When Pardees Safizadeh attended her first hackathon at age 22, she knew that she would be exposed to a ton of new people and experiences.
She didn’t, however, anticipate that a fellow attendee would stalk her at the conference, or that she’d end up slapping him across the face, and having officials remove him from the meeting.
While this type of incident isn’t common in tech, it’s emblematic of a a wider debate about the way women are treated in the industry.
Safizadeh, a Boston College graduate who now works as the Head of Marketing at trinket.io, managed social media for a company called Greenhorn Connect when she attended the Halloween-themed Vampire Hackathon at the Cambridge Innovation Center in 2012.
Greenhorn Connect is a Boston-based website that aggregates resources, events and organisations aimed at entrepreneurs and startups in the area.
Her role at the company required her get well-connected in the startup scene in Boston, which meant she was regularly interacting with local entrepreneurs and programmers to recruit guest writers and spread the company’s social media presence.
Safizadeh shared her experience in a recent post on her blog, and gave Business Insider a more detailed account.
‘That’s when I just lost it’
A male attendee whom Safizadeh declined to name on the record approached her six times that night. The first time he approached her, the attendee said he was an angel investor who had appeared on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, and that she should go on a date with him. He also said he had previously gone on a date with a writer from TechCrunch, Savizadeh said, and therefore concluded that she should also date him.
She politely declined, but he kept finding her in the venue, and asked her out again multiple times.
When she refused the sixth time, the man proceeded to insult her in her family’s tongue, the Persian language of Farsi. According to Safizadeh, the Farsi phrase translated to an insult that would indicate she belongs in the kitchen and not at a hackathon.
“That’s when I just lost it,” she said.
In a room of more than 300 people at the Cambridge Innovation Center where the hackathon was held, her immediate reaction was to slap him across the face. Safizadeh said she did this because her words did nothing to deter this attendee from harassing her.
That, combined with the fact that he used Farsi to insult her, which she considers to be personal, had crossed the line.
“I was so scared and I was so flustered and I didn’t know what else to do,” Safizadeh said. “He never apologized. He looked really surprised.”
Her friend Jason Evanish, CFO, co-founder, and product lead at Greenhorn Connect, spoke with the person running the Vampire Hackathon and the attendee was ejected from the event.
It’s not uncommon for women to be sexually harassed in the tech industry, Safizadeh says. The issue, however, is that many women don’t come forward to address these problems publicly.
In April, for instance, Locket CEO Yunha Kim wrote a blog post about the pros and cons of being a female CEO in the tech community. In her post, she detailed an incident in which she tried to poach an engineer, who responded with the following:
I’m pretty happy with my current job, but if you’re single I’d like to date you. Perhaps there are some unconventional ways to lure me away from my company (besides stock options) if you know what I mean :)
More recently, Julie Ann Horvath left the computer code-sharing web site GitHub after complaining she was harassed (the company denied that was the case).
And then there is the alleged devaluing of women’s work in tech generally. Last month, an anonymous woman using the gossip app Secret detailed the heart-wrenching experience of being left behind as Google acquired the company she helped co-found. The search engine giant decided to hire her five male colleagues in an acquisition deal, but not her — even though she invented the product.
Safizadeh said that after telling her story, she’s received messages from other women in tech who have endured similar treatment.
“It does happen; it happens a lot,” she said. “The scary thing about it is that a lot of females are very scared to say anything because they feel like their careers are going to be endangered if they speak out against it. They want to remain anonymous, so it’s kind of sad.”
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