What Do "Where Are The Women" Shitstorms Achieve?

Can we have a conversation about change and diversity that doesn't devolve into defensiveness and namecalling by the people in charge? We'll tell you when it happens. The latest example concerns women in tech. But there's a silver lining.

It started with a Wall Street Journal story noting that "only about 11% of U.S. firms with venture-capital backing in 2009 had current or former female CEOs or female founders, according to data from Dow Jones VentureSource. The prestigious start-up incubator Y Combinator has had just 14 female founders among the 208 firms it has funded."

So far, pretty straightforward stuff. But it was a quote from Rachel Sklar, who has agitated and organized extensively on the topic, that raised hackles. She said that part of the goal of the group she co-founded was to "chang[e] awareness, so that the next time Techcrunch is planning a Techcrunch Disrupt, they won't be able to not see the overwhelming maleness of it."

That prompted TechCrunch's Michael Arrington to grumble, "Until today I haven't really said what I felt" about the representation of women in tech, presumably because he's been silenced by all the ever-powerful women. How does he feel? It's not his fault, and yet it's all about him anyway.

I'm going to tell it like it is. And what it is is this: statistically speaking women have a huge advantage as entrepreneurs, because the press is dying to write about them, and venture capitalists are dying to fund them. Just so no one will point the accusing finger of discrimination at them.

This is a familiar mantra to anyone who's ever critiqued an institution from the outside — the worst crime, it seems, is feeling like you're being called a sexist prick, and not, you know, thinking about how you might unconsciously be behaving like one in your day-to-day actions. And the impulse is to be defensive and point to everything that the underrepresented group isn't doing, or blame the person speaking up about it.

Jay Smooth recently said, about the response to this site's reporting and critique of The Daily Show, which has not a few parallels to the women in tech situation,

So many people are susceptible to that, whenever someone questions something they said or did, people automatically take it as a referendum on, "am I a good person or not?" and the response is, "how dare you question me, I'm a good person!" And it's not about whether you're a good person; prejudice and privilege and the blind spots they create, these are things good people are going to struggle with all their lives. We're all human beings, we're all going to be prone to having blind spots and preconceived notions – that's the nature of being human, we're imperfect. This attitude that, "I'm a good person, therefore I shouldn't be questioned on things" is kind of like, "my bathroom is clean, so I don't need to clean my bathroom."

Amen. Compare Arrington's approach to the reaction of another man in technology, who took issue with Arrington's assessment of Silicon Valley as being "more merit driven than almost any other place in the world. It doesn't matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are. If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really, stinking rich." Laurie Voss, a (male) tech blogger, responds,

Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. It matters enormously how old you are — either too young to be taken seriously as an entrepreneur, or too old to be taken seriously talking about new tech. Your color is ridiculously important, because the people with money, who are almost exclusively men and mostly white, are more comfortable talking to other white men, and your nationality even more so, because of visa restrictions. Even your politics are important, because Silicon Valley is hugely liberal, and those who aren't democrats are libertarians.

And above all your gender matters. Because the ugly truth is that the men of Silicon Valley do not take women in tech seriously by default.

It goes on thoughtfully from there, concluding, "The reason there are so few women in tech is because of the men. As a man, I'm trying to do my part to undo that, and if you're a man I suggest you do the same."

Moreover, it's a mistake to say, as Arrington did, that critics of institutions and systems are merely whining and not doing anything constructive with their critiques. ("There are women like Sklar who complain about how there are too few women in tech, and then there are women just who go out and start companies.") Those aren't the only two options. Some other ones: opening up a discussion about the hows and the whys of underrepresentation and what to do about it, organizing events, promoting and connecting the few who are already out there and being ignored, providing role models and inspiration to the ones to come. All of which only happen when a few people aren't afraid to ruffle some feathers and keep talking about it no matter how annoying it is to the gatekeepers.

For our part, we were gratified to hear from one rising star helping to mix it up a bit, this time in the entertainment world, that "all the screaming on blogs and message boards is starting to pay off," having "provid[ed] a forum for smart female audience members' frustrations with being completely underrepresented in the marketplace."

And in fact, judging from the over 700 comments on the Tech Crunch post, as well as over a thousand tweets and blog posts, and more blog posts to come, that's already happening in this case. So much for just whining about it. What's next?

Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men [Techcrunch]
To TechCrunch's Battle Of The Sexes: No One's Blaming Anyone [WIMN]
Addressing The Lack Of Women Leading Tech Startups [WSJ]
Arrington Is Completely Wrong About Women In Technology [Seldo]
Related: The Feministing Five: Jay Smooth [Feministing]

Earlier: Accounting For The Lack Of Women In Technology And Startups

Image Via Paul Barnwell/Shutterstock