Dell, the personal computer giant, issued a red-faced apology Monday for a gaffe the company likely hoped would go away. It seems that at a global conference last month in Copenhagen, a Danish celebrity named Mads Christensen was invited to moderate a discussion. He did so by applauding the tech industry for shutting out women, according to a Danish radio personality named Christiane Vejlø, who happened to be in attendance, and recounted his insults on her blog.
Among the insults, she said, was Christensen’s insinuation that women were better with rolling pins than technology. He apparently ended his performance by telling the men in the audience to go home and tell their wives and girlfriends, “Shut up, bitches.”
Vejlø didn’t find it hilarious.
It took a few weeks for her blog post, which was written in Danish, to find an audience outside of Denmark—but once it did, late last week, the blogosphere went into action. Tweets flew. Suddenly Dell, a company that trumpets its diversification efforts, found itself on the wrong side of the females in the tech biz.
On Monday, the company apologized and also defended itself, saying in a statement, “Empowering women and their businesses is something close to our hearts at Dell and is the motivation behind our Women Powering Business initiative and Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network," an annual conference that brings female CEOs and leaders together.
The statement went on to note that, thanks to initiatives that are “designed to accelerate the increasingly powerful role women play in driving economic growth,” the company has won a number of accolades, including being named to the Times list of the Top 50 Employers for Women in the U.K. for the second year in a row.
Why the powers-that-be at Dell invited the Danish provocateur Christensen to speak at the event is anybody’s guess. Christensen, a comic of sorts, is known for his misogynistic comments. BoingBoing called him “a troll known for doing routines about how women don’t belong in the workplace.”
When The Daily Beast asked David Frink, a Dell spokesperson, whether Dell had any knowledge of Christensen’s reputation as a misogynist, he said, “Apparently not.” What Dell thought, according to Frink, was that Christensen “was a well-known comedian and public speaker.” Frink said he didn’t want to shirk responsibility for what happened, but noted that Dell worked with “an outside event organizer to put the event on, so … there is only so much to be said about that.”
Vejlø said the bizarre performance in Copenhagen started after Michael Dell, the company’s CEO and founder, finished a 20-minute speech. That’s when Christensen was introduced. Vejlø described him as “a media personality known (among many other charming traits) for his very conservative and critical approach to women in the workplace.” She said he began to "rejoice" over the "lack of women in the room," lauding the tech industry for being a last bastion for men. (And indeed, considering that women make up only about a quarter of the tech workforce, according to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, it does seem to still be quite a man’s club.) Vejlø reported that Christensen went so far as to say to one of the few women in the room, “What are you actually doing here?”
Shortly thereafter, according to Vejlø’s account, Christensen began to talk “about the bitchy women who want to steal the power in politics, boards, and the home.” In its statement, Dell acknowledged that Christensen “made a number of inappropriate and insensitive remarks about women. Dell sincerely apologizes for these comments ... 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.”
A few other highly visible recent incidents suggest that Dell might be a little out of touch with the female population—particularly those who use computers—as CNET has noted. The company took a lot of heat in 2009 for a tone-deaf marketing campaign that gave the impression that the Dell honchos thought women used laptops mainly to keep track of how many calories they consumed and to find recipes online.
More egregiously, the company paid $9.1 million, also in 2009, to settle a gender-bias lawsuit filed by two female former employees—which you’d think would make a company especially cautious about not offending women.