In the Spirit of Smart People Not Being Quiet

I was idly waiting in my car the other afternoon and thought I’d take a quick look at my Twitter feed. I noticed the @sama post on smart people and public shaming:

My stomach started burning immediately, and I started scrolling through the responses, and couldn’t help noting all the other men chiming in to express relief that someone had finally voiced their concerns.

How could this be happening!? Only days before, in some similar idle waiting moment, I opened my Twitter feed to discover the flood of #distractinglysexy posts, and could not suppress the unbridled joy that surfaced when I scrolled through image after image of smart, focused, amazing women celebrating their contributions to science.

I don’t know Sam Altman.

Do I think he is a chauvinist trying to bolster white male privilege and silence women? No.

Do I think Tim Hunt (or any other man of privilege) should be be forced to resign from his job because of offensive comments he made at one event. No.

Do I think the world would be a better place if the #distractinglysexy Twitterstorm had never happened? Unequivocal no.

It flies in the face of common sense for me to publish this post (I am an entrepreneur running a bootstrapped business who should be doing financial projections and writing product specs right now rather than engaging in a politicized debate with persons of note in the investor community), but I feel compelled to do so. It’s 3:00am and this post keeps writing itself in my brain, so I might as well puts the words on virtual paper.

#distractinglysexy was not about Tim Hunt. His comments were so stereotypically insensitive that they tweaked a cord pulled tight by the collective experiences of countless women who work in male-dominated fields. The resulting sound was bound to resonate far and wide.

What I loved about #distractinglysexy was that it was about all the things women are achieving, not all the obstacles they face. And that was so unbelievably refreshing after the seemingly endless tide of articles (especially post Ellen Pao verdict) that enumerate all the statistical evidence that women don’t play on an equal playing field (amount of VCs who are women, percentage of VC dollars in female led companies, percentage of Fortune 500 companies run by women, and on, and on). When you’re a woman making her way in a field where you’re dramatically outnumbered by men, you already know from personal experience that you have a higher, steeper mountain to climb than the male manager next door. But the more you focus on that, the more time and energy you take away from getting to the top of your own mountain, whether that’s starting a company, getting a promotion, winning an award, or whatever.

For any dudes out there who felt a sense of indignation at the outcry over Tim Hunt’s comments, and who sighed a sense of relief and validation when you read @sama’s tweet, I ask you to take a brief pause and to look at the whole situation from a completely different perspective as an experiment. What you have to understand is that women who spend a career in male-dominated fields experience countless little incidences of unconscious bias that you never hear about. If you have not already, I highly recommend you read the outstanding post by @suedecker, A Fish is the Last to Discover Water, posted in the wake of the Ellen Pao verdict, describing the calculus that many women make to not say anything the majority of times little injustices occur, but to stuff those experiences in a compartment so you can focus on what you want to achieve.

To elucidate, here’s one experience I had that rates pretty low on the egregiousness scale, but is exemplary of things that happen all the time.

As a central IT manager in a large organization, I often had to sell central authentication services to business departments, many of which had their own IT shops. At one such meeting, I demo’ed a new Single Sign On service we were launching. I discussed the product’s integration requirements and key technical and business considerations, and answered a slew of fairly technical questions. At the conclusion of the presentation, the Director of the business unit said he loved what he saw, and turned to the manager of the applications development team and said “unless I’m missing something, this would just require a one line change from us, right”? The manager responded “two characters, actually”, and then he turned to me, looked over his glasses, and said “of code” with a pause afterwards as if he was trying to make sure I understood him.

How should I respond? In and of itself, this is a trivial incident. I really do want this department to migrate to our new authentication solution and how I respond will have a significant impact on the outcome of the conversation. Here are some factors that go into the insta-math calculation of what to say next:

Possible response 1: An honest and direct retort, like “Seriously? After this detailed technical overview you think I don’t know what a line ‘of code’ is? Cost: Super high. It could be months before I get them on board. Benefit: None. I would come across as a petulant child and they’d probably never migrate.

Possible response 2: Shame him by asking questions that out-tech him? Cost: High. Shaming someone is highly unlikely to persuade them to adopt a preferred solution. Benefit: A mild sense of personal satisfaction at having won at his game.

Possible response 3: A lighthearted quip like “Oh, you mean like the kind Ada Lovelace wrote”? Cost: Still too high. My main goal here is to help them understand the new service and adopt it. Benefit: Pretty much the same as above, but deeper satisfaction because I was able to add humor to it.

Possible response 4: Say nothing. Cost: I suck it up and stuff the experience in the compartment and move on. Benefit: He never feels challenged and it’s more likely they’ll use our new solution right away.

In this case, the insta-math is easy. I say nothing.

This was a very minor incident, and I won’t belabor the point by recounting others, some of which had much more significant consequences. Most women I know get very good at doing the insta-math and decide, in the vast majority of situations where they experience unconscious bias, that the cost outweighs the benefit when it comes to speaking up. So they stay quiet and move on. When it comes to officially reporting incidents to HR, @suedecker points out in her post that many women choose not to report because they do their own math and decide the distraction is not worth it.

This is all to say that just because you don’t hear about instances of bias against women all the time doesn’t mean they aren’t happening all the time.

More and more women are now sharing their stories, which they likely would not have shared 10 or 20 years ago, and which deeply resonate. One that stood out for me recently was the post by Emma Tessler, Founder and COO of Dating Ring, the company being followed as part of the excellent @podcaststartup.

She recounts with both humor and horror her experience of having an investor offer her money while simultaneously wrapping his arm around her to rest his hand on her “sideboob”. That experience, of having a man in a position of relative authority make an unwanted sexual gesture that is just subtle enough that you question your own sense of outrage and disgust, is an experience many women have had. But when they do the insta-math, they will often choose not to talk about it, at the moment or after. I can only imagine that as the shock wore off and the investor’s hand lingered on her sideboob, that there was part of her that wanted to say “get your fucking hand off my boob!”, but imagine the cost of saying something like that in the moment. I am not surprised she chose not to say anything then. And it took great courage to speak publicly even after the incident.

A very recent post I enjoyed was from Andrea Barrica (@abarrica) on how to crash an all male investor panel. She noted in her post that on the second day of the conference she was attending, “a male founder on stage made a joke about how data centers were like women. ‘They are powerful… and, like women, very expensive…’”. That “joke” implies a way of defining women that is not funny at all.

Moving to the Tim Hunt incident…His comments were uttered publicly in a context where women around the world still deal routinely with unconscious bias at best, and blatant sexism and discrimination at worst. Comments from a prominent white male scientist that so starkly reveal the biases that women experience routinely, but which most often go unmentioned, are bound to engender (pun intended) a reaction. Then add social media to the mix where the insta-math calculations are very different. The cost to any woman for adding a tweet to a storm of responses is negligible, and the benefit of sharing a sense of community with women who care deeply about their work and want to celebrate it is high.

You end up with an explosion of tweets that might feel unwarranted and unfair if you’re Tim Hunt, but the reality is that the effusion of posts was not about him, or denigrating his work, or trying to tear him down individually. Those posts were about acknowledging and celebrating all the myriad ways women lead scientific endeavors in spite of the obstacles they face. And the women who posted brought humor and a spirit of playfulness to the dialogue, much more than anger and frustration.

In my view, #distractinglysexy was not a Tim Hunt witch hunt (yes, I picked that word intentionally, too), but a completely understandable, spontaneous, collective outburst of women who work in a world where silence is too often the logical response to subtle and even blatant bias.

In my exuberance about all the awesome tweets I was reading, I didn’t think about the thousands of men out there who would be reading the same tweets and feel incensed at the injustice of this one poor man being pilloried for a single comment he made in bad taste. If you don’t look at the situation from the perspective of millions of women who work everyday in a world where unconscious bias against women in science and technology is pervasive, you see only this one man and what happened to him. I hope some people out there, men in particular, who have only been looking at this situation from Tim Hunt’s perspective, will try to open their minds to the way systemic bias impacts your female colleagues and see the whole event from that lens.

I assume most men out there, including @sama, have good intentions when it comes to supporting women in STEM, and I appreciate those intentions and it is in the spirit of fostering them that I write this post. I also know there are some who will read the #distractinglysexy thread, and posts like mine, and think “stop already you whining bitches, with your ‘woman run business’ advantages, and your $125M Intel Capital fund just for women, and and just leave men the fuck alone”. You may think this is extreme, but I have absolutely no doubt there are many, many dudes out there who are thinking some version of that even as they read this (well, they’ve probably stopped reading a number of paragraphs ago).

I do not think it was at all intentional, but the tweet last Monday from @sama gives all these real misogynists out there a voice (even if @sama does not intend to speak for them), a sense of shared indignation, a validation and vindication for the anger they feel about the unjust treatment of men. Sigh. And that is what makes my stomach burn.

But I can’t stay there for long! I have contract redlines to review, cashflow management to consider, and a sales pipeline to feed. I will go read some @smrtgrls posts to cheer myself up and get back to the work I care about deeply.