Sexist, Sexist and More Sexist: Digg Responds to Fast Company's Women in Web 2.0

"Insert female porn star name here," "You can probably fit a bus in her vag," "There are no women on the Internet." The responses elicited by Fast Company's Women in Web 2.0 article on Digg prove that sexism in Silicon Valley is alive and kicking.

It's been one week since the country elected its first black president. All eyes are on America. Words like hope, change and forward thinking are being bandied about like never before. The US is a developed country right? Obama in office is proof of just how developed right? America can once again settle comfortably back into its undisputed position as world leader yes? After all, the nation sets an example for the rest of the world, particularly countries in which equal rights are not yet affirmed. Right?

Wrong. Racism may be off the map for now, but the US, just like everywhere else in the world has a long way to go. For one thing, the country is still rife with sexism.

I come from a developing country and have grown up watching women unquestioningly take a back seat to men. For years I've heard stories of women being beaten by their husbands, female fetuses being aborted or worse yet female babies being killed, widows being forced to burn themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, acid being thrown at women by rejected suitors, exorbitant dowry demands compelling young girls' families to sell everything but the clothes on their backs. Coming from a big city, I've never encountered any of this myself, but knowing that I lived in a country in which thousands of others did was sobering.

Then I came here. I went to school at the nation's oldest women's college, Mount Holyoke. I saw a breed of woman I had never seen before — tough, intelligent, determined and passionate. And as I looked at this country through the eyes of an immigrant, I saw a world of possibility that defied barriers of age, race, caste and especially sex that I had grown up hearing about. Sexism, it seemed, had faded into a very distant shadow from the past. But college ended, I moved on, and I eventually meandered into the untrammeled world that is the Web. The walls came down, the masks came on and the politically correct BS I had so willingly bought into dissipated into thin air.

Yesterday, an article I wrote on the most influential women in web 2.0 went up on The comments it elicited on Digg were unprecedented. (Update: Digg's founder Kevin Rose emailed me after I posted this blog to say that his team is in the process of deleting any comments on this article that violate the site's terms of use. So the comments I highlighted may not all still appear.) A few applauded the list, a few critiqued it and offered others they thought should have been featured, but the overwhelming majority went like this:

Do her... Wouldn't do her... Wouldn't do her... Do her... Do her... Wouldn't do her... Wouldn't do her... Ugh, who hasn't done her? Wouldn't do her... Do her... Argghh!

not the chicks from 2 girls 1 cup?

"insert female porn star name here"

The most influential woman in 2.0 is a man.

is any girl that will show some skin

You can probably fit a bus in her vag.

I'd hit each one of them.

There are no women on the Internet.

"Do her, do her, Oh who hasn't done her, do her, lose the pigtails and we'll talk"

What is it about the online space that brings out not only the best, but the absolute worst in people? Where are all these people in real life? Do they just never leave their holes, I mean homes? Or are they people I run into all the time — at work, on the subway, at a bar downtown or at Starbucks?

The first thought that comes to mind whenever I run into ugliness like this is the New Yorker cartoon: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The comfortable anonymity offered by the Web allows people, in this case men, to say whatever it is they actually think deep down. And their feelings are incontrovertibly sexist. These are the same people we all run into in real life. But in the offline world, like the Ku Klux Klan when their masks are put away, it's hard to tell who's who. Men offline would never dare claim ownership to the ludicrous statements they so freely spout on the Web.

Where do these feelings stem from? Is it bitterness, callousness, loneliness, boredom, resentment or a genuine belief that women are inadequate? Digg is an Internet forum so perhaps this isn't all that serious. But then again, it's THE Internet forum and it's a fairly good indication of what people are thinking.

Admittedly, the list came up with is not perfect. The word "influential" like other adjectives is subjective. We anticipated disagreement and disgruntlement. We expected some names to be disputed, and others to be offered up. Sheryl Sandberg, Charlene Li, Susan Mernit, Tara Hunt, Angie Chang, Jane Hu, Mary Hodder, Anastasia Goodstein and Allyson Kapin are just some of the names we considered for the list and eventually rejected — not because they aren't important or influential, but because they didn't fit the very specific criteria we had decided upon for the purposes of this list.

To clarify, as the introduction to the piece clearly states, "our list wasn't chosen by star power, nor by career altitude." Rather, we judged each candidate on a single criterion: has she definitively changed the way we interact online? Some of these women gave us new tools to speak to one another. Others put those tools in more people’s hands. Still others are thought leaders, attempting to simplify and enhance how we interact online. We offered you these names knowing our list would spark debate.

When I initially decided to look into doing a piece on women in the world of Web 2.0, I talked to several people in my quest for an angle. One recurring theme that emerged was how hard it is for women to make it in Web 2.0.

"It's a heck of an interesting proposition to raise money from angel investors. You have to bring a guy with you whether it's a 16 yr old you saw on the street or your grandfather. It's sad but true," said Dina Kaplan of when I asked her about how women were progressing in her field.

"There are definitely some women who have emerged like Gina Bianchini from Ning. But the blogosphere is where you hear so much about web 2.0 and it is very male dominated. There's still a lot of sexism there. There are perceptions and stereotypes and roles we play into. I'm thinking about Sarah Lacey being targeted at South by Southwest and Cathy Sierra being targeted for no other reason that I can think of except her gender. They attacked her and bullied her. I don't know why it's so hard for women to gain visibility in this space," said Anastasia Goodstein who writes YPulse, a blog about youth marketing to teens and tweens.

"There are so many women pioneers in this field, but the press doesn't cover them. Tech reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post tend to cover the same handful of men they view as pioneers instead of looking outside the box," said Allyson Kapin, the founder and organizer of Women Who Tech.

"In Silicon Valley, everything is fluid and temporary. There are no employers or employees as such. With no tradition here, we're losing the opportunity to develop a better social structure. People make ridiculous remarks to women and there's no oversight. Silicon Valley is all about getting eyeballs and numbers for your product, money. That structure is never going to support good behavior between those who are the defaults (the white males) and everyone else. It's an environment that's very supportive when it comes to developing new technologies but is otherwise not supportive of anyone but the default. Silicon Valley has always been full of very brash, young experimental crazy thinking people. The role for young men to be mentored by older men who when they go too far just doesn't exist," said Mary Hodder, founder of video site Dabble.

She went on to talk about the difficulty of securing VC funding as a woman: "I think it's fair to say that one of the reasons I had such a hard time getting funding was because I didn't have a business partner. There's no sole woman out there getting funding. Even BlogHer consists of multiple women… It's really difficult for a woman to get funding — unless you're willing to take your shirt off on TechCrunch. I just don't think we should have to do that."

I listened to it all, and then made a decision. This article would focus on the things that have been achieved, rather than the challenges that still exist. Because the world can say what they will, women are doing some amazing work on the Web, and they're doing this despite a wide variety of difficulties — raising funds, being hired and promoted, gaining technical experience, and being taken seriously — that men just do not have to grapple with. They deserve to be acknowledged for their work, and for their courage.

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