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Dell hath no fury

Dell hired a speaker with a known penchant for sexist humour to speak at a summit. Whatever Dell was trying to do, it backfired. Big time.

commentary Dell hired a speaker with a known penchant for sexist humour to speak at a summit. Whatever Dell was trying to do, it backfired. Big time.

(Credit: CBSi)

Last month, Dell ran a summit in Copenhagen. Michael Dell was doing a keynote. Around 800 people were there, of whom 40 or so were women.

And they got this guy, this public speaker — who's supposed to be funny — to MC the event. Mads Christensen. I don't know who he is; apparently he likes Rolexes and stupid ties.

One Danish tech journalist was there, Christiane Vejlø. She live-tweeted the event.

And this funny man, this Christensen, came out with some real gems.

"There are almost no girls in this room and I am happy. Why are you here at all?" he asked.

"All the great inventions come from men; women, we can thank for the rolling pin," he told the audience.

He concluded by declaiming to the men, "You are the last bastion in IT, boys. Hiss it through your teeth. Shut up, b****."

Maybe Dell didn't know what it was getting into when it hired him? No, apparently he is well known for this sort of thing.

Who he is, at any rate, is unimportant. He's pathetically boring and un-funny. Seriously, kitchen jokes? He's not worth our notice.

What is worth our notice, however, is that stuff like this keeps happening. Women are constantly belittled, objectified and marginalised — so when a company like Dell knowingly hires a known sexist to talk at one of its events, it's another kick in the guts.

We don't want you, is what it says. You don't belong. Go make me a sandwich.

It doesn't matter that Christensen later claimed that he was being satirical (firstly, satire should be clear; secondly, it really ought to be funny, or at least incisive), and that his "shut up" remark was intended to be said to wives, rather than female coworkers (what a lovely thing that is to say to someone you have promised to love and honour).

What matters is that when women are told these things constantly, sometimes in jest, sometimes not, being hurled kitchen jokes, being told that we're just in the way, being told to shut up and being called b**** (I tried to think of an equivalent masculine insult and couldn't), it just isn't funny. It's insulting.

Dell's Danish CEO, Nicolai Moresco, who apparently hired Christensen, did apologise. Kind of.

"We are very sorry it happened," he said. "I want to apologise, if there is anyone who feels offended by what was said."

We're not sorry we did it; we're sorry you got your knickers in a bunch about it.

This was after he told Version2 blogger Anne-Sofie Nielsen, "Mads Christensen's opinions reflect the views of our position." (I hope that's a mistranslation or typing error, actually.)

My excellent US colleague Molly Wood contacted Dell for comment.

We can tell you that the moderator's attempted humour does not reflect Dell's values, or its strong record on, and commitment to, diversity and equal opportunity. Dell has been recognised for its diversity practices, including by Working Mother magazine, which has named Dell four consecutive years to its best 100 companies in the US. In addition, Dell's Women Powering Business initiative strives to help women entrepreneurs and technologists expand their networks, while offering capabilities to help them use technology to do more.

If that had not been the last of the issue, then we would have had to have serious words. "Jokes" like Christensen's are part of the reason why we need to convince women that technology careers are welcoming to women; if you are with one hand providing initiatives and with the other giving voice to someone who says things like "Girls, go back to kitchen", you're just perpetuating a cycle.

It seems, though, that a month after the summit, Dell finally figured it out, with an apology posted to its Google+ account. (A strange choice, since it's not exactly the most visible place; but, with over 300,000 followers, the message was bound to get out.)

During a Dell-hosted customer and partner summit in Copenhagen in April, well-known public speaker and moderator, Mads Christensen, made a number of inappropriate and insensitive remarks about women. Dell sincerely apologises for these comments. As members of our Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) know, Dell is an enthusiastic and committed advocate of women in business and IT. These comments do not reflect Dell's company values, and undermine much of the work we've done in support of women in the workplace, overall.

Empowering women and their businesses is something close to our hearts at Dell, and is the motivation behind our Women Powering Business initiative and DWEN — a network and annual conference that helps bring female founders, CEOs and innovative leaders together, share best practices and open up new business opportunities around the world.

Over the last few years, we've launched several internal and external initiatives, designed to accelerate the increasingly powerful role women play in driving economic growth. We're proud that some of that work resulted in awards and recognition by various women's organisations. This year, as an example, Dell received recognition as one of The Times' Top 50 Employers for Women in the UK, for the second year in a row.

Once again, we apologise for this unfortunate event. Going forward, we will be more careful selecting speakers at Dell events.

Please do, Dell. Look, I know that it was just supposed to be in fun, I get that. I hate being the person in the room who everyone thinks has no sense of humour. I'm tired of having this conversation. I really don't understand why there has to be this endless bickering, this butting of heads and this pitting of imaginary enemies against each other. Women aren't trying to take anything away; they're trying to share.

And some jokes really, genuinely just do more harm than not. It can't be that hard to find a speaker who isn't going to make stupidly insensitive quips about the minority in the room.