In discussions about workplace sexism, “I didn’t know” isn’t good enough
It’s starting to feel as predictable as gravity. As soon as a high-profile piece comes out detailing the sexist culture of an industry, a chorus of voices insists this is the first they are hearing about it. Last week was no different.
- Marissa Mayer downplayed Travis Kalanik’s responsibility for the toxic culture at Uber by saying “I just don’t think he knew”.
- In response to Katie Benner’s New York Times piece about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, 500 Startups Founder Dave McClure confessed that his initial reaction was “What did I do wrong? Why are people so upset?”
- In his admirable and actionable response to that same piece, Chris Sacca admitted he is only “learning right now in real-time” the ways he has contributed to a culture of harassment.
I want to say that I have a huge amount of respect for Sacca’s apology. It is so much more than the standard self-flagellation with a vague response to “do better”. I love that he has taken the time to not only list the concrete steps he’s going to take moving forward, but he calls on his fellow CEOs to do the same.
At the same time, this refrain of “I didn’t know” is getting hard to take. Because if these CEOs spent as much time listening to women as they do listening to men, they would know. This ignorance is a both a symptom and a cause of the lack of gender diversity in tech, and at this point it is hard not to feel like that ignorance is willful.
Why did it take being called out directly before he and Dave McClure took the step of examining their own interactions, or reaching out to women in their networks for feedback? How did they see so many of their peers being taken to task, and never wondered if they might also be part of the problem? Why did yet another group of women have to have excruciating conversations in a major media outlet in order to get on the radar?
The answer to all of these questions is the same. Without a critical mass of women at the table, board rooms (and back-rooms!) function as echo chambers. Sexism and harassment go unchallenged and become normalized, because there aren’t enough women in the room to call it out.
Because if you get enough of us in one place, and make sure that our perspectives are valued and respected, we will call it out. We are having these conversations already. We share horror stories and we name names. In Facebook groups and Twitter DMs, we let each other know which CEOs get it, and which ones are going to try to get in our pants.
But men and women can’t stay in silos like this, or nothing is going to get better. It is completely inefficient that a man has to read about this in the New York Times rather than through regular conversations with women around him. And there is limited benefit to women only airing these grievances where there are no men around to hear them.
So if CEOs are as tired of saying “I didn’t know” as we are of hearing it, we have a simple solution: Get more women in the room, and listen to us once we get there. Once you start to spend the bulk of your day around men and women, you will be exposed to these conversations before things are at a crisis-level.
We know it can get better. In fact, we can help you make things better. But it’s not going to happen without a concerted effort. So after you’ve taken the time to read the latest article and series of follow-up apologies, call us. We’ll find you women who can make things right before they go wrong.
I’m seeing a lot of accolades for the men who have apologized or spoke out on this issue. I also want to take the time to thank the women who keep putting themselves in the line of fire in order to force these conversations into the mainstream. Big love to Wendy Dent, Rachel Renock, Claire Humphreys, Kristen Ablamsky, Gesche Haas, susan wu, Leiti Hsu, Susan Ho, sarah kunst, Ellen K. Pao, Ann Lai, Niniane Wang, Susan Fowler Credle, Elizabeth Yin, Cheryl Yeoh, and so many others. Please let me know if I can do anything at all to support you. xo