Diversity in Tech — A Global Problem

This week there have been a few big stories that have come out regarding diversity in tech. In particular, there were two stories regarding blatant sexism that stood out to me.

Whether you’re interested in tech or not, you’ve likely heard about the resignation of Travis Kalanick from Uber. In his defense, his resignation wasn’t entirely due to sexual harassment complaints within his company, but many will say it was the leading factor. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard rumors that Sheryl Sandburg could be picked for the job and — from an outsider’s perspective — I think that would be a big win for both Uber and Sandburg.

The other story — and final straw encouraging me to post today — was Dan Primack’s Pro Rata preamble. In it he exposes a VC for multiple allegations of sexual harassment from three different women. His message is clear:

Only sunlight can burn away this sort of behavior, and protect others from it in the future.

Sadly sexism — especially sexism in tech— still permeates today’s workplace and unfortunately it’s a global phenomenon. My experience in Ghana has been valuable because I’ve had the opportunity to reconcile my perspective with global (mainly African) peers. I try to do my best to understand rather than explain my view, but disagreements around gender roles are frequent. For example, friends have said that women should have full equality in the workplace, yet submit to the man at home. Their rationale is that workplace equality is necessary, but gender roles in the home are cultural. I find this hard to rationalize. For me, in practice, there is no way to disassociate the two. As a man, it wouldn’t come naturally to collaborate with a female colleague in the workplace if I’ve been trained that I don’t need to at home.

Note: I’ve edited the section below from my original post. I originally made an example of a team without their permission and it also put the team in a negative light I didn’t intend to. To the team, I’m sorry.

An important distinction to make about the sexism that I’ve witnessed (in Ghana and abroad) is that it’s usually not as blatant as something like “I won’t hire her because she’s a woman.” The challenge is that it often manifests itself in more subtle ways that are contextual. In a different post, Dan Primack cited a study referenced in this HBR article about how VCs talk about women versus men. The article suggests women are unfairly discriminated against because of ingrained stereotypes. For example, a male entrepreneur could be described as, “Young and promising” while a female one is “Young and inexperienced.”

The challenge is that calling a woman young and inexperienced in and of itself is not sexist…she may very well be inexperienced! If you imagine you’re in the room with the VC and you want to intervene in that moment, the message might be completely lost. Again, she may actually be inexperienced!

It may come across that I’m throwing stones in a glass house so I’d like to share an instance of this same type of contextual sexism. I want to make it clear that I’m embarrassed about what I did, but I’m hoping it will illustrate I’m not above this problem.

The example itself is very simple. I was in a meeting that was being run by a woman. She was a peer to the group — maybe a bit junior— and she was doing an excellent job of keeping an otherwise unruly bunch of people on task. She posed a question to the group, but before I answered her question — apropos of nothing — I said something along the lines of, “By the way, I like your outfit today!”

What’s sexist about that? Nothing, right? She’s very fashionable (although coming from me, that doesn’t mean much) and this particular day was above average for even her high fashion standards.

Like the VC example, most would agree what I said — in and of itself — is not sexist (although there are certainly deviations from “I like your outfit” that are). Maybe an hour or two after that happened, however, I reflected on the deeper undertones of what I said. I’ll never know why exactly I made that comment. Nor will we know if the female entrepreneurs the VC was discussing were objectively more inexperienced than some of her male counterparts. But if I’m honest with myself and think about the situation, I have an idea about what was going on in my head when I complimented her on her outfit. To be absolutely crystal clear, I’m disgusted when I think about what my internal, subconscious dialogue was probably saying. But again, if I’m honest with myself, it was probably along the lines of: She’s doing an excellent job of running this meeting, but fashion is a much more appropriate topic for a woman.*

While I believe this thinking is particularly egregious in Africa (some parts of the continent are more progressive than others), it’s worth emphasizing its a problem affecting the US and the rest of the globe. Moreover, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t exhibited many more instances of sexism (many of which I haven’t recognized). Even worse, I’d be lying if I said I’ll be immune to this type of sexism in the future. While I’ve resolved to avoid this and speak out against it, it’s been difficult for me to unlearn years of bias.

I’m ashamed to admit this post has been has been tough for me to write.** I think doing so essentially affirms that some of my success has come (and will come) from privilege — all forms of it— which is due to factors out of my control. Avoiding that sad-but-true fact, however, ignores that there are many people who have to out-work me to get the same results. I’ll choose to acknowledge this reality in the hope that it motivates me to get better instead of resting on my laurels.

Thanks to Dan and the many other thought leaders in the tech community who stand for positive change and provide examples for others to do so.

*I feel it’s worthwhile to say I tried to right my error in the future by complimenting her on her management skills after other meetings she led well.

**I also had a hard time writing my post-election post, but I had a lot of positive feedback from it both online and offline so I’m hoping this will be similar.

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