Microsoft 'Big Boobs' gaffe points to wider industry problems for women in tech

Microsoft 'Big Boobs' gaffe points to wider industry problems for women in tech

Summary: The Microsoft 'Big Boobs' code gaffe exposes an industry culture which results in dismally low minority and gender representation. Can the industry afford it? Transparency is the first step.

TOPICS: Microsoft

The BBC is reporting today that Microsoft has swiftly removed a bunch of code labelled 0xB16B00B5 which can be read, I guess, as 'Big Boobs'. It's the second embarrassment of its kind in as many months for Microsoft.  Last months Azure Norwegian developer conference culminated in an interesting dance routine which led to a sheepish apology from Redmond:

This week’s Norwegian Developer’s Conference included a skit that involved inappropriate and offensive elements and vulgar language. We apologize to our customers and our partners and are actively looking into the matter.

Microsoft runs a comprehensive diversity programme and it has never been afraid to take its leadership to the barricades on such issues of social justice, so I'm not sure this is altogether a fair comment on Microsoft in particular. I suspect it's rather a sign of a more endemic problem throughout the industry. Matthew Garrett of Redhat writing in his blog said:

At the most basic level it's just straightforward childish humour, and the use of vaguely-English strings in magic hex constants is hardly uncommon. But it's also specifically male childish humour. Puerile sniggering at breasts contributes to the continuing impression that software development is a boys club where girls aren't welcome. It's especially irritating in this case because Azure may depend on this constant, so changing it will break things.

But what about the business case for diversity? Can we really afford to alienate 50% of the workforce? In a thoughtful piece ZDNet's Tom Foremski wrote:

Silicon Valley is running hard to maintain its position as the global innovation engine, against competition with dozens of fast growing innovation centers around the world.

Which is why it's puzzling that Silicon Valley has such a large gender gap in key sectors such as angels, VCs, entrepreneurs, engineers, and in senior executive roles.

Why isn't Silicon Valley using all of its people? 

A cursory look at the numbers overall makes grim reading. From a paper published by the Anita Borg Institute, Minorities and High Tech Employment:


Focusing on gender alone here are the stats from the major tech leaders, many of whom are corporate partners of the Anita Borg Institute - an organisation dedicated to the advancement of women in tech, who at least are prepared to be transparent:

Diversity 3
Women as % of total workforce (taken from most recently published corporate data)

Most concerning of all is the long list of tech leaders who are not yet prepared to publish any performance data at all. Without evidence and transparency are women and minorities just supposed to trust that they will be welcomed and supported upon recruitment?

Among those not yet disclosing: Apple, Adobe, Amazon, Applied Materials, Broadcom, Brocade, CA*, Facebook, Google, Intuit, JDSU, Juniper, Marvell, NetApp, Neustar, Salesforce, Thought Works, Yahoo!, LinkedIn.  

*CA does disclose women at executive level which is currently 8% and perhaps the most comical explanation for non disclosure comes from Google in 2010 when it then claimed the race and gender composition of its workforce is a trade secret.

In a week when Marissa Mayer joins the growing ranks of women in top tech jobs, the numbers (and lack thereof) beg the question of whether the success of Mayer, Whitman & Rometti represent the exception rather than the rule for women in tech.

Updated with VC data:

At the start up end of the industry things don't look much better. CB Insights research of 160 funded start ups from January to June 2010 show the same depressing trend. However, one proof point perhaps for the business case for diversity is that mixed gender start up teams are attracting more funding.

vc 1

And lest we think that the problem is completely universal and therefore immutable consider the statistics from Massachusetts which together with California and New York make up the big three states for VC funding. Of the 16 start ups funded in the period January to June 2010, 31% were all women founders. Compare this ratio to just 3% each in New York and California over the same period. 


Referring to the recent Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfied and Byers sexual harassment lawsuit Tom Foremski came up with an ingenious mitigation idea that could just be the start of a tide turning:

I have a great suggestion for a new VC fund from Kleiner Perkins: the $100 million Triple 'F' Fund- "The Female Founders Fund - Investing in all our people." It can't hurt KP's reputation beyond what's already done, and the fund would probably do very well.

How about it?

Topic: Microsoft

James Farrar

About James Farrar

James has more than 15 years of experience working on corporate sustainability issues from both the corporate and NGO campaigning perspective.

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  • Well...

    At least somebody at M$ appreciates good titty.

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  • So what?

    There are dudes with 0xB16B00B5 and some of them are zdnet blogers.
    • Yeah very sexist to think bigboobs refers to women more than men

      Shame on you James. I'm afraid ZDNet will have to let you go.
      Johnny Vegas
      • to think bigboobs refers to women more than men

        Well that's my first instinct, johnny. Unless you're one of those weird ones into man tit.

        • Instinct versus logic.

          The big difference being, logically Johnny wins. Instinctually, you felt it necessary to insult Johnny, as you had no logical argument.

          Oh, and "lol".
        • Well it made me feel good, FuzzyWuzzy

          Care to make me take it back?

  • well

    Quote: low minority and gender representation

    gender, yes. Minority, no way.

    BTW, it is not the problem of industry, it is the problem for those who has no interest joining the IT force.
    • Minorities

      apart from Asians, the data in the first table suggest otherwise on minorities
    • Exactly

      Too true. I'm a female programmer, and although I get the occasional person who doesn't want to hear what I say, the majority are great to work with and respect my input. In social life, I can get into conversations with guy friends regarding technology and my work, while the girls are polite enough to listen but they honestly don't give a rat's a** about it all. It's a complete difference in gender, and you're obviously going to see that coming into the stats in the work force.
      • Please elaborate.

        I'd like to understand your comment better, especially the part about the 'complete differerence in gender'. I'm male, and to be perfectly honest with you, many of my female friends I would consider as harboring more IT skills (think computer guru or even geeks). I'm not sure if it's due to my specific environment, but they outnumber the men. I personally enjoy that, mostly because I've found a difference in attention to detail and articulation in a manner I personally prefer. Truth be told, men and women do tend to speak different 'languages' (different methods of stressing a point), but neither method is superior to the other. I place it upon myself to learn both 'languages', as it is definitely beneficial to never simply ignore either.
    • Not necessarily even gender

      The proper comparison is not between employee demographics and population demographics, but between employee demographics and demographics of the pool of labour qualified to work in the relevant positions (e.g. those with relevant academic qualifications).

      Imported labour is especially important in creating differences in demographics between the overall population and the relevant labour pool. If you import a lot of skilled workers from Asia or Europe on job-related visas, then the proportion of qualified labour within the Asian or European populations will tend to be much higher than the average for the domestic population. In contrast, if you import a lot of unskilled workers from Latin America, the proportion of qualified labour within the Hispanic population will tend to be much lower.

      The gender distribution of imported labour will also be affected by the norms of the source country. Labour imported from Northern or Eastern Europe, for example, is likely to be more balanced in terms of gender than labour imported from more patriarchal societies in Asia – although China might be something of an exception to the Asian norm, owing to its Communist past (which was mostly a disaster, but did dramatically improve equality between the sexes).
      • 35 million dead

        Yes, we must give credit to Communism for equality between the sexes in China, at least for the girls who survived.
        Robert Hahn
      • WilErz

        I think you make a good argument.

        However, I do think we need to look further up the pipeline to understand why more women and minorities are not entering the tech labour market.
        • Thanks

          I think there are social barriers that discourage female participation in certain jobs (and male participation in others), and that it's a worthwhile objective to break down these barriers, especially through voluntary action by firms and schools/universities. Arbitrary quotas based on population demographics are something else entirely, and I think they would be a very bad idea.

          The evidence from the Pisa mathematics test tends to support the idea that social structures are a factor in driving the gender gap in mathematics, which in turn is probably linked to career choices. The most gender-equal societies are the Scandinavian countries, and the gender gaps on the Pisa mathematics test to be smaller than average in Scandinavia (at least amongst non-immigrants). In fact, in Iceland, which is the most gender-equal country (but otherwise quite different from the rest of Scandinavia, e.g. with a relatively small government), girls actually score higher on the Pisa mathematics test than boys. I think it's the only country where this is the case. Having said that, I work in a scientific field that is heavily male-dominated, and every Icelandic colleague I've had has been male, so there's obviously more to it than that.
  • Immature

  • What makes you think that tech isnt hiring every qualified woman/minority

    that comes along? If you need 10000 people and only 2500 women/minorities apply and theyre all fantastica and you hire all of them your number will look pretty much like that. Inferring any sort of discrimination there is pathetic. Further Id bet those number are now much more skewed towards asians and whites are much more under represented in 2011-2012. When the mass tech layoffs started happening a few years back it wasnt the H1B's that got the pink slips.
    Johnny Vegas
  • Men are from Mars, women are from Venus?

    This may come as a shock to some, but men and women are not the same. They have different natures, which determine their priorities and interests in life. In highly competitive environments, men often become single minded in the achievement of their goals - many times to the exclusion of all other things. This gives men focus, which makes it advantageous for them to achieve their goals.

    Women on the other hand are all about relationships. Virtually everything they do is towards this end. To the extent that work can be harmonious with their relationships, women will pursue work. However once women start seeing certain types of work (such as tech) undermining their relationships, they stay away from it like the plague. Women in general don't like the geek image. Many consider geeks social handicaps, and would rather not be counted among them. Also women just don't receive the same type of emotional gratification from scientific or tech achievement, as they would from being say an actress or supermodel, where all men would like to have them, and all women would like to be like them.

    While I'm all for equal opportunity. I however just don't think anyone should hold his or her breath, for women to come stampeding into tech any time soon.
    P. Douglas
    • SPOT ON

      @P. Douglas
      we can live all we want in politically correct lalaland; forget the stupid feminist indoctrination. My son at 8 played with lego, his room was a cemetery of computers, now is an accomplished python programmer. My daughter, at the same age, is all about Monster High dolls, her friend Chloé, her friend Béatrice, her friend Anna. Men & women we are different, thanks God. Last thing we need is politicians pushing more gender targeted hiring. The world we live is already bad, no need to make it worse.
    • and Idiots are from WHERE ???

      A few weeks ago we had a person report that one of the help sections of a partner's web site (not ours) had some interesting words on it. When we checked it out, sure enough, some of the example security question sayings were offensive. The first one that showed up was "a women's place is in the home." I said that's right - I would rather telecommute from home than show up and be interrupted all day at the office. I thought it was the same old crap that I have been getting for years. Is that all you got? Then the next saying was "Two blacks don't make a white". And then the next saying was worse, and then the next was worse. Here were some coders that thought they were rebels, thought it didn't matter. We can't corral all the programmers and make them code a certain way. But large organizations whether corporate or government, have a responsibility to use basic coding standards, testing standards, just for situations like this, and then they are to have anti-harassment policies, (you know, the fancy phrase for don't bully people that threaten your own self esteem), etc. If this was a 17 year old male coder I'd say, hey, if you are fantasizing about women during the day then you are a heterosexual male. If you are a Microsoft developer at the mother ship in Redmond or one of the satellite orbs, then you or your management should ask is this a one off whoops or a recurring problem. We all make mistakes, we are all silly and we can all be professionals if we want to. However, to make statements above such as "WOMEN don't receive the same type of emotional gratification for scientific or tech achievement", then you my sir, do not know women, and you do not recognize the talents that females bring to an organization. I feel sorry for you and your organization, assuming you work. All women and men can be idiots, you must not know how to interview candidates and hire the right people. Just like the males, we code, we support servers and networks. We manage projects, we give people promotions and we walk people out the door. We update servers remotely from home at 11pm, and we present to Senior VIPS at 9am. All of us can think what we want --just as you have proven in your post, but when we are at the office, we have a responsibility to be a team. so "man, don’t be a hater of females at the office” just because your experience is working for organizations that don’t hire competent staff. Hey, you got in, so hmm, something to think about.