Two Steps Forward One Step Back

There is a famous Jewish teaching that has been on my mind given recent events in both women in tech as well as in general business:

It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)

I wrote a few months ago about the HBS W50 event I attended – it was a gathering of HBS alumnae to celebrate, reflect on the progress (and lack thereof) of women in positions of leadership.  We were briefed on programs they have instituted to improve gender relations.  That program was highlighted in the recent New York Times piece

The article elicited mixed feelings from the classmates I have spoken with.  The consensus was that things as described in the article seemed significantly worse in terms of blatant sexism then when we were there.  It is incredibly disturbing to see regression on treatment of women. There was some question, however, if being married (or engaged) as the 3 local friends I spoke with perhaps shielded us from some of the issues?  Certainly there is some data to support this – the gender gap didn’t exist for married students.  Apparently since those students didn’t feel the pressure to find their mate amongst their class mates they could feel free to express themselves more fully in class.

But whether or not the situation at HBS is the same or worse than 25 years ago the most important point is that it is unacceptable and kudos to the administration for actively working on change.  That change is ruffling feathers and making people uncomfortable.  Perhaps there were missteps in the process – to be expected with such a complex problem but the point is that the status quo is not tolerable.

I was also encouraged to see the about face made by GoDaddy on their advertising tactics.  They finally figured out that it’s not good business to run derogatory advertising making your target customer feel degraded as described here.   Better late then never but progress.

Lack of progress, however, was on display at the TechCrunch Disrupt demo fiasco.  TechCrunch allowed (encouraged?) clearly misogynist demos.  I won’t link to them here because I don’t want TechCrunch to continue to benefit from such willful sexism.  This issue was so blatant that it almost defies a tactical response.  One cannot even discuss programs to target awareness and sensitivity when the behavior seemed so deliberate as to question any motivation for acceptance of women in the arena.  At least TechCrunch apologized.  At DefCon the sexist content is part of official programming – “Hacker Jeopardy” features a woman undressing.  Seeing people such as the CTO of Business Insider in reputable positions in the tech world defending offensive “brogrammers” is particularly upsetting and overwhelming.

It is easy to be discouraged and give up trying to right the situation.  But the glimmers of hope surround us.   Institutions such as HBS in a position of influence struggling to change and changing.  Nine year old Alexandra Jordan presented the hack “superfunkidtime.com” on stage.  Business Insider sent the aforementinoed CTO packing.  All of the aspiring girl programming I’m seeing in this year’s Technovation program not to mention the apps and the teams that built them in last year’s competition.  I’m looking forward to this year’s TechWomen program where I will once again be mentoring a Jordanian female technologist.

More importantly, the opportunity is huge.  Solving the gender gap in technology would go along way towards solving the shortage of programmers.  A 2007 Goldman Sachs report concluded that closing the gap between male and female employment would add 9% to US GDP, 13% to European GDPs and 16% to Japan’s GDP.

Feeling like we can’t solve the problem is not an excuse to not make progress.  Stepping away from “overwhelmed” to concrete steps, small or large.  It is not upon us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.