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Post Tagged with: Sexism

We All Knew

We All Knew

All of a sudden, professional sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is being laid bare in the open, and most would argue it’s a good thing. Big-name CEOs and VCs are being brought down by, in some cases, major corroborated allegations of sexual harassment of employees, entrepreneurs, and coworkers. It’s a developing story, because people will continue to come forward and heads will continue to roll.

What’s most interesting to me is, this isn’t a surprise to anyone in the industry, especially women. But not just women.

We all knew this was happening.

We’ve all had friends, coworkers, and significant others harassed by coworkers, managers, CEOs and VCs.

Off the top of my head I can name a handful of (hitherto unreported) VCs and C-level executives who have harassed women I know.

I’ve even been personally harassed on behalf of women I know.

I have long waited for these people to be reported by someone. I can only imagine how victims feel. The waiting must be infuriating.

And therein lies the problem. Everyone was just waiting. This story was trying to ‘break’ for years–because everyone knew and was just waiting. It seems to me that cultural progress happens piecemeal and slowly, until it doesn’t, and the floodgates open. In this case, the culture was dammed up. Victims had to come forward to change the culture, and the culture needed to become more accepting of victims coming forward, so everyone just waited patiently.

Finally, this week, a cultural earthquake hit, and I think we should all be forced to think about why it didn’t happen sooner.

Though my experience is mostly secondhand and I certainly can’t tell victims’ stories for them, I don’t know if I would come forward if I were a victim myself. Professional repercussions from smearing the character of a powerful person would be one reason. But most of all, I would just be afraid to be believed. The private space in which social interactions occur between colleagues is a fuzzy area. “He said she said” dynamics abound. After all, often the harassment is verbal, not on the record. And even on the record, much actual, mutual flirting and sexual dynamics do take place in the very youthful, single world of tech. So although in each individual situation of harassment may be obvious to the victims involved, it has almost never been clear cut enough for the public.

In order for victims to come forward, culture needs to change. It needs to become more accepting (and believing) of women’s stories. The public needs to be willing and able to hear those stories and respond to them. A lot of people are crediting this latest wave of cultural tectonics to Susan Fowler’s blog post detailing her treatment at Uber, and before that, Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. Despite the criticism and attacks these and other women have faced (which may have discouraged more from coming forward) it’s clear that these stories build on each other to form a narrative, and when the narrative becomes undeniable, it helps to corroborate the experiences of victims going through the same thing.

And thus ultimately, in order for culture to change, we rely on the victims, the people who know better than anyone else, to tell us what’s happening, and to protect other potential victims out there. In all of these stories, there are lots of people who know before everyone else. Axios reported that Justin Caldbeck’s behavior “seemed to be an open secret among a subset of Silicon Valley’s small (but tight) network of women VCs and founders.” But as Lazaro Gamio wrote in that article, “The unfortunate truth is that I simply could not write this until Albergotti published, as I didn’t have anyone on the record, which is virtually essential from a journalistic perspective.”

That’s the great service that brave women who have put their names out there have done to shine a light on this behavior. And I’m glad that journalists are able to protect the victims who don’t want to go on the record from public exposure. It makes it likely that more people will come forward.

Even so, it’s incredible that it took so long–almost a decade–for this particular story to go public. And once it did, the repercussions were immediate and brutal. The question I have is, would the same consequences have arisen if the victims had come forward years ago?

Regardless, the obvious conclusion to draw here is that growth requires sunlight.

Which is why now, more than ever, we must realize the importance of journalists and bloggers, as the guardians and perpetrators of our culture, even when they get it wrong. Perhaps, if nothing else, because of these public revelations the threat of bad PR, lost business opportunity and reputation will force a change in behavior.

Because the thing I realized a long time ago is, there are bad apples out there who spoil the whole bunch. One bad CEO can destroy the culture of an entire company. One bad VC can torch opportunities for good entrepreneurs with the wrong chromosomes. It doesn’t require a ‘culture of sexism,’ or even ‘systemic’ sexism. It just requires a handful of individuals who ruin it for everyone else.

And I say everyone else, because good companies can’t get built that deprive themselves of the full talent and potential of half of the population. We all lose out on market making opportunities. We lose out on the benefit of having more mentors and colleagues to innovate and create with, to disrupt industries, to ‘kill it,’ in Valley parlance.

Unfortunately, so much of the damage has already been done. As we all know, this has been going on for years. For decades. For centuries. And in our own industry, in our own century, we’ve lost good people who may never come back.

July 2, 2017Comments are DisabledRead More
Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

I was reading my friend Luca’s blog post today about language and memories of our home stay in HaMakuya, Limpopo way back in 2009.  It was an awesome experience, and I have many fond memories of our host family and the various escapades of the children, who shall forever remember me as the white dude with the beard who couldn’t get the drum rhythms quite right.  But speaking of language, in Venda, the word for hello is different for men and women.  The women say Aa, which means “hello,” but the men declare Nda!, which literally means “I am a lion.”

This his how it usually happens:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

In my time in HaMakuya, I witnessed the interplay between Nda! and Aa several dozen times.  Sometimes the interaction was between two men, sometimes between a man and one or several woman, but interestingly enough, never from one woman to another–the household where we were staying was made up of mostly women of several generations, and they did not exchange Aa‘s as far as I could tell.  But as soon a man entered the conversation with the declarative “Nda!,” the women would always respond with “Aa,” accompanying it with a floor-level bow.

It is a challenge to modern notions of gender justice when you witness an old woman cowtowing to a young boy in casual conversation.  It is also difficult, as a foreigner, to let this situation play out without any judging the society based on moral incongruity.  One situation I saw that was particularly memorable was a boy who was just hitting puberty–maybe thirteen years old–walk into the household full of women, and without breaking his stride declare “Nda!”  The women, in response, all hit the floor with “Aa.”  What was striking about it was the level of bravado in his greeting: chest puffed out, chin lifted, with his voice intoned with confidence.  It was surprising to see this level of arrogance, especially in light of his smallish frame.  But for men and boys, the experience of Nda! must be imbued with an extreme level of self-righteousness, as it is always an opportunity to assert one’s dominance at the beginning of every conversation.  I suppose you have to give the men some credit; Whereas most men around the world must assert their masculinity in more subtle ways, the men of Limpopo can directly and forcefully declare their lion-hood to all company present without social awkwardness or shame.

The women, of course, are not ignorant to the peculiarity of this custom, and thus when a man walks into a room and declares “I am a lion,” it is not unusual hear the voices of the women dripping with irony as they assume their bows, often elongating their greeting with a sarcastic “Aaaaaahhhhh.”  At one interaction, I could have sworn I heard a woman say “Uh huh,” and she might as well have.  The tradition of Aa is clearly not taken very seriously by the women of HaMakuya.

So while a man hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

A woman hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  Sure you are, big guy.

That this very basic greeting, probably the cornerstone of conversation, can be used wildly differently depending on the gender of the speaker, speaks volumes about the role of language in society.  Words are the building blocks of ideas.  So when an entire Venda-speaking population communicates everyday greetings with this type of built-in sexism, one has to euthyphroically ask:  is the culture sexist because people say hello in this manner, or do people say hello in this manner because they are sexist?

When girls are taught at a young age to bow and submit to their male peers–when they see their grandmothers doing the same to their little brothers–they learn to assume the position of inferiority in a quite literal manner.  There is no ambiguity in the deep bow, no question of whose authority is present in a room when the first speaker declares he is a lion.  And as far as I can find, Aa has no correlative meaning (such as “I am a dove”).  It just means Aa.  The persistence of this tradition in the face of modern gender liberation is fascinating–especially since the women of Limpopo are no strangers to gender liberation.

For in HaMakuya, the women attend school and take night classes in business (we talked to a group of them coming home from school once).  The women run the households and educate their children.  The women do all the farming and cooking.  The men, as far as I can tell, have very few responsibilities.  They have political power in the community, they handle the cattle and fetch firewood, and in the rare case where employment is available, they work, usually in the nearby city.  When it comes to household finances, women make purchases for house and home and education, whereas the men, far as I can tell, spend their money on beer.  It was very apparent in our household who was in charge and who wasn’t.

Yet when the men arrive late at night from the bar and declare “I am a lion,” they are greeted customarily by all the women of the household, who put down their cooking spoons and brooms and scythes and kindling.  “Aaaahh,” the women say, falling to their weary knees, bowing to the freshly swept floor, “We salute you, Lion.  Now we need to get back to work.”

June 20, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Where’s the Sexism?

Where’s the Sexism?

With the DNC Florida and Michigan compromise decided, thousands of Clinton supporters are claiming that their voices aren’t heard.  Hundreds protested at the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting Saturday in Washington, and countless others watched from across the country as their candidate was effectively blocked in her last effort to secure the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

The most outrageous claim that has been made so far in this process, from feminists to Bill Clinton to protesters on the street, is that Hillary has been the victim of good-old-fashioned misogyny.  Sexism, they claim, has been tearing their candidate’s chances apart from the moment she started her run.  The media is out to get her, Bill Clinton says.  “Women are never front-runners,” writes Gloria Steinem back in January.

I don’t buy it.  For one, Hillary Clinton was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.  She was the front-runner in a big way–no one thought she could lose.  Back in 2007, when she was front-runner, she supported the decision of the DNC to withhold Florida’s and Michigan’s delegates because they had broken the party’s rules by moving their primaries earlier than February 5.  She didn’t think that it would matter.  Now that she needs those delegates to have a shot at the nomination, she claims that the people in Florida are victims of a Mugabe-level conspiracy to disenfranchise voters.  Suddenly, human rights are being violated.  And somehow, Clinton supporters have convinced themselves that sexism–not bad campaigning, a bad candidate or a bad decision by the Florida and Michigan Democratic committees–is responsible for Hillary’s downfall.

Sexism has certainly played a role in this campaign.  The “Bros before Hoes” t-shirts and the misogynist comments by some members of the media and the Hillary Nutcracker all reveal an ugly truth about American society…and how unwilling some people are to see a woman in the white house.  But to claim that these forces undid Hillary Clinton’s campaign, when there were a host of other factors, including a terrible front-loaded, ignore-the-caucuses campaign strategy, an incompetent staff and an irate, divisive ex-President, is to ignore the realities of the political process.  Barack Obama is winning, fair and square.  He’s winning despite racially charged ads and Reverend Wright and the Madrassa email hoax and the Muslim rumor and the countless “Osama/Obama” gaffes on TV.  To claim that Hillary Clinton is a victim of sexism–and moreover, to claim that that sexism is perpetrated by Barack Obama–is being a sore loser.

It is not sexism to deny Hillary Clinton the nomination.  If she campaigned hard, won more states and more delegates, and then saw the nomination handed to another candidate–that would be sexism.  If she ran for the nomination as a heavy favorite and then lost primary after primary despite being ahead in the polls–then you could question if sexism truly played a factor.

But she’s going to lose fair and square.  And that’s what equality is.  In a world that recognizes no difference between the sexes, good candidates can be both men and women, and bad candidates can damn well be women as well as men.  Isn’t that the end goal?  A world where a qualified woman can run seriously for President and lose fairly?  Not because she’s a woman, but because the voters decided she isn’t the best person for the job.  And in this nominating process, the voters have spoken.

June 1, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More