photograph yourself staring at breasts and upload the photos to the app.

“This is the ‘breast’ hack ever,” said one of the young men who created the app. “It’s the breast most titillating fun you can have” said the other. The audience laughed, conference officials apologized, and the “boys” tweeted they were sorry if they offended anyone.

Tasteless joke? Women need to lighten up? Just boys being boys? Or symbol of bigger problems in the high - industry of the 21st century? When it comes to sexism at high-tech conferences, this was apparently just the tip of the iceberg. Showcasing lap dancers, offering “women” as perks, using “babes” to sell electronic gadgets, and pretending to masturbate on stage are a few other recent examples.

If this is what goes on in public, what happens in the workplace? Women like Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, have made it to the top of the high-tech world, but generally women are underrepresented in the related fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These are areas of predicted high growth, high wage jobs over the next 10 years.

The US Department of Commerce calls the lack of women in STEM a “ Gender Gap to Innovation." The percentage of women in computer science and math declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2009. According to the US Department of Labor in 2012 women were down to 25.6 percent of these fields. Women ranged from one in three web designers to just 8 percent of network architects. Among engineers women go from numbers too small to report such as nuclear or petroleum engineers to 4.5 percent of mechanical engineers and 18 percent of chemical engineers.  

According to Nellie Bowles of the San Francisco Chronicle, there is also a large wage gap within high tech. She reports that women in Silicon Valley earn only 49 cents for every dollar a man earns, compared to 77 cents for women nationally. Astia, a nonprofit that works with women-led startups, reports that women own only 8 percent of venture-backed start-up companies. In contrast, in the whole economy the Center for Women’s Business Research finds that women own 40 percent of private businesses.

Could the number of women in Silicon Valley in particular, and STEM more generally, have anything to do with the sexism on exhibit at conferences? With “babes at booths” and enormous images of women in string bikinis? Except for the “apps” this sounds more like “Mad Men” industries of 50 years ago than the high - industry of the 21st century. 

Women who laugh off the behavior of the "boys,” the declining percent of women, and their limited job categories and lower pay, may be facing yet another long fight for equality. Women tech leaders like Sheryl Sandburg at Facebook advise women to “lean in.” Union women, on the other hand, suggest that women learn to “lean together.” Women and men of the tech industry might just learn something from the labor movement today.  

Fifty years ago, in 1963, President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a long-time union member, and Esther Peterson, union leader and Assistant Secretary of Labor, issued a report covering action that needed to be taken for women in relation to education, employment, law, and politics. The report sparked many positive changes. While challenges remain, the good news is that today, women are now almost half of the workforce and almost half of the labor movement, with more success and more opportunities than ever before.