Breaking the Mirror-tocracy

Today I gave a keynote to the Women Who Tech conference, an online TeleSummit produced by Allyson Kaplin. Below is the text version of the talk.

Welcome and thank you Allyson for inviting me to Women Who Tech. I’ve spoken here before about funding, startups and internet culture, but today feels like the most important thing I’ve talked about anywhere. It’s important to me, and I believe you are here because this topic really matters to you too. Just being able to share what I believe is critical about changing the mirror-tocracy we have in Silicon Valley gives me hope, that we can begin to turn things around.

What I want to talk about today is complex and brings up many thoughts for people when I’ve talked about this issue before, and I want you to really consider this issue deeply. Without deep consideration and ongoing discussion, I don’t believe we can solve the mirror-tocracy, or many of the other problems that are dangerously close to hurting us as people, a culture, a planet, that result from similarly toxic issues within our culture.

First, I want to share with you the concept of mirror-tocracy. The first time I heard the word, it came up in a Register article in 2011. It plays off the word, Meritocracy, which Dictionary.com describes as “…an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.” Mirror-tocracy is a clever word that people have been using quite a lot lately to describe the problem in Silicon Valley between the defaults, the people with privilege, access, advantages over other non-defaults who do not share the same access or opportunity.

Of course, this is issue exists on a spectrum. What has traditionally been “white male privilege” isn’t guaranteed now or ever, even with the advantages of race and gender, as other factors come into play: age, sexual orientation, tribal affiliation or relationships, exposure to ideas, religion, health and stature, as well as class and the superficial references to class such as what beer you drink or your choice of car, dress, etc. that tell people about your class. We could go on and on debating how much or which of these factors and their versions that confer certain statuses are more or less helpful to defaults or non-defaults. But you get the idea. There are factors that are about who we are like race, gender, sexual orientation and depending, religion, that we cannot change, as well as behavioral effects that reflect choices that we might hide about ourselves in the context of our work lives. But depending on what mix of non-defaults qualities we have, we can find ourselves very very far from the default.

But I want to focus on what we can do constructively to get ourselves out of this mess. Which, depending on what examples you look at, has devolved in a “Lord of the Flies” “cultural of being” in some sectors. While the lord-of-the-flies culture isn’t everywhere, it’s acceptable anywhere if you are a default and of the right age, right now. And that scares people. It scares me.

Like many of you, I’ve tried over the past dozen years to effect change, only to see our problems between defaults and non-defaults get dramatically worse. In fact, just naming off the examples could take up the rest of the talk, but you know the Ellen Pao trial because you were probably glued to Re/code (and thank you Kara Swisher for being CEO of Re/code and insisting on two women to cover the trial!). You know and may have lived personally the stories of brogrammer engineering rooms and 95% all male conference speaker lists where at least one guy builds his presentation around porn. You probably already know that in 1985, 35% of computer science degrees went to women YET by 2010 it was 18% — 14% if you look at major universities.

I’ve worked on a number of tactical solutions over the years, like:

* helping women get speaker training

* encouraging and submitting women to speak at events

* helping women pitch their companies to funders and get into the entrepreneurial ring

* helping women get mentorship and family support they need to stay on leadership tracks

* helping women get into science and technology tracks in school and keep them in those tracks in the working world

* getting more women in the room to change the tone of products, companies and non-profits to appeal to more than just defaults

* blogging and talking how when you hire, you need to think about how women will read the ad: “kick ass engineer” will likely not get women applying

* blogging and talking about how when you hire, you must remember that women often undersell and the men often oversell, but if you even them out they are often similarly prepared for the job

But these are salves. Salves you might apply to a sore throat, but would you give a throat salve to a throat cancer patient? It might provide temporary relief, but it won’t cure the person. We are dealing with problems that are more akin to cancer here and they require a deeper look, and a deeper solution.

Recently, I’ve coached a number of mostly male CEO’s as they look to hire more women, and some of the solutions I’ve suggested are ones I just mentioned above: practical and tactical. But this past year, what I’ve been telling CEOs is a different story than what I’ve discussed before: a story that addresses the deeper issues, and is something I ultimately concluded would address the real problem about four years ago — we must address emotional literacy.

What I believe is that fixing Mirror-tocracy hinges on our collective emotional literacy. On the part of CEO’s, often mostly men, mostly the default privileged kinds of people I mentioned earlier, and on the part of non-defaults, as we have our own understandings of the world. For the future of our society, where we want to see all people contributing their full potential, not underemployed, not frustrated and shut out of opportunity. Right now as you know, the non-defaults aren’t seeing the opportunities that defaults see, which means the fabled meritocracy is actually a mirror-tocracy. And that’s why that term, mirror-tocracy is so effective. The successful are looking into the mirror as they promote and advantage people just like them.

So what do I tell CEOs of well funded startups and big public companies looking for diversity and not understanding what is going on? Regarding women, because that’s usually who they want to hire, I talk about emotional literacy from this perspective:

I ask that male CEO what his biggest fear is about women. And he usually looks confused and says there is nothing he fears about women. And so I say, you know what the biggest fear is, carried deep in the body, that most men have about women? It’s that a woman will manipulate him, and he won’t even realize, until it’s too late. And the look of both a bit of fear, and also recognition of the problem is there on his face. And then I say: you know what the biggest fear is, carried deep in our bodies, that we women have about men? It’s that a man will be aggressive with me, and it will be too late for me to save myself. It’s why we go to great lengths to prevent putting our bodies in harms way. And I continue telling him that even though most women will never manipulate you, most of the time, you still deeply fear getting caught in it. And even though most men will not ever be aggressive with me, most of the time, I’m deeply aware that even one time could result in a life changing event. So I do what it takes to be safe.

So when women see ads for an engineering job or whatever, and the ad is aggressively written and a candidate is asked to say, perform a half dozen puzzles in 15 minutes on the front of a webpage, we often won’t do it. Because we have a deeply held bodily fear of aggression. And when we get into an engineering room and the guys are drinking beers all around us every day at 5pm and the talk is starting to get sexual and the banter is loud, and the place smells like a frat house, we often leave and just try to put it behind us. We often don’t try to work through that, because it hits us with the deep understanding we have about not being able to win in a situation like this.

At this point, the CEO usually says that they get it, but they also look surprised. I often get a bit of a knowing smile. As in, they have to confess that they do hold fears and beliefs about women, and they recognize the fears and beliefs that women hold about men. It’s one version of default vs. non-defaults unconscious beliefs that keep us from working at our best together.

All of this is to point out that we are operating on a level that is superficial, yet grounded in unconscious understandings of ourselves in many of our dealings. These unconscious beliefs drive our decisions, behaviors and associations underly the mirror-tocracy. And solving for this unconscious state we call our tech culture, requires that we as women leader both in tech and often in what the culture tells us is our value: as nurturing communitarians. In this case, with the sickness we are dealing with, we can start with ourselves.

I don’t mean we women are responsible for the mirror-tocracy problem, or the inequality of opportunity generally in our culture, or that we are solely responsible for fixing it. I do mean that women have a leg up with emotioanl literacy as it is more socially acceptable for us to address issues of emotional intelligence. We are often leaders in our families and communities around emotional issues.

I am proposing that we take a stand in demanding that the cultural conversation happens, between all of us, defaults and non-defaults, men and women, around our emotional literacy. We can do this in two ways. Of course, one way is to have the cultural conversation and insist that it keep happening until the culture evolves enough that most people most of the time value emotional literacy and a conscious understanding of what we are doing and believing about the other when we interact.

The other way of addressing mirror-tocracy is to become as conscious as we are capable of individually as models of emotional literacy, to own our own stuff and take responsibility for it, and to be as upfront as we can regarding what we capable of, good or bad. To create safety for those around us, and show them how it’s done. This means that as a woman, I can say, or communicate to anyone in an unspoken manner: I am capable of manipulating you but I will not, because I don’t want to interact in a way that creates fear. I do want to interact with integrity.

In the same way, a man can say, or communicate in an unspoken manner: I am capable of interacting aggressively with you, but I will not, because it means interacting in ways that cause fear. I do want to interact with integrity.

The problem we are dealing with in our default culture now is that many guys aren’t really men: they are boys who haven’t had the leadership of older men to help them progress to adulthood. And we need to make it clear that we need men to stand up and mentor boys to learn to become men. The problem in our culture is that the men really aren’t men. They’re boys. We’re failing our boys. And I fear the lack of adultness in our culture.

There are many other versions of these statements I have modeled, between various defaults and non-defaults. Since I am not in all the categories of non-default, I don’t want to presume to speak for people who have differing needs about what will help them feel safe to exist and have equal opportunity as they see fit to use it.

But having choice and autonomy to interact with transparency and integrity is the holy grail. It’s what we crave deeply in our bodies. Every one of us, no matter what categories of human we may inhabit needs and wants this. Creating safety across people who differ IS the turning point to end mirror-tocracy, to end the adolescent, lord-of-the-flies glorification. I get this is difficult and much easier said than done.

In practice, many people won’t feel safe enough even to attempt these statements, even if it’s not verbally communicated. But having the much needed and long public conversation about our emotional literacy and calling the kind of culture we want must happen if we want the mirror-tocracy to change.

I feel strongly that our own emotional literacy and that of our culture, equally addressed, will change our mirror-tocracy into a meritocracy, from privilege for defaults only, to one where ability and talent are the deciding factors for where opportunity and reward is conferred. I believe it’s the most critical issue of our day: becoming personally conscious as well as emotionally literate as a culture, because so much of what we face in our world is complicated and begs us to be adult in how we solve our complex problems.

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