It’s Not Foot in Mouth Disease

A few days ago, Michael Moritz, who will be taking the stage at TechCrunch disrupt today, was asked about the dearth of women in his company, Sequoia Capital. His responses (among them, the firm is seeking women but “not prepared to lower our standards”) were described as “open mouth, insert foot.” Similar remarks across sectors and industries have been described this way.

But the “foot in mouth” characterization is wrong: it suggests that the speaker fumbled his words and misspoke. What’s happening when Moritz talks about “lowering standards” is not a clumsy handling of speech. It’s this: in that moment, a deeply hidden synaptic pathway is temporarily illuminated.

Let’s look at the Moritz example. When asked about Sequoia’s lack of women, he said they were looking, but “What we’re not prepared to do is lower our standards.” Now, no one had asked, “Are you willing to lower your standards?” No: that was the question he heard when asked about hiring women. That was the association he made. Here, then, is a map of his synaptic firings: women → lower standards.

The synaptic pathway was revealed again at various points throughout the interview. As evidence of the company’s eagerness, he said, “We just hired a young woman from Stanford who is every bit as good as her peers” and “If they can meet our performance standards, we’ll hire them.” No one had asked, “Will you hire women who can’t meet standards, or are not as good as men?” That was his association: women → not as good → exception → as good as a man.

Again, the problem is not that he misspoke. The problem is that the idea that women are not as good is so deeply embedded in the mind of so many people in positions of power, that it is not even recognized. It’s a belief system that leads one to automatically and without awareness, connect “women” with “lower standards” and “woman as good as a man” with “the exception.”

And its cumulative effects are profound. It’s why women must be 2.5 times as good as men to be considered equally competent. It’s why holding blind auditions for orchestras increase women’s chances of advancing to final rounds by 50%. It’s why professors who receive requests for mentorship from prospective students are less likely to respond if the request comes from a woman. It’s why women are hired and promoted based on proof, while men are hired and promoted based on potential. Moritz himself is a great example. In the interview, he suggests the pipeline of women in tech is the problem. But he was a history major and journalist when hired by Sequoia. They “took a risk” on him; at the time he was hired, he says, he “knew nothing about technology.”

As I’ve written about before, transgender people who experience the workplace as both men and women are the most eloquent observers of this phenomenon. As transgender biologist Ben Barres famously overheard another scientist say after he’d transitioned from Barbara to Ben, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Except in moments like Moritz’s interview, this deeply embedded belief system is rarely given explicit, legible form. And because it’s usually unspoken, it’s difficult to fully examine, question, and eradicate. A slip-of-the-tongue like Moritz’s is like the scent added to natural gas: tangible evidence of an invisible presence.

And the scent is where we must start. We must first acknowledge the existence of this belief. When Moritz says, as he did in the interview, “I like to think, and genuinely believe, that we are blind to someone’s sex,” it should sound an alarm. Classic studies have shown that those who claim to be objective make the most biased judgments of all.

Today, Moritz will take the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt to talk about leadership. True leadership would start with this history major examining his belief that the pipeline is the problem.

“Foot in mouth” moments are not fumbles, they are the opportunity. We must seize these moments to draw attention to a pernicious belief system, excavate it, and ultimately eradicate it. The gifts of 50% of the population are at stake. And the world’s problems are too great to do without them.

(Note: the original version of this article included a reference to biochemist Tim Hunt’s remarks that women were a problem in labs because they cried and “fell in love with him.” Several commenters pointed out that his quotes were taken out of context and of a different ilk than Moritz’s. Until I have time to thoroughly review the evidence, I am removing the Hunt reference.)