International Women’s Day is today (March 8), and my inbox has been overflowing with story pitches: profiles of incredible women executives, interview opportunities with women founders, ideas for features on technology advancements, the backlash against #MeToo and #TimesUp, and the impact of these movements on HR and recruiting in general and on the technology industry in particular. (Shameless plug: Keep your eyes open for these stories in the coming weeks, and if you can, check out the conversation that took place during today’s IDG’s TechTalk Twitter chat about women in tech.)
I want to talk about one such pitch that caught my eye. It included two quotes from women entrepreneurs, and my hackles went up immediately when I read the one titled, “Women Don’t Need Special Treatment.” Here’s the full quote. It’s from Neha Sampat, founder of Built.io and CEO of Contentstack:
In today’s business world, “Women in Tech” and “Women in Leadership” have become trendy topics, but let’s not forget, we have a long way to go. Especially in Silicon Valley where men make up the majority of the workforce, women must continue to demonstrate their value to gain credibility. For example, males are 63 percent more likely to raise capital than women. Research also shows that 95 percent of venture deals and dollars are going to companies with zero woman in the top management suite. While these limitations do exist and it’s unfortunate, women should not allow “the norm” to hinder them but instead empower them to push through it.
"One of the most challenging obstacles I faced as a woman was to walk away from my comfortable stable corporate job to rejoin my calling as an entrepreneur. I was also able to grow my business entirely through bootstrapping. Looking back, my only regret is not doing this sooner. Every day lends itself to celebrating major milestones, but there are also moments that I wonder if we will retain our upward trajectory. The day I stop worrying about that is the day I am no longer aiming high enough.
"Women need to push their colleagues and employers to understand why we don’t need special treatment or hand holding. Women are smart, hard-working and very much capable to demonstrating their ability to do any task or job they set their eyes on accomplishing—they just need to be placed on a level playing field.”
On my first read, I was furious. I read the quote as yet another dismissal of the concerns around representation, equity, and parity. I felt some victim-blaming going on, as well as some invalidation of the need for intersectionality.
But on second read, I realized I missed part of the point. By the third read, I found more to agree with than to disagree with.
Breaking it down: Nuances in how to address the lack of diversity
I want to talk about this because I think there are nuances here that are often missed in conversations about how to address the woeful lack of diversity in tech specifically and in society in general.
First, the use of the word “trendy” bothers me. Yes, in the parlance of social media, these topics are trend-ing. And for good reason. Understanding how the patriarchy and white supremacy, male privilege, and white privilege underpin all of these issues and how privilege manifests in educational systems, in law enforcement, in corporate policy and processes, in sexist and racist language, in overt and unconscious bias — in every aspect of everyday life — is critical to dismantling systemic oppressions.
Systemic is a key word, here. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and the differently abled all exist within a society that’s purposely structured to give the advantage(s) to straight, cis-gender white, wealthy males. The system is rigged — but to acknowledge that it’s rigged is to invite victim-blaming. “You just want special treatment.” “You just need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “Work harder.”
These arguments put the responsibility for success or failure onto the oppressed without acknowledging how powerful and entrenched systemic sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and ageism are — and how readily those in the majority ignore the privileges they’ve benefitted from when they talk about their success. The assumption that the playing field is already level is uninformed, at best, and deliberately malicious, at worst.
Second, bootstrapping works only if the playing field is level to begin with. Working harder is the answer only when everyone has had the same access to resources, support systems, education, training — not to mention basic needs like food, clean water, healthcare, childcare — and that access to employment is not subject to biases in the sourcing, screening, and hiring processes.
The norm is not acceptable
To return to the original quote, yes, this is the norm, and it is unfortunate. And while, yes, many women — Neha Sampat included — have challenged those norms and achieved success by pursuing entrepreneurship (women are starting businesses at 1.5 times the national average), I am not satisfied with accepting that binary as the norm: either accepting discrimination or figuring out ways around it. I don’t want to feel “empowered” by an abusive, oppressive, discriminatory norm! How exhausting.
I want to change the norm. I want to see the entire system crumble and rebuilt to accommodate everyone’s needs and their versions of success, whether that’s within a corporate job, as an entrepreneur, or something in between.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had last fall with LaFawn Davis, the global head of culture and inclusion at Twilio, about intersectionality and how the tech industry struggles to understand the concept and the implications, often dismissing “identity politics” as a distraction.
“A lot of times customers and clients will tell me, ‘Oh, we’re just focusing on gender diversity right now – getting women in tech,’ and I always try to make it a bit lighthearted, but I respond with, ‘Lesbians are women. Women are black, Hispanic, Latina, too,’” Davis says. “You cannot separate these things because we’ve seen that the advantages in those cases go to white women. Obviously, I get that’s where we want to be. We want to get to the ‘nirvana’ of being able to look only at skills and experience and talent, yes. But you cannot get there without addressing and acknowledging all the different identities — how race is a factor. How sexual orientation is a factor. Age, ability, etc.”
I don’t want “special treatment.” I don’t want “hand-holding.” And I don’t believe that’s what anyone else wants, either. But there’s a difference between “equal” and “equitable.” Equal means everyone receives the same treatment, while equitable means everyone receives fair treatment, taking into account the obstacles and challenges they’ve had to overcome, and, yes, sometimes allocating extra resources, support, and accommodations to make up for those. That’s what I want to see in tech and in society at large. That’s how I want us to #PressforProgress.