Fretting, asking, and begging isn’t a plan: a response to TechCrunch on women in technology

Cross-posted with permission from Jon Pincus of Liminal States.

Success in Silicon Valley, most would agree, is more merit driven than almost any other place in the world. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are….  Statistically speaking women have a huge advantage as entrepreneurs.

– Michael Arrington in TechCrunch

Privileged much? *

The lastest firestorm about women and entrepeneurship got kicked off by Shira Ovide’s excellent Wall Street Journal article Addressing the Lack of Women Running Tech Startups.  With some fine quotes from Rachel Sklar, Dina Kaplan, Yuli Ziv, and Fred Wilson, as well as solid discussion in the comments, I thought it was a great read.  But not everybody agreed.

Every damn time we have a conference we fret over how we can find women to fill speaking slots. We ask our friends and contacts for suggestions. We beg women to come and speak. Where do we end up? With about 10% of our speakers as women.

Oh please.  Fretting, asking, and begging isn’t a plan.

Yes, it’s hard.  Stop whining.  Take some responsibility.

Allyson Kapin’s Stop Playing the Blame Game, Ja-Nae Duane 5 Simple Ways to Help Women as Tech Leaders, and Jessica Wakeman’s 18 Reasons Your Company Might Be a Sausagefest all have some specific suggestions for Michael and TechCrunch — or anybody else who’s working on diversity.  Here’s my perspective.

If you really want to make progress, treat it the way you would any other business problem you take seriously. Set goals, put a plan together, hire good people to help you, and do some real outreach.  Work with organizations like Change The Ratio, Women Who Tech, Anita Borg Institute, GeekFeminism, BlogHer, Fem2pt0, TechMavens, Women 2.0, ASTIA and so on. Invite them to guest post regularly on TechCrunch.  Go to their events.  Pay a diversity consultant and invest in their recommendations.   Oh and while you’re at it please work on race, age, and other biases in TechCrunch and your other enterprises.

Or not.  It’s up to you, of course.  But if you ignore all this input and keep acting defensive, don’t expect people to see you as taking diversity seriously.

There’s plenty more privilege (along with some sexism and misogyny) in the comment thread.  More positively there’s some good stuff as well, including perspectives from Michelle Lee of Mamabread, Michelle Greer, LToTheWolf, Cindy Gallop of If We Ran the World, and many others.   Women and allies are underrepresented in the thread but more than holding their own     There’s also a brief appearance from Fred Wilson, and a great riposte by self-described angry feminist Millercan, who responds to a clueless comment about meritocracy with:

have been in tech (my guess) since before you were in kindergarten. i’ve been rewarded based on merit. but never as well as men who actually shipped shitty products, or took out 16 million organizations with narcissistic behavior.

There have been some excellent followup posts as well, including from  Cindy Gallop, Michelle Greer,  Jamelle Bouie, K. Tempest Bradford and Terri on Geek Feminism,  Eva Smith, Ivan Boothe, Laurie on Seldo.com, Alyson Shontel, Kay on Feministe, clarely on Mavenity, Helena Stone, Fred Wilson and Irin Carmon's What Do “Where are the Women” Sh*tstorms Achieve? article in Jezebel.

That said, Arrington’s position has gotten some support, too. Here’s what the all-male team at Charles River Ventures has to say on Twitter:

I think of articles like this as a fascinating snapshot of how privilege, combined with the "guys talking to guys who talk about guys" cliquing behavior, leads to a remarkably convenient blind spot for Arrington — as well as a lot of his readers, and so many other privileged white guys.

At the same time, though, it’s also a great sign of the momentum that the women-in-technology networks and their allies are making.  The steady coverage in Fast Company, Mercury News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other high profile sites, along with the overwhelming evidence, increases the pressure on the “objective” defenders of the status quo.  It’s getting harder and harder to deny there’s a problem, and that the advantages moving ahead will go to those who address it most quickly.

So I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more “anxious masculinity under threat” blog posts.

Something to look forward to!

jon

* In fact, most don’t agree. Michael presumably knows the data that’s been published in TechCrunch and elsewhere about the superior performance of women-run startup. And yet less than 10% of the successes are by women. Unless you’re sexist enough to believe that women don’t want to run companies or are for some reason less qualified, there’s no way to reconcile this a belief that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy — let alone that women have systemic advantages.

Check out many insightful comments to Jon's post here.

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  • http://www.women2.org Angie Chang

    Hear, hear.

    Astia, led by Sharon Vosmek, should be included in the list of organizations moving women forward.

    Astia hosted a great summit — the “We Own It Summit” in June 2010 — which was not whining and man-hating, but fact-sharing and goal-setting. We came out of the summit armed with the current statistics and studies on women, founding companies, and venture capital. The summit produced solid ideas for growth, goals for increasing the number of female founders, women investors, et al. — and metrics to measure our goals against.

    You can find the results of the conference here:
    http://www.slideshare.net/svosmek/2010-we-own-it-summit-results-and-goals-forward

  • Harry Waisbren

    I agree that, despite this sordid affair, it is a “great sign of the momentum that the women-in-technology networks and their allies are making” that Arrington became so incensed to bring his real opinions out into the open.

    It is only due to the growing pressure that someone such as himself would feel compelled to defend himself in this matter—even if it was only due to a moment of extreme frustration that got the best of him. The cat’s out of the bag now, though, that’s for sure….

  • http://talesfromthe.net/jon jon

    Andrea, excellent point. ASTIA certainly should be on any short-list of organizations working in this area — we’ll add it to the list. Great to hear about the summit, and it’s exactly as you say: when you’re armed with the statistics and have specific goals, it’s a lot easier to make progress.

    Harry, from Arrington’s perspective, he’s clearly frustrated that he’s not getting any credit for what he has done. TechCrunch is a lot more diverse now than it used to be, with a female CEO and two female senior editors — props to him. And yet even so people keep busting his chops … meanwhile Fred Wilson’s getting all kinds of positive attention! Whatever his mix of emotions when he wrote it, though, he did say what he thought, and the resulting dialog is hopefully useful.

  • http://madamaambi.blogspot.com MadamaAmbi

    Jon–I like your analysis, but here’s one KEY question: why would you or anyone believe “they” want to make progress? I don’t swim in these waters, so I’m not talking about these particular characters in this particular play, but it could be any play and I’ve already seen this play in academia (in fact, I hear tell this play has the one of the longest runs on Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway). Same arguments: they’re not knocking on our doors!

    Lots of noise about “wanting to make progress” doesn’t mean “they” want to or intend to make progress. It’s stalling, it’s disingenuous and it’s a politically correct/canny thing to say when really you like the status quo just fine, thank you very much! Who me? Cynical? Let’s just say I’ve been an observer of systems preserving the status quo while doing magic tricks to distract from the truth for a long, long, long time.

  • http://talesfromthe.net/jon jon

    Great question, MadamaAmbi — nice to see you! This play has been going on for a while in the tech field as well. My former research partner Jeannette Wing was co-author of a report from MIT in the 1980s which highlighted many of the barriers that exist today.

    Of course there are some of the same guys in the tech world who say the right things but don’t really invest the time, energy, and resources. Sometimes it’s an excuse for stalling; more often, though, I find that it’s more that they have become so used to the overwhelming maleness that they don’t even notice it. Sometimes when they get a good look at the data, or somebody finds the right way of reaching them, they suddenly get it and become powerful allies. This is one of the reasons data that Angie talked about is so important; some of the guys who identify so strongly as rational actually are, and the overwhelming evidence presented in a way they can grok convinces them.

    And there are some big differences in the entrepeneurial world from academia (my Dad was a professor/chair/dean). The entrepeneurial world in general is more meritocratic and less hierarchical and credential-oriented, and moves a lot faster. There are only a fixed number of tenured positions at universities so it is fundamentally a zero-sum game, while business allows for win/win virtuous cycles that “expand the pie”, as we love to say on PowerPoint slides. Right now it’s actually very much in people’s business interests to make progress on diversity: it broadens their recruiting pool and potential market, helps avoid blind spots, and leads to better product design, helps create win/win situations, and can lead to publicity.

    Superstar New York VC Fred Wilson is a good example of this. Back in April there was a remarkably similar (albeit more polite) exchange between him and Rachel Sklar about his VC firm’s 90% male recruiting pool. I am not sure what happened (although my guess is that his wife Gotham Girl may have had something to do with it) but since then he has really stepped forward. A couple of examples: he spotlighted Tereza Nemessanyi’s XX Combinator post and then invited her to guest-post (which is huge both for the idea and for her startup), and even wading into the comments at TechCrunch. One of the effects this has is very powerfully advertising to women-owned startups and women interested in a career in the venture community that here’s a guy (and presumably a firm) that will evaluate you fairly and is interested in working with you. When the industry as a whole is so hostile to women, it’s a huge competitive advantage.

    Finally I think women in technology have gotten steadily better at using social media to advance their causes in general, including this one. And that in turn reinforces the other aspects: more people see the data, and there’s more value in being an ally. I continue to believe that Twitter is a game-changer here. It makes it so much easier for the people and networks to find each other and communicate.

    So on the whole I’m optimistic that the people want to move forward are steadily overwhelming those who want to stall. Yay us!

    jon
    So on the whole I’m optimistic.

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  • http://cherrywoodburn.wordpress.com Cherry Woodburn

    I was tired on reading responses to Arrington’s post – not that there was anything wrong with any of the responses, I just grew weary as Allyson said of the blame game and sick of Arrington’s post being the focus. But today, found this one. Really good. Thank you.

    The only thing I wanted to add here, was that when I read the WSJ article I didn’t read it as blaming men. In fact, after reading Arrington’s post I went back and re-read the WSJ article. Still didn’t see it. My mother would have said “Me thinks thou doest protest too much.” Add the Charles River VCs to that.

    Cherry

  • http://talesfromthe.net/jon jon

    Glad you like it Cheryl! And it’s a good point about how the focus shifted to away from women to Arrington’s post. Fortunately it hasn’t stayed there.

    And yeah, I didn’t read the WSJ article in general or Rachel’s quote in particular as in any way blaming men either. “Protest too much” indeed.

    jon