Sometimes, writing about tech provides….interesting challenges. For example: after writing a follow-up post about App Camp For Girls’ pitch event, I wrote a review of Disrupted by Dan Lyons, which emphasized a lack of diversity within the startup world. So the latest news – about how James Damore wrote a memo for Google claiming that women can’t code, and the uproar over his subsequent firing….well, seemed grist for the mill for writing.
(Please note – yes, I am a white male. I’m probably not the best qualified to write about this, and I will warn that there will be plenty of “mansplaining” in this post. I’m also going to be starring out some profane terms out of courtesy to the reader. You’re smart enough to figure out what I’m writing about.)
What’s not surprising is the nature of sexism….after all, I’ve encountered it as a freelance professional. The marketing firm employee who wanted to create an app for a popular chain by calling it, “Buy Me a Sandwich, *****!” Supervisors wondering whether certain clients were “too girly” for me (in all honesty – they weren’t). Even a (now former) landlord making an inappropriate comment about a professional woman of color…but those times, I spoke up to derision. however, there were times when I’ve even encountered it – and never called it out – very early in my career. And it’s not something I’m proud of…just wanting to point out that sexism can crop up where you least expect it.
At the time, I was working for a network of St. Louis-area treatment providers providing substance abuse assessment services for homeless shelters in St. Louis city and county. In a given year (and I don’t have the exact data – that’s in storage, so I’m relying on memory), I might see about 100 – 150 people. Breaking those demographics down:
- 70 – 80% were women;
- 65 – 70% were African-American; and
- 60 – 65% were dealing with addiction in family members, as well as domestic violence issues (and those were referred to another agency).
So when I was asked to create the curriculum for a bid for a female offender diversion court (or “drug court for women”), it made some sense. After all, my boss claimed that it was the kind of “touchy, feely, girly stuff” that fit my expertise. Keep in mind – I’m a heterosexual white male. My boss had a habit of calling my female coworker “sweet cakes”. And white men were driving this effort…meaning that my suggestion that referring to it as a “w**** court” – even casually – wasn’t a good idea. Nor was criticizing my efforts to bring in one of my partners – a female empowerment agency dealing with domestic violence – to provide additional expertise because I wanted to work towards helping the client rather than my ideas about “what’s best” for the client.
In looking at the Google sexism controversy, I’m reminded of how many marketing types idealized Don Draper in Mad Men. “He’s cool, he smokes, he drinks, he has affairs without consequence”….without realizing that Don Draper is a man who is (spoiler alert) pretending to be someone he is not. It’s taking a toll on him psychologically…and quite honestly, Mad Men makes it clear that Draper is no role model. He’s not some great prophet or harbinger of change: he’s the example of what happens when certain beliefs go unchallenged (or more importantly, holding onto those beliefs inhibits growth and…let’s face it, is very unprofessional. (And much of Mad Men‘s narrative is about Draper’s lack of professionalism…and its consequences).
“But Gordon – freedom of speech!” some might argue. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism or freedom from consequence. This isn’t a seemingly innocent barroom conversation, or even a night out with friends where Damore’s words would have been misconstrued. This was an opinion that was generated as work product, and which was submitted in defiance of Google policy. If James Damore chose to live by this sword, he cannot then complain when he’s asked to die by it. He chose to express his views openly, and that is the consequence. He thought he was being Don Draper….but in reality, he was merely just being obnoxious.
(And yes, I will get criticized for writing this essay…but that’s the trade off for expressing an opinion. A PR agency once Twitter-bombed me – on my birthday – for suggesting that selling Twitter followers was a “false tactic”. I removed that agency’s name from the blog, but it was a powerful lesson: only those on the wrong side of an issue rely on bullying, and that agency’s been blocked from various channels).
So yes, sexism in the tech field is a thing…and there’s a post-script to my St. Louis story. That female coworker I mentioned…you know, the one my then-boss called “sweet cakes”?
Her name was Julie. She and I had worked together on some other projects, and we had a really good working relationship. After my boss’s comment, I jokingly asked if I could call her “sweet cakes”…and she firmly said no. Thankfully, I was able to accept the inappropriate nature of my request…and we moved forward in our jobs. Eventually, she left my employer, but we ended up working together for another nonprofit. (We even collaborated when I worked for another agency focused on prevention) It was one of the best working relationships I had, not the least of which was because Julie was one of the sharpest, most insightful people I’ve worked with. It’s a relationship that I really miss, and that was very enriching for me.
Especially because, for once, I chose not to be like Don Draper.
And as always, thanks for reading!