Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Blinkered and lacking ambition - Silicon Valley? Yes - when it comes to sexism in tech.

Blinkered and lacking ambition - Silicon Valley? Yes - when it comes to sexism in tech.

A recent techcrunch story on "how investors are trying to change the culture of Silicon Valley" brought this home to me. While no doubt well intentioned, the reported comments to my mind fall far short of what true meritocracy and disruption demand.

Indeed in its attitude to women and diversity more generally this is one area where the lesser land outside the Valley has something useful to say. Namely that even the well meaning folks inside the Valley bubble don't realize how, seen from the broader world outside the bubble, they are out of step with contemporary standards of behavior (heck even the law) and also missing an opportunity to embrace diversity and drive (and invest in) even more powerful innovation.

Disruption and the 10X change

Silicon Valley prides itself on its culture of meritocracy and vigorous embrace of disruption. This is a large part of what makes it  a huge source of dynamism for the US economy and an amazing talent magnet. We are fortunate it exists and long may it continue.

Things change and change fast in the Valley. Andy Grove's pursuit of 10X innovations seems positively pedestrian by modern Valley yardsticks now that the cloud and mobile power megaX disruption on a global scale. 

Yet in this one area the Valley culture seems steeped in the past and unwilling or unable to embrace the disruption it so prizes. Even a modest 1.1X disruption seems a tall order when dealing with sexism be explicit and unconscious, whether it be in the startup culture or on the funding side. Rather the narrative seems blinked and unambitious, indeed unValleylike! 

Before I go to the post here is a nice summary from a (New York based) founder:
"Some of the points being made are plain ridiculous and really they are just giving excuses. Most of the stuff is common knowledge that we are all taught at a very early age, if not from parents then from school."

And when it comes to fixes, there are plenty out there
But I like this one from a (New York based) VC whose response to the story was:
"It starts with the VCs ... we need to have zero tolerance in our own firms and in our portfolio companies."
Well said.

Here are some excerpts for the post ... with my counterpoints attached

1. ... many of these issues crop up because most early-stage startups don’t have a head of HR, and are sometimes being founded by people who haven’t worked in a professional situation before.

AQ: This is too easy a cop out in my view. Yes, there is a case for formal training and yes bigger "professional" firms do this. But do I really have to have a HR person and/or have worked in a "professional situation" so someone can tell me that overt sexist behavior is not appropriate in the 21st century? Especially since some of the people at fault here went to some of the preeminent educational institutions in an advanced country called the USA surely we should expect more of them? Specifically that they are accountable for their own behaviors both within the law and more general social norms.

2. ... in many cases, people don’t realize that things like harassment and the gender pay gap are illegal.

AQ: If this is accurate it is also pretty depressing. Who does not know that harassment is illegal? Who is unaware of equal pay legislation? Please tell what stone can I find these people under?

3. ... his firm does a regular audit of how many companies it has invested in that have women as leaders or founders. That number is currently about 15 percent, which might sound low, but is “surprisingly high for the peer group,”

AQ: Out performing a lousy benchmark is not really a cause for celebration but point taken. Still perhaps it's time there was a recognition that there is not a true meritocracy at work here and that numbers like these simply aren't good enough - for anybody and that wherever you are in the spectrum there is more to do. (Which, by the way, applies beyond gender demographics).

4. ... the portion of women who are founders and CEOs and the portion of women who are VCs are “inextricably linked.”

AQ: This is a pretty sad comment. Inextricably linked? Really? In defense of male VCs for a moment, this point is patronizing to them because it implies that male VCs reflexively invest in men and don't have the capacity to be objective and get past their own biases (albeit unconscious ones) and see opportunity where ever it resides. While there are a lot more female founders, the VC demographic isn't budging ... these sort of "pipeline" arguments really don't work in practice other than at a glacial pace.

5. ... it’s only a matter of time before one investment firm moves to dramatically change its own ratio. “The power move would be a high-profile VC firm announce not just one, but two female GPs”

AQ: While I under stand the sentiment and would applaud the outcome ... one female GP? Maybe even two? Surely we can be bolder, more disruptive than that? This is America! This is Silicon Valley! Time to recall Andy Grove ... and shoot for a 10X outcome.