Can We Fix a Strange Year at Uber?
What the Tech Industry (and every industry) Still Doesn’t See
Over fifty years ago, our foremothers led the women of our nation to demand equality, marching for fair pay, the of end sexual harassment, and autonomy over their bodies. We easily forget the ugly in our history: that women could not be legally raped by their husbands. That without the ability to work outside the home, they could not provide financial stability, and hence, leave a husband with a drug or alcohol problem. Domestic violence was a private issue.
Despite fifty years since the passage of Title VII, which made sexual harassment illegal, we learned earlier this week that sexual harassment is alive and well. Specially, at Uber. On Sunday, Susan J. Fowler’s, a former Uber employee, relayed her story of sexual harassment, and more disturbing, Uber’s refusal to address the behavior because it was the first offense of a high-performing employee. Turns out, multiple women were subjected to sexual harassment at the hands of this individual.
Uber is not the only bad tech actor. Least we forget, Apple has its own problems. And Reddit. The tech industry is a symptom of a larger disease that continues to pervade our culture, despite the progress we made generations ago. Why?
Maybe it’s because the most important lessons of our society are not openly discussed, and they are certainly not taught in schools. The way we socialize our boys versus our girls is subconscious, and nuanced, and void of any discussion that regards the difference between the male and female brain, and the evolutionary role of each to propagate the species. Society and technology may evolve, but as a species, we don’t. And perpetuating the myth of equality, versus a discussion of equity, is keeping us stuck at best.
Are you satisfied with the current statistics, and the fate of your daughters: sexual harassment will be the least of her worries if we continue on this path. 1 in 5 college aged women is sexually assaulted, and 1 in 5 is raped. And in a day and age in which Brock Turner receives a slap on wrist, we are still saying to our girls, “Oh, he teases you because he likes you,” rather than addressing our sons to explain, “When she says no, you stop, otherwise it’s assault.”
Have no doubt: the way we treat our daughters is also detrimental to our sons. We over-masculinize our boys, teaching them to deny, suppress, and detach from their feelings. Denial causes them to act out violently and at best, creates men incapable of vulnerability, and hence, intimacy. This bleeds far beyond work.
Sexual harassment at Uber is a symptom of a cancer that is destroying us. The United States currently ranks 45th in the world in gender equity. Behind Cuba. Behind Rwanda. If you find that unacceptable, and want to step up, here’s how we begin:
Women Are Not Misbehaving Men
While the differences between men and women are completely obvious to a five year old, as adults we feel compelled to treat men and women as equal. The same. Problem: we’re not. A quick jaunt down neuroscience lane provides a number of answers as to the differences between how men and women view the world. Women have a thicker corpus callosum, which rapidly connects thought with emotion, creating diffused awareness. This means that women are aware of every detail in their environment at once.
Men are linear thinkers, which means they focus on one task at a time, shutting out their surrounding environment. There are benefits to both perspectives, but we never talk about the differences, so how would we as a society understand them, let alone use these different perspectives to address our current painpoints.
Evolution reminds us that women were the gathers, but more than that, it was the female’s job to keep everyone alive, whether it be chickens, children, or other tribal members. The female’s diffused awareness allowed her to scan the horizon for threats from coyotes or neighboring tribal members. A woman’s limbic system — the fight, fight or freeze center of the brain — is more readily triggered for this purpose, and the anterior cingulate cortex — the worrywart center of the brain in laymen’s terms — is also more easily triggered and alerted for longer. This is one reason why a woman will worry about the application after it’s submitted or any problem after its been resolved.
But as the hunter, a man’s brain is bathed in testosterone, a risk enhancing drug. Men are focused on taking risks, whether hunting wild game, or the the next deal or day trade. And if their risk is successful, their bodies will reward them with more testosterone, allowing them to take bigger, riskier risks the next time. However, testosterone is not helpful to critical decision making. A woman’s brain hosts a larger superior temporal cortex, which is responsible for logical reasoning. Hence, why we need both sexes.
Please note, it is a fine line to study neuroscience and understand why the sexes differ, and how that may increase the problem solving ability of teams in the workplace, yet it is another matter to utilize brain science as a promotion of gendered stereotypes, as science is malleable and not fixed. To be female is to be different, not inferior.
Socialization and Implicit Bias
Addressing the reality of our brain is but one aspect. Our subconscious bias as to how girls versus boys should behave is shutting down the self confidence of our daughters, sending mixed messages about how she can be anything she wants to be, but only if she is polite, still, quiet, and perfect.
When girls speak out in the classroom, they are eight times more likely to be reminded to raise their hand and wait to be called upon, versus a boy who will be engaged, prompted, and assisted in providing the correct answer to the teacher’s question. If a girl provides an incorrect or half-answer, teachers rarely provide space for her to pivot and think critically, but rather turn to the class and ask, “Who can help Sally?” This sends the message that if a girl is to speak at all, it better be perfect. Classroom conversations are critical to providing a safe environment for all our children to get messy, pivot, fail, and get up and try again. In fact, our ideas about gender are formed before we turn seven years old.
This is particularly important within STEM fields, where girls lack self confidence, despite feeling positive about school overall. Self-confidence provides children the freedom to fail, yet we are not providing this freedom for our daughters. Outdated stereotypes about which subjects are for girls and which are for boys continue to influence our culture, and hence, our choices. Females attending all girls schools did better in STEM subjects than girls attending co-ed schools, but centuries of gender bias cannot be eliminated overnight. Many women report being taunted and demeaned in physics, calculus and other STEM classes, while being told by male colleagues to “go find the marketing department.”
Why is this important? Because these subtle, unconscious stereotypes have big impacts as we age. Despite better behavior when girls are young (imposed by the fact that parents reprimand their daughters twice as often as their sons, and teachers interrupt and speak over girls more often), which leads to better grades, and higher college enrollment rates, girls graduate from high school 30% less confidence than their male counterparts.
This lack of confidence manifests in the workplace in a thousand different ways. The stereotype that women should be quiet and still persists, as women experience the “likable versus competent” bias. Numerous studies have described everyone from entrepreneurs to tenured faculty, and switched the name from male to female. The result: behavior that makes men a success makes a woman a selfish bitch. If a woman does speak directly — hence, choosing “competent” — she will be labeled as “too aggressive.” “Too aggressive” appeared twice as often on the annual reviews of women versus men.
This feedback undermines a woman’s already lackluster self-confidence, shutting down her resolve to speak out and contribute ideas. Women are more likely to be spoken over in meetings, to have ideas stolen, and to be assigned “office housework,” such as taking meeting notes or ordering food.
And this is all before we’ve addressed sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is not subconscious. It’s about power, and viewing women as objects, not subjects. Despite litigation, despite Anita Hill, 1 in 3 women will experience sexual harassment at work, typically young women who are underprepared to address the power dynamics at play. A mere three states require sexual harassment training.
The regression of good actors exposed by Billy Bush and Donald Trump last October demonstrates the complexity of the issue. Not only do we have a “boys will be boys” mentality leaking into society, but we have other women actually condoning the acts and dismissing the claims of the victims. We’ve elected a man to our nation’s highest office who used the language of sexual assault (not an opinion, but a legal fact), and 53% of white women voted for him.
Make no mistake: if fixing sexism were easy, society would already have done it. It’s not. But exposing these transgressions provides us an opportunity to open dialogue and discuss outdated perceptions. Part of the reframe is this false notion that men and women are equal.
Equality is a myth. The sexes are different. But equity is the idea that we understand and value the differences that we as individual men and women bring to work. We do not think alike. We do not advocate for ourselves in the same manner. You don’t hire “the best person for the job” or “believe female employees are the same as the men.” Our subconscious bias seeps into our consciousness like a gas leak.
The most recent episode with Uber shows how decision makers at work continue to marginalize women, and in many cases, dehumanize them. While there is much we can offer in the workforce as far as training and strategy, the first step is perception, and shifting our view of women from misbehaving men to women, from object to subject, and in the case of sexual harassment, from seductress to sister.