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Women IT scientists outraged after sexist comments

Comments by moderator Mads Christensen at conference for computer giant Dell have set off a wider debate on gender in male-dominated fields. Angry women University of Copenhagen scientists stake out the issues

One of the worlds largest IT companies faces continuing criticism after Danish celebrity, occasional speaker and commentator Mads Christensen moderated its recent Copenhagen conference. Now international scientists at the University of Copenhagen have joined the fray, saying that the Dell affair highlights serious gender problems in the IT field worldwide.

According to reports, Mads Christensen praised the lack of women in IT and asked the men in the room to promise him that they will go home and say, ‘shut up bitch!’.

»The IT business is one of the last frontiers that manages to keep women out. The quota of women to men in your business is sound and healthy,« Mads Christensen said at the conference. »What are you actually doing here?« he added to the few women who were actually present in the room.

Researcher: Dell not up to the task

However a number of University of Copenhagen researchers were unimpressed, forcing Dell into apologising on a social networking site and Christensen to explain himself through

The reaction of some Danish researchers is scathing towards both Dell and to the speaker Christensen.

»What worries me the most is that if Dell is not able to recognize that hiring a guy like Mads Christensen is a bad idea, how are they ever going to handle the real gender related problems that women in IT experience?« argues Aasa Feragen, a post doc at the Department of Computer Science DIKU, University of Copenhagen. She adds that she would currently »be reluctant to seek a job at Dell after this, and I would urge my students to think twice as well.«

Celebrity: Jokes taken out of context

Contributing to the dismay is the current situation of women in IT, a notably male dominated field, as evidenced by the convention’s ratio of 800 men to 40 women, according to Melanie Ganz, a post doc from the University of Copenhagen currently on exchange to Harvard University in the US.

»One of the biggest IT employers in Denmark hires a guy that has the maturity of a five year old as a moderator?,« she exclaims.

In his defence Mads claims that his humour »is steeped in satire and humour« and was not intended to be serious. He further argues that if you take jokes out of context you can »easily make me a psychopath.«

Dell apology

Teaching your sons how to say »shut the fuck up bitch« and questioning why women were even part of the conference at all were part of his act, Mads Christensen claims.

Dells response was more conciliatory, »we apologize for this unfortunate event,« it said on a blog after the conference, and after the comments about the event went viral online.

»Going forward, we will be more careful selecting speakers at Dell events«.

Feel like outsiders

But according to Melanie Ganz, the episode cannot be isolated to the Dell-incident.

»I was really upset that this could happen in Denmark, where I have always been supported by my supervisors, department and university.«

»As women in IT, we already always feel like we are outsiders, since there are so few of us, and that we have to be better and outperform the guys to get the same recognition. And his comment basically means that he wants to keep the women out.«

Is this Denmark?

»I have both visited Google in Zurich and spent time during my PhD at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. While at Google and Microsoft I felt they were really trying to encourage women, especially in research, while I have never heard of any initiative by Dell. It definitely does not encourage me to apply for a job there now,« she says.

The impact of Mads Christensen’s act has gone global. Melanie Ganz herself heard about it through Systers, a global e-mail community of technical women in computing, where a blog describing what happened got many responses.

Melanie Ganz has a hard time squaring off the Danish image of gender equality with the episode: »I thought it could never happen in Denmark,« she says.

Ignoring women

But it did.

Aasa Feragen reckons that most women are painfully aware that there are companies and scientific environments where their ideas will not be taken as seriously as their male colleagues’ ideas. »Naturally, we are not interested in spending our time working in such places,« she says.

In general, discrimination is often well hidden, she explains. In situations where women are ignored, it is often not done on purpose.

Cannot ban unsympathetic people

But »this actually makes the ‘battle’ harder, because you also have to prove that there is a problem before anyone wants to solve it. As a consequence, whenever I look for a job, I carefully investigate the company’s awareness of the challenges that female IT professionals meet,« Aasa Feragen says.

To her, Dell has demonstrated that they do not have this awareness.

»This is what I find disturbing. Mads Christensen himself is not particularly interesting, you cannot forbid unsympathetic people.«

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