I’m done being the problem…

(This article was originally published to LinkedIn on 8/16/17)

I’m sorry for being part of Silicon Valley’s gender problem. No, I haven’t done anything wrong, it’s what I haven’t done that I’m sorry for. Last week I was speaking with a colleague about the current state of gender affairs in the tech industry and she observed:

Not a week goes by without men being inappropriate, whether it’s walking on the street or even at networking events.

As if the point needed further emphasis, that same week I was at a networking event with her and when we caught up towards the end of the evening she relayed what sounded like a rather uncomfortable conversation with an entrepreneur that quickly strayed from professional interaction to inappropriate advances. I responded with a nervous smile and disapproving nod, nothing more…I didn’t ask his name, I didn’t ask the company he was with, I didn’t ask for additional details on the interaction, and therein lies the problem. As Jason Henrichs recently wrote “we [men] are the problem”, and in retrospect I couldn’t agree more. I’m ashamed to think of all the times over the course of my career that I’ve nervously smiled and sat silently when business contacts have made inappropriate comments and sexual innuendos about female colleagues.

While society in general is increasingly holding individuals and institutions accountable for questionable acts of commission, there needs to be equally aggressive demands for greater accountability for individuals who commit acts of omission, by idly standing by while inappropriate behaviors go unchecked. As a man its hard for me to imagine how such behaviors are accretively demoralizing in ways that stack the deck against professional success for women. When I shared a draft of this article with my colleague she observed:

Men don’t think about the harm they are causing with their behaviour. The guy at the event probably thought: “hey, even if there is only a 10% chance she would be attracted to my inappropriate directness and showing off about my material possessions, what do I have to lose?” No thought was spared about how I might feel. How it may impact my confidence to think that the only reason someone wants to talk to me is because they want to have sex with me. That my hard work and achievements don’t matter. Would I be taken more seriously if I was a guy, or old, or unattractive?
Is my only chance to have a conversation to ignore comments like that, swallow my pride and confidence and just let it be buried in the graveyard of insults and inappropriateness?
No! We should never make women feel that way. The likelihood of the same thinking happening the other way round are incredibly slim. Men rarely get reduced to their looks like that. They rarely have to ask themselves the questions women do….

It’s hard to read that, and it’s even harder to accept that I have had a part in allowing such behaviors to persist. At a certain point the tech industry needs to accept that investors, entrepreneurs, managers, and colleagues who engage in acts of omission are just as guilty as those who engage in acts of commission, and while it’s difficult to change an entire industry, I can change my own behaviors, and those around me, in ways that Silicon Valley understands.

As humans we don’t simply do what we’re told to do, rather we do what we are incentivized to do. Behavior, thinking, ideas and focus all naturally evolve inline with reward systems and when reward systems conflict with an enlightened future state, reward will most likely carry the day (just ask Wells Fargo about this dynamic).

A systemic solution to what ails the tech industry must focus on realigning reward systems with an ideal end state: an ecosystem where men and women are treated equal, an environment where women do not need to be constantly on guard, an organization where people are free to do the best work of their careers unencumbered from fear and doubt.

To achieve that ideal end state, investors, entrepreneurs, managers, and colleagues that I work with need to know that I personally will not…

  • Take money from an investor…
  • Partner with an institution…
  • Work with a collaborator…
  • Keep or hire a team member…
  • Do business in anyway whatsoever with anyone…

who willfully turns a blind eye in the face of misogynistic comments, sexual innuendos and in general inappropriate behaviors towards any of the colleagues I work with. That’s it…fairly simple, it’s not a big ask, just be honourable and treat my exceptional colleagues with courtesy and respect.

One final point, I think it’s important to emphasize that my purpose isn’t to keep score or create a counter-productive black list. I genuinely believe people can and often will, do the right thing when their attention is called to lapses of judgement. Hopefully by explicitly signaling seemingly sensible expected norms and imposing short-term costs on deviations from those norms, we can begin to get closer to a more constructive and just community.

In short…I am done being the problem.