Men Have Responsibility to Change the Sexist Culture in Tech

There has been a series of articles in the Norwegian media about sexism in the tech startup ecosystem. I wanted to reflect on the matter and offer my take on what men can contribute with to change the culture.

Sexism and gender discrimination hinders women from fulfilling their potential, undermines business, stifles innovation and creates obstacles for progress. Society would be better off if that wasn’t the case. Hence, it’s everyone’s responsibility and duty to stop sexism and gender discrimination and remove these obstacles from the way of progress. Women have been driving the change, while as the gender majority in the startup ecosystem men play an outsized role in upholding the status quo. Therefore all men should ask themselves: what can we do to contribute to this movement?

Patriarchy is a big, robust social structure with a strong network effect. Technology people know what network effect means: a system that is more robust, more powerful when more members participate in it and when they conform to the same set of behaviours. This system was built up over thousands of years and it has great economic and sociocultural momentum. There are confirming biases built into every interaction that makes it robust and resilient to change because it perpetuates itself. The bias breeds the same type of people, confirms the same patterns and sustains the monoculture.

Men are in a position of privilege and very often don’t realize how that affects their behaviour, everyday interactions, biases, the micro-environments and the subcultures that the sum of these create. It’s not enough to introduce legal frameworks in society against discrimination and pro equality. We need to change the culture. Because what could be perceived right now as the norm, the “business as usual” by one half of the population is something that is perceived as uncomfortable or even oppressive by the other half. Every single day. Laws won’t change that, people will.

According to a report commissioned by Investinor, only 0.99% of high growth technology companies in Norway are founded or run by women. The issue with highlighting a number is that it’s merely a dry statistic representing the end product of a complex, unjust system. In reality, this is about the daily experiences of half of the population. In an ecosystem where the majority of the members — and especially members in position of power — are men.

The often unconscious negative bias towards women creates uncomfortable experiences and undermines trust. The social life at work, the interruptions, the off-hand comments on appearance and marital status, the stolen or silenced ideas in the male dominated meeting room, the “hersketeknikker”. Ask any woman and they can give you a long list of examples of “casual”, everyday sexism and discrimination. This is a cultural issue, and since the startup ecosystem is very young in Norway, it’s up to us the entire community, women and men to define what kind of culture we would like to create.

Abusive, intolerable people are the symptom of the problem. It’s actually the “nice guys” who are creating these everyday experiences. “Nice guys” are the ones who are normalizing sexism since “nice guys” are supposed to be nice. Therefore confronting the sexism coming from “nice guys” makes women feel invalidated, it makes them feel that the problem is in fact with them. Think about how damaging these examples are: the apologist recommendations to “take it as a compliment” when a woman complains to a male friend about unwelcome attention or the random, lighthearted sexist jokes and the casual “that’s what she said” comments. They are invalidating and condescending.

Feminism defines the direction of change that is required to break down legacy systems and restructure society in order to provide equal opportunities and equal treatment to everyone, independent of their gender. Feminism can’t be an issue only for women if men hold the status quo together. Feminism has a role for men, though that role is not central. It’s not the role of the saviour, the protector, the white knight in a shiny armour with a sword. It’s the role of a cooperative ally who is listening and capable of continuous self-reflection and support. Let women define feminism, challenge the status quo and drive the change! They got this. But men can’t take a passive attitude in this issue. Every men has responsibility to change this culture by reflecting on their behaviour and by eliminating their biases.

Here’s some practical advice for men:

  • Stand up against sexist or downright misogynistic behaviour. Call out other men and sanction those who are repeatedly misbehaving. It’s not a sign of weakness or lack of “manliness” if you do so.
  • Don’t accept inappropriate behaviour as “the norm”, or “this is startup culture”, “this is engineering culture”. You represent the culture and the change too. You can do something about it.
  • Be inclusive. Don’t create an environment where people are dominated or suppressed because of their gender or race. For instance, in a meeting: call out those who are interrupting others and invite everyone to share their opinions if you feel their voices are suppressed. People should be valued for their knowledge, experience, talent and perspective not their gender, race, ethnicity or any other characteristic.
  • Call out apologists. It’s not okay to excuse inappropriate behaviour on alcohol, plain ignorance or on the basis that “he’s like that”.
  • Listen and practice continuous self-reflection to develop a healthy self-awareness of your privilege and your behaviour. Ask your colleagues, ask women around you and listen to their feedback.
  • Help each other, be role models for others. Raise boys and young men who will do the same.
  • Know when to get out of the way. Sometimes that’s the best way you can help.
  • Reframe how you look at and act around abusers of power. Abusive people are not powerful. Often they are weak, insecure, unhappy people. They need help. Don’t support their efforts to put other people down.

We are innovators. We do what’s right even when it’s hard. We push against resistance. We strive for change and thrive in change. We envision better worlds. We solve problems. We disrupt the status quo. Let’s use these qualities to address and solve this issue once and for all! Together, women and men.

To summarize it to fellow men: let’s take responsibility, let’s reflect, let’s be aware and let’s change! As the gender majority in the startup ecosystem, we have a great responsibility to ensure that our behaviour creates an environment that welcomes and empowers everyone, and treats everyone with equal respect. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also good for business and good for society.

Note1: If you are based in Oslo, join our group Locker Room Talk on Facebook to discuss culture in our startup ecosystem.

Note2: Emphasizing and prioritizing gender discrimination doesn’t mean that we are overlooking other issues such as discrimination against race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. We are continuing the discourse about such issues and their intersections in the coming months.