Initial Acceptance

Anil Dash on 2016-09-29

Investor John Greathouse used the Wall Street Journal to share the (obviously profoundly flawed) suggestion that women in tech use their initials to present themselves to a misogynist industry. Given the increasing frequency of these kinds of facile forms of “help”, here’s a look at one strategy for responding.

First, we begin by looking at Greathouse’s essay to make sure it’s as flawed as we think. Right out of the gate, his proposed solution fails one key test:

Is this suggestion something so obvious that every person in an underrepresented group would have thought of it in five minutes?

I also find it useful to think through the scenario of what happens if this tactic is effective? In the best case, Greathouse has women working at companies that they had to trick into giving them a fair opportunity. That is a recipe for misery and disrespect. As it turns out, initial acceptance is not enough.

So, now we know the basic premise of the piece is stupid. How do we respond? For a lot of folks who are tired of these kinds of thoughtless, condescending proposals being legitimized by outlets like the WSJ treating them as if they’re sensible suggestions, the reflexive reaction is, well, to tell this guy to fuck off. Which many people did! And that’s a good and valid response.

On this particular day, I was feeling patient enough to try to turn it into a teachable moment. I believe it’s my responsibility as a man to check other men who perpetuate systemic misogyny, and a few tweets in reply to a published article is hardly an onerous burden.

An initial approach

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By far the most controversial thing I said in response to Greathouse was my first tweet here, where I acknowledged his ostensibly positive intent.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if he meant well if he’s advancing a fundamentally broken suggestion. So why would I say this? A few reasons, all relating to intended audience and goals.

I know that most of my twitter followers are male, and a significant percentage work in tech or related industries like media. At the same time, they are fairly inclined toward valuing inclusion and diversity, otherwise they would have stopped following me a long time ago. The folks who follow me who don’t identify as men already know everything that’s wrong with the article, so I don’t need to choir-preach there. Instead, I decided to optimize for a message that I think will resonate with, and be shared to, those who want to be supportive but might not know why this proposal is bad.

And at a personal level, I’m a guy who means well and doesn’t really have any formal education in inclusion. I’ve got the same blind spots and weaknesses as Greathouse, but the privilege of having my large platform means that I’ve gotten to learn from underrepresented activists who’ve had the patience to teach me. So, basically, I’d be a hypocrite to slam this guy any harder because I’m the same kind of asshole except with better friends.

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Because people’s attention tends to decline over the course of a tweetstorm, I wanted to get a simple declaration of the fundamental problem stated up front as clearly as possible. I chose a framing (“Hiding oneself is not an answer.”) that I thought would be incontrovertible to any person of good intent. This gives us a nice point of agreement to start from.

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This was sincere praise for the best point in the article. Greathouse succinctly stated something that was true, so I wanted to acknowledge it, not to throw him a bone, but because it’s useful to understanding where good intentions can yield bad suggestions. You can be smart and make insightful observations and still be totally wrong; I do this all the time!

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This is where we switch into making a case for direct, affirmative remedies for structural inequities. In these cases, it’s useful to broaden the Overton window as early as possible, so I started with the idea that’s most radical to both dominant VC culture and to the conventional wisdom of the community of people who are critical of tech culture.

One of the most consistent challenges in advocating change is convincing people that they have the power to change things. Cynicism, insecurity, fear, doubt — all these things combine to convince people that the problem has to be fixed by Somebody Else. Oddly, this behavior extends even to rich and powerful venture capitalists. So the first suggestion to a VC who wants to make things better is, “Well then, why don’t you make things better?”

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Now we contrast to the earlier point, with Greathouse’s most accurate statement, to this, his most baldfacedly incorrect assertion. Part of the reason for doing this is so we can all see where he made a wrong turn. The hope here is that the “I thought he meant well” reader has come along and learned where they’ve been taught an incorrect conclusion, too.

The natural questions that should arise are “How do you know that’s not true?” or “If that’s not true, what do we do instead?” If those questions are in someone’s mind, then we’re winning.

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This is the first prompt for action. If people are well-intentioned and curious, but simply not familiar with the topic, this should get them googling. I don’t presume most people following along will go find resources and read up, but some will, and that’s success.

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And this is a reframing into a familiar context for people who might be unpersuaded or skeptical. People in tech love to solve problems, and it turns out systematic misogyny is a problem! Let’s disrupt it. 🙃

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This is the TL:DR for anyone to lazy to Google. A direct, specific action that has meaningful impact and which we can monitor for progress. I don’t presume any venture fund will change its investment processes because of a tweet, but the next time they’re getting beaten up for refusing to fund women and some dude in the office says, “But what could we even do?” I think one person in the office might remember there’s a starting point.

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This is obviously the summation. Anybody who’s come this far has followed the logic and can buy into the conclusion and assertion of responsibility. It’s also pithy and has an evocative emoji, so it’s ready for sharing, and is provocative enough that anybody who saw it shared out of context would likely go back and read the whole thread.

More to the point, it’s a statement of the fundamental underlying cause of a problem, and highlights why superficial solutions won’t address it. We firmly place the burden of fixing a system back on those who designed, built and profited from that broken system.

That’s it! I hope this absurdly long explanation of the ideas behind one tweetstorm is useful in your own advocacy work.