Arrington is completely wrong about women in technology

posted 11 August 2011

Michael Arrington's post on TechCrunch today about who to blame for the lack of women in tech was even more offensively wrong than I was expecting from the title, and that's really saying something. It goes off the rails right in the first paragraph:

Success in Silicon Valley, most would agree, is 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.

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. I see it every day. If a woman walks into the office, people ask if she's in HR or marketing or legal or product, or frankly anything other than engineering. And distressingly, most of the time they're right, because there aren't many women in tech. And as everyone knows and keeps saying, that's a vicious circle: the expectation that women don't get into tech is what keeps them out of it.

Here's how it happens: if a woman engineer starts talking, men will wait until she says something notably clever before they start taking her seriously. Men on the other hand are taken seriously by default, and only get dismissed if they say something notably dumb. That, multiplied by thousands of conversations every day, is all it takes to enforce huge cultural bias against women in Silicon Valley and tech at large. I know this is true because, even though I try very hard not to, I've done this myself.

So if you're a man in tech, and you want to fix this problem, it's simple. Start with yourself, and your expectations. The next time a woman walks into your office, make no assumptions about her job title. Don't ask if she's somebody's girlfriend. The next time a woman -- at the workplace, at a party, wherever -- make a point about technology, make sure you're not making any assumptions about her level of expertise that you wouldn't make if she were male. That's the change I'm trying to make in myself, and it's surprisingly hard to do, because snap judgements are so easy to make, especially when they are habitual. I even had to edit this post a little when I realized I'd written it with the assumption that my audience would be male. It's insidious.

Arrington's post concludes with some weasel language in which he does not explicitly state, but instead paraphrases somebody else saying, that women are fundamentally, culturally unsuited to starting companies because they are "nurturing" and "not risk-taking" enough. He even trots out that bullshit about Mars and Venus. And I'm sure there's a lot of people out there who, secretly, think he might have a point.

But he's wrong. 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.