Some ideas on how male founders (and investors) can become an ally to women in tech
Ashton Kutcher made waves this week by asking a series of well-intentioned, if mostly tone-deaf, questions about how we can improve the issues surrounding women in tech.
Big thanks to entrepreneur Trent Bigelow for asking the single most important question I’ve heard lately: “How can I be a better ally to women in tech?”.
Here are some of my thoughts.
Asking that simple question is the single most important thing anyone can do! Answers may vary, but just the act of genuinely asking — and then genuinely listening — is a good step in the right direction.
Some things I might do if I were a guy in tech, to become a better ally and part of the solution include:
1- What am I, a clown?
Shut down sexist, objectifying, or misogynistic “jokes” being told around you. Immediately and without regard for the position of the “joker”.
This goes double for “locker room talk”. Don’t be Billy Bush. Be a real man. Have the courage to stand up and say so when something’s not okay.
On a related note, when a woman points out a comment as being sexist, offensive or misogynistic, don’t tell her to lighten up or get over it. Believe her. Listen to what she’s saying.
2- She’s not a girl, she’s my CEO.
Go out of your way to use gender-neutral adjectives. when discussing or describing female colleagues, peers, employees, acquaintances. For example: instead of describing a female batch mate as “a great female founder”, you might say something Iike “(name) is the most resourceful entrepreneur I know”.
3- Death to mansplaining.
Try to be cognizant that your female counterparts are not being talked over, interrupted or mansplained in meetings or group settings. When it happens, because it will, be the guy who says, “hey, Jon, thanks for restating Stephanie’s idea…Stephanie what else would you add?”
4- If you see something…
On a more concrete note, just remembering to keep your eyes open at events, especially evening events, to make sure women around you aren’t being physically intimidated, threatened or advanced upon.
If you see or hear anything uncool, step in. Do not wait. Be her ally, or as my friend Emma Schwartz called it, her accomplice.
When I was part of Batch 9 of 500 Startups, groups of us would often go down the street to a popular Irish pub for dinner and drinks. Bear in mind, this is downtown Mountain View: an affluent, educated, safe & progressive town.
Late one night I left the bar and since it was a typically beautiful night on the peninsula, decided to walk back to my apartment, less than a mile away.
Walking down well-lit Castro Street, I had the sense that someone was following me, so I did what most women do, and used reflections in store windows to look behind me. Sure enough, there was an unknown guy behind me, lagging back, and moving seemingly cautiously. I quickened my pace and after another block, checked again. Still there, head up, not texting (this stands out in a town of techies), eyes looking right at the back of me. He’d closed some of the distance by now.
Thankfully I was very close to the office by this point and had a key card that gave me 24 hour access, so I decided to go into the building and lose him.
I went inside, used the lobby restroom, hung around for a couple minutes, then went to peek outside. Sure enough, he was loitering in the front area outside the building.
My apartment was only a short distance away, but I’d have to cross through a small park to get there and I wasn’t about to take that risk.
I went upstairs and figured I’d just have to spend the night on the infamous white couch in the office. Before lying down, I tweeted a brief note about the creeper situation.
Within moments, my fellow batch-mate Pranay called me and told me “come to the back door, I’m in an Uber and we’ll pick you up and bring you home”. Which he did.
And that, guys, is how you can be an ally. Thank you Pranay for that. I’ve never forgotten it.
5- Hire us.
Actively seek to hire & promote women, especially in technical roles. We do exist and yes, girls can code!
It’s just good business. Multiple studies show that diverse companies are more profitable, have higher levels of employee and customer satisfaction, and lower employee turnover rates.
6- Put it in writing.
As a founder, you have the obligation to create, educate your team on, and strictly follow a sexual harassment policy inside your company. See Chery Yeoh’s recent blog post for an excellent outline of a framework. Take swift action in the event that it’s violated.
If you’re a VC, you’re under the same (if not greater) obligation, both inside your firm and frankly, within the companies you fund. In fact, I’d like to see VCs require and verify during diligence that any startup they invest in must have a sexual harassment policy in place and that there’s some form of ongoing training for employees.
7- Keep it where it belongs.
Don’t mix business with pleasure. Period. If there’s ever a situation where you meet a woman in anything remotely resembling a professional situation, and you believe there’s a possible romantic connection there, ask her very clearly: “Is this business or personal?” BEFORE meeting up again or making even the slightest advance.
You’ll notice that several of these suggestions have more to do with sexism, really. That’s because the real root of sexual harassment & assault in the professional world is very rarely about sex. It’s about the ingrained cultural devaluation of women.
When we’ve got powerful guys like Paul Graham running around saying stuff like ‘women aren’t engineers' (!), there’s a long standing systemic issue we’ve all got to fight. It’s definitely worse in male-dominated industries like tech and finance, but truthfully it’s pretty pervasive everywhere.
Even men who genuinely care about women’s rights can falter easily, as we’ve seen. We can change this. Asking the right questions is the first step.