A woman watches a presentation at the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 conference… (David Paul Morris, Bloomberg )
SAN FRANCISCO — Speaking before a gathering of women in technology, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recalled an uncomfortable exchange with two men on a different stage discussing the scarcity of women in the industry.
One commented that he would like to hire more young women but not all are as competent as Sandberg. The other said he, too, would hire more young women but his wife fears he would sleep with them and, he confessed, he probably would.
Sandberg's husband, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Goldberg, told her later that night that the men did her a favor with their honesty.
"A lot of men think that," he told her. "They gave you a chance to address it."
It's no secret that the tech industry has a shortage of women. What's less well known is that the industry famous for its bravado about changing the world still lags decades behind other industries in its treatment of women, many of whom say they routinely confront sexism in the companies where they work and at the technology conferences they attend.
Many blame the industry's growing gender gap on a "brogrammer" culture, a hybrid of "bro" and "programmer" that's become a tongue-in-check name for engineers.
Prominent women such as Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Sandberg have proved they can scale to the top of the technology industry. Yet they are still the exception, not the rule.
Even though women outnumber men at the top schools and in the workforce and use the latest gadgets and apps in equal if not greater numbers, they still represent a small fraction of executives, entrepreneurs, investors and engineers.
The number of women studying computer science is shrinking and at many tech companies, only a tiny fraction of the engineers — 2% to 4% in some cases — are women.
One of Silicon Valley's best-known venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is being sued by a former partner, Ellen Pao, for sexual discrimination.
And even the most progressive technology companies have come under fire for not having women in leadership positions. Twitter, which is on the verge of a highly anticipated initial public offering, does not have a single woman on its board of directors.
Women say the problem begins in computer science classes where they are marginalized and persists throughout their careers as they are passed over for jobs and promotions.
That has set off alarm bells. As one of the most vibrant sectors of the U.S. economy, that startling lack of diversity could deal a double blow: greater income inequality in society at large and fewer innovative ideas coming out of the tech industry as it faces rising competition from overseas.
"At a time when the technology industry is becoming increasingly important, I think it's important to focus on what hasn't changed and what is still very traditional about this world, what isn't so revolutionary and so progressive," said Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and author of "The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network."
A rash of recent incidents has only amplified the debate over sexism.
Peter Shih, a start-up founder, published a rant in August on the editorial website Medium, about the top 10 things he hates about living in San Francisco, including the weather ("like a woman who is constantly PMSing") and the 49ers ("the girls who are obviously 4's and behave like they are 9's").
He was pilloried on Twitter, and fliers turned up in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood telling Shih to move back to New York. Shih apologized.
Pax Dickinson, the chief technology officer of business blog Business Insider, was fired in September after Twitter users noticed sexist and racist comments he had been making for years on Twitter such as "men have made the world such a safe and comfortable place that women now have the time to bitch about not being considered our equals." Dickinson declined to comment.
At a recent hackathon put on by technology blog TechCrunch, Australian programmers Jethro Batts and David Boulton stepped onstage to present their work. Choking back laughter, they demonstrated a "parody" app that uploads photos of men staring at women's chests.
"I think this is the breast hack ever," Batts joked.
Entrepreneur Richard Jordan was in the audience with his 9-year-old daughter, Alexandra, a budding programmer who got rave reviews at the hackathon for building Super Fun Kid Time, an app to schedule play dates.
"We have to show that this is not acceptable and that we are not going to put up with this sort of thing in our industry anymore," Jordan said.
As one of the organizers of the Disrupt conference, Alexia Tsotsis, co-editor of TechCrunch, says she sees progress in the outrage the incidents provoked on social media and on industry blogs.
"It's no longer a safe environment for misogynist attitudes," she said.