John Greathouse, a venture capitalist, recently decided to ignore the sense he was born with and pen an article giving his helpful opinion on what women in tech – a group he has never been part of – should be doing to overcome sexism. That’s right, folks, once again the burden falls not on the discriminators, but the discriminated against, because it’s just too damn hard for the old guard to change their ways. They’re too busy investing in stuff and writing terrible advice articles that are somehow published in the Wall Street Journal.
Since then, Greathouse has apologised for what he calls his “dreadful” piece, though stopped short of actually promising to do anything at all to change the status quo. Nor did the WSJ apologise or respond, possibly because his paywalled garbage has brought them oodles of rage-traffic.
@johngreathouse That is a nice apology but interestingly, I just reviewed your VC company's portfolio & not one has a female founding team.— AndreaHuspeni (@AndreaHuspeni) September 30, 2016
@johngreathouse OK so what's next? What steps will you be taking to actively try to help fix the problem?— Dorothy Jean Chang (@dj) September 29, 2016
The TL;DR of Greathouse’s post is that after looking at research on how unconscious bias limits women’s achievements in technology, he comes to the conclusion that creating a gender-neutral online persona is the best way for women to make a good first impression and sidestep all that pesky sexism. Man, why didn’t we think of that?
Since his horribly-formatted apology (white text on black? Really, John?) goes zero miles towards fixing the problem, we’ve got some advice of our own. From an actual woman in tech.
Take it away, Jessica:
Thanks so much for your advice. It’s clear that it came from a well-intentioned sort of space, but I wanted to write you back to look at all the reasons it’s garbage.
1. This isn’t a new idea for us
Almost every woman who has ever communicated online has at some time, in some context masked her gender. While you point out that gender can colour first impressions of people and that we might want to hide our feminine graces to make a better first impression professionally, lots of the internet is flat out hostile to women’s participation in online spaces. You advise us that “a gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them” and this is true. We’ve been using these personas to access online interactions without harassment, threats or exclusion for some time. However…
2. There’s value in professional visibility
In asking women to create a gender neutral persona for professional online interactions, you’re asking them to divorce their identities from the value that professional visibility lends. Interacting in professional discussions online, speaking at events, writing “expert” leadership articles like yours – these are all actions that hold value because they allow us to present our expertise to our professional community. In asking women – and only women! – to create a genderless online persona that’s not readily connected to our full names, you ask us to abandon the value that this persona builds in professional circles.
I’m gently visible in technology. I’ll often get opportunities that stem from my speaking, writing or online interactions. Were I to write and interact online as J.R., the value of my online visibility and work would be lost when I apply for jobs, seek speaking engagements or appear at industry events. I could try to explain that I *am* J.R., though unless I’ve gotten cult-following level traction around my pseudonym’s personal brand, few are going to wait through my explanation to transfer the value of my work to the person they’re evaluating. And god help anyone who tries to Google me.
3. Disconnecting our personas from ourselves has temporary effects
Taking your advice at face value and ignoring the costs of decoupling our online personas from our professional identities, we’re still left with results that could only prove temporarily beneficial.
You quote this observation by Renee Rottner:
“In studies that reveal gender, but keep the content the same – the same venture pitch, the same resume, the same online course material – women are perceived as less competent than men, even though their performance was identical.”
This is important. Gender impacts how our work is valued and received at every stage in our professional interactions. Even if we could get through the first impressions stage, we’re going to have to eventually enter an industry where our contributions are systematically devalued because of our gender.
If we were to take your advice, we’d be supporting that.
4. Shifting responsibility for managing sexism to women is bullshit
Look, John. Can I call you John? You seem like a smart dude. You get to write for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s be blunt. A lot of this advice asks women to take responsibility for working around or smoothing over the bias you recognise exists in our industry. By asking us to create genderless online personas and cultivate “likeability” by presenting ourselves as similar to the men who hold power, you’re asking us to do your work for you.
Once you recognise that these biases exist within the industry, it becomes your responsibility to work to minimise and combat them. As a VC, you have an incredible amount of power and influence in the way our industry hires, rewards and values talent. You could use it to promote processes that combat biases in our industry. You could focus on investing in projects that appropriately recruit and reward underrepresented talent. You could have written an article for the Wall Street Journal on the value of blind hiring processes, placing the responsibility on those who hold the power in technology. But you didn’t do any of that. You put the responsibility for managing gendered biases on the women that you recognise as undervalued in our industry.
We don’t have time for that, John. We’re already doing twice as much work, for half the recognition.
J.R. Jessica Rose.
Main image: the awesome WOCinTechChat.com.