Meditations on Misogyny
I live in a place where there are too many of us. It’s called the Silicon Valley. It has come to my attention that many of my colleagues act like adolescent boys, and that this behavior is endemic both in and outside of the corporate world. I regret this because it gives the rest of us a bad name. I am writing this to ask for your help in improving our lot. Hopefully, by working together we can impact the working environs we share with women in particular. I'm sure each one of us can do his own part starting first thing Monday morning.
In the past two years, the debate over women in tech and the "brogrammer culture" has exploded. It has been fueled by sexual harassment lawsuits against prominent Silicon Valley VCs, accusations of sexism at tech conferences. Recent data suggests that, despite the prevalence of coding programs aimed at girls and women, only 12.9% of Silicon Valley engineers are women. The number of women board members is equally low. More often than not, women find themselves as a distinct minority in start-up and established workplaces alike. Law suits, defamation and slander charges abound, making an already unreal place that much more surreal.
Having been in and out of the Valley for the last three years pitching my own work and that of others, I have seen the best and the worst of this place. On a good day, there are colorful, enriching conversations with brilliant scientists whose outlook is nothing less than visionary. I've met some of the very brightest and most interesting men and women right here. On a bad day, it feels like an endless reel of outtakes from Spike TV. Drunk programmers stumbling around the streets cat-calling women, men hooting and hollering from Ferraris and Lambos. It's a joke, really. For a man with any shred of integrity, it's ridiculous to watch masculinity reduced to "money and machine." I'm sure you agree that these exploits do not reflect the decency and honor to which most of us aspire.
I could continue to pretend to be blind to what goes on around me, but I won’t.
What can I do, or rather, what can we do?
Bottom line: I will no longer ignore that, at one time or another, part of the workforce feels unsafe, uncomfortable or outright harassed while they are at work or out in the world. I will speak up and I am asking you to as well.
Let’s first be clear about the world we men live in:
I don’t have to fear sexual threats when I walk to my car in the garage. I don't clench my keys in my fingers when I am walking home after dark. I don’t have riot-control grade mace in my briefcase. If a group of boisterous women are walking towards me on a busy night, I don't have to cross the street. I don’t have to fend off unwanted attention when I wear my best suit. I don't have to worry about uncomfortably long stares at my legs during meetings, or ask a friend to watch my drink when I go to the bathroom. I can go and have a scotch at a bar and nary a person will bother me. We do live in a different world. Wake up, men: we do not have these concerns.
So what I have begun to do—what all of us need to begin doing—is questioning how we can make our streets, spaces and offices safer and more comfortable for women. More importantly, we can question how we actually allow the least civil amongst us to contribute to making those spaces poisonous and less safe for our colleagues. We should be the ones doing this because we are the ones who created the problem a long time ago. Enough is enough. Certainly women are complicit in many ways, most notably by buying into the stereotypes and clichés foisted on them by the media, and by giving men the explicitly wrong impression to get what they want—be it jobs, money or attention. There are women who buy into the system of sexism wholesale and use it to their benefit against men. But that's not the point, is it? Let's not pass the buck to women. Let's be men. Let's be responsible.
Generally speaking, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves in our relationships with women. I challenge every man who reads this to ask himself:
- Am I forcing a woman to react to me when I address her?
- Do I feel women are obliged to respond to me the way I want them to respond to me?
- Am I creating a safe space for the women in my life to express themselves fully?
- Am I going along with my male colleagues when they harass or belittle women because I’m actually a chicken-shit?
In the bigger picture, I sometimes wonder if we think so little of ourselves that we’re incapable of thinking a woman deserves respect as opposed to unwanted sexual advances. This is the question we must address:
Deep down, what do we really think women want in the workplace: attention or respect?
Make no mistake about this: when men harass, they undermine a very basic human right to autonomy that is fundamental in a free society. People, not just women, have a right to exist lawfully in public without fear of approbation or infringement at any time. Last time I checked, this is called liberty and we've fought more than a few wars to protect that unique right. Men can stand up and insist that other men treat women colleagues with respect. This doesn't mean we take away a woman's right to defend herself; it means having the sand to say something to other men when we witness it.
It means standing with women, not standing in for women. Let's get that straight right now.
The default mode in society is civility, not harassment, my friends. You might consider civility instead of chivalry and in place of chauvinism.
Next time your boss has a snide comment for the waitress, say something. He might just respect you for it—but don't expect it. Power does not like to be challenged.
When a colleague drops a backwards comment about a female executive as she walks by, ask him what he'd do if someone said that to his wife or daughter. You might surprise him.
If you think of yourself as more than a gorilla, you can stand up and be respectful. If you are such a man, then act like one. Speak up! Otherwise, we allow bad behavior to erode the environment to a point where the unacceptable is the norm. It’s called a hostile environment for a reason, and many start-ups and established businesses alike are rapidly approaching that level of toxicity—especially here in the Valley. So put the game-boy down, tuck in your shirt, and wake up.
Let me preempt some of the opposition from some of you, my fellow men, because I can hear the claims of "man-bashing-men" already. No, I'm not gay. I wasn't raised in an isolated estrogen tank by lesbian candle makers in Oregon. I am the son of a Marine Corps officer and a ballet dancer who, for all of their glaring faults, taught me manners from Boston, Massachusetts. I was brought up rough and ready on three acres of forest, played school-boy hockey and worked in finance before taking up a career in corporate strategy. I also trained in close protection services and worked as a bodyguard for a brief spell. I am a guy's guy if ever there was one. No one who knows me would call me "liberal" or "feminist".
Contrary to the evolutionary theory of stupidity, we men are not “built” to be morons. We do not have an “idiot” setting that clicks on when a women walks in or out of the room. We can actually choose to behave appropriately around the other sex. The brute strength derived from testosterone that to some degree marks our gender doesn’t imply a special set of rules. Gorillas are incredible creatures whose strength far outmatches our own, but they have not built a complex civilization. They have not created data science and artificial intelligence, now, have they? The lame appeal to “men as men” undermines our nature and reduces manhood to hormonal dominance. This is simply stupid. This is insulting to men. We insult ourselves by acting like baboons. At our most basic, we are good; at our best we can protect, love and serve society.
Men may give lip service to this and have the best intentions, and at the same time continue to contribute to an environment that makes women feel unsafe by simply ignoring that harassment is a regular facet of women's experience. To disregard that for the sake of instant gratification of a woman’s attention seems, well…lame is the word that comes to mind. When men interact inappropriately with a woman and create an unsafe environment that causes women to question their place in it, we make the world unsafe for our wives, daughters, friends and colleagues. Think about it.
Commit to never lose sight of this and you will change your attitude today. If you are like me, and believe we can do something about sexual harassment, then please retweet this article with #realmenspeakup. Kudos gents, thank you for reading.
* It should be noted that, since the publication of this article last year, personal circumstances necessitate that I remove any mention of my affiliation with personally or otherwise parties to a law suit that in some way served as inspiration.