Startup dudes: Cut the sexist crap

Posted: February 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Chitchat, Startups | 260 Comments »

Last week I was speaking on what would have otherwise been a terrific panel.  It was Frank Artale from Ignition, Tom Duterme from Groupon M&A, Andy Sack from Lighter Capital & Founder’s Co-op, and me talking about funding & exiting.  The only thing that spoiled it was yet another guy in the tech scene putting forth yet another objectifying/patronizing treatment of someone with two X chromosomes.

In this case, the recipient of the bogus intro was the panel moderator, Rebecca Lovell. Just in case anyone out there in startupland has not  met Rebecca, she’s one of the best-connected people in the Seattle tech scene, with a resume that includes leadership roles at the Alliance of Angels, NWEN, and now Geekwire.  These would all be appropriate topics to use when introducing someone, man or woman. Here’s what the man introducing Rebecca chose to say instead (you can listen to the full audio of the introduction for context):

Rebecca’s one of the smartest ladies I know, and I thought that she was a perfect pick for the role of moderator.  When we selected Rebecca and she said yes, she was a sexy single woman. And since that time, she’s become a sexy married woman, and so I wanted her lucky new spouse to stand up.  So we’ve got not only a very talented, but a happy moderator.

Come on, people.  Really?

This has been bugging me for a while.  I was coaching one team for Techstars Demo Day, and they had a photo of scantily clad women (that had nothing to do with their pitch) that I convinced them to strike.  Two months ago, a company I was coaching showed up for a meeting with me at Google and made a comment about the receptionist’s appearance.  Within earshot of her.

Everyone has a reason.  One person was older.  One person was from another country.  It just doesn’t matter.  If we keep this bullshit up, we’re going to crap all over another generation of women tech entrepreneurs.  And it’s just a rotten thing to do. Think before you open your mouth.

And if you see someone doing this, call them on it. I didn’t… that was my nervous laughter in the background of the recording.

Better late then never.

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  • Chives

    As I read through the comments it seems that most people not only agree with the author, they go out of their way to make sure that the guy in question finishes last.  

    I agree that women shouldn’t have to put up with that and should be taken as seriously as their male counterparts.  But, my mother used to tell me daily that life isn’t fair.  Its not.  In fact, its horribly unfair.  

    Lets say for a hot second you want to change how woman are treated.  How about you start with politely pulling the guy in question aside and talking with them, in private.  You know the course of action that has the highest chance that they will respond positively.  Then again, you wouldn’t get your massive ego boost for teaching that sexist pig a lesson would you?  People are products are their environments, and you would be fooling yourself to think that this behavior hasn’t been common in business for about the last 70-80 years, you know about as long as women have been in the work force.  In fact, I know from personal experience that it IS still common place at some of the largest corporations in the U.S.

    Mind you I said “start.”  Like it matters, coherent thought seems impossible for most of you jokers.  

  • Matthew A. Myers

    I think part of this lies in us, more so men due to ‘we’re the strong non-emotional’ ones growing up, is that many of us have not learned how to distinguish our feelings – where caring and love, compassion, might create an impulse to say something or do something – and the only words or expression that might be known is something more general, and perceived inappropriately.

    Gorgeous could be a person’s whole being – though I can’t know what the intent was in your client’s specific case. I think everyone’s beautiful and unique, though I don’t tell them all that.I wish I could give more people hugs too to express my feelings, whether gratitude or happiness, etc. but that too would be seen to many as odd and out of place, uncomfortable.Having these social boundaries ‘protects’ us too, say, from people who would run up to strangers and give them hugs unexpectedly (“Free hugs” signs help those people share more of their exploding love!), but they don’t address the base issue of many people not knowing how to express what they feel in an appropriate way – many have never had the chance to even learn, and then you’ll have situations where older people being overly flirtatious 

    In another note, joking about and laughing about all the ‘idiots’ isn’t helpful either – and it’s actually hurtful to the whole as the ‘idiots’ won’t understand it (if they are able to see the ridicule), and also it creates a stronger Us vs. Them compartmentalization where the gap of understanding and compassion increases — where then no one learns, whereas what @gothamgal:disqus  did helped someone learn something, and they were thankful for it — and that will reduce future occurrences a great amount, and affect every other part of everyone’s lives that person now has contact with in the future. Quite the trickle effect that actions like Gotham Gal had, have.

    It’s not to say they should get the business deal, though I would see it as that they’re not ready for receiving it, because you’re wanting to support people who will mirror and role model the values you hold; For me, that includes helping teach people – though I’m still learning the communication and nuances of it all. I was a boy who didn’t get a lot of experience communicating, especially verbally, due to hearing/sound-related issues I had, so now being 28 years old I still feel still playing catchup to where I want to be, however I don’t think anyone can ever fully learn everything. :)

  • Matthew A. Myers

    Agreed – you have to be able to understand what others feel and experience in order to understand them, to recognize them.

    That famous Buddhist translation to “life is suffering” is a horrible translation apparently, and really means “fully understand suffering to live” – which then allows you to take in the widest perspective possible of all human experiences.

    Edit: Oh hey Flatterline! I know your company for some reason.. Your website doesn’t ring a bell though, maybe you updated it?

  • I’m curious. And, please take me as being ignorant, and an opportunity to educate.

    Is the problem the mention of her being “sexy” or her being “married.” Also, is the problem that it is out of context and irrelevant, or is the problem that we should *never* comment on someones physical appearance or marital status? Lastly, if it is a problem of context and relevance, then is the problem that it wasn’t meshed into large contextually relevant content, or that we should *never* say irrelevant out of context things?

    For me, it came off as a public way to congratulate someone on their recent marriage. What is questionable, if anything, is the mention of the “sexiness” and the lack of additional contextually relevant content.

    Am I missing something? Please, if so, inform me.

  • What a beautiful quote and translation. I hadn’t heard that before, so thank you for sharing it.

    We did update our website. Part of my new job. I’m writing up interviews with entrepreneurs on our blog too…hint, hint.

  • So his name was Alex Medelsky according to the audio (my spelling may be off).  Why didn’t you call him on it now?

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  • Steve Harris

    You actually touched on an important shortcoming of Dan’s post.  Dan only quoted a fairly small subset of the introduction, most of which highlighted Rebecca’s impressive credentials.  Your assertion that her actual accomplishments were being ignored is not accurate in this case.

  • Guest

    I’m sure you find ways to debate with someone who tells you the time and find it all quite thrilling :)  Stating an opinion on a comment doesn’t constitue debating an issue with a person so the link, and therefore your comments which you said are based upon it are all irrelevant since your evaluating an opinion rather than a debate.

  • Thank you. I struggle with stereotype threat on a regular basis, and having my gender called out not only makes me more self-conscious and anxious (and more likely to screw up!), it also feels like damning with faint praise.

    I’m not good at what I do “for a woman”. I’m just damn good at what I do.

  • I love this idea.

  • Thanks Elovis.  No apology necessary, and I appreciate Tim’s point.  Hopefully the intention was clear even if the words were inadequate.

  • The rejection rate is about 95%, if memory serves.  I have no way of knowing the grounds for the decision on your application, but please know that the odds are good that it was based on the idea and strength of the founding team.

    (And incidentally, having a team – at least 2 founders – is all but a requirement for Techstars)

    But most importantly, try again!  It is tremendously common in Techstars, Ycombinator, and other accelerator programs for folks to make it in on their 2nd, 3rd, or nth attempt.

    Also, if you’d like me to take a look at your application before you submit it, I’d be happy to do that. Just reach out to me on twitter (@danshapiro).

  • I love HN but the comment thread there was disappointing.  The conversation here has been much more interesting.

  • I think that’s configurable… I’ll try to find a decent one and fix it. 

  • Clearly people can figure this out any number of ways.  But I’m not interested in using my blog to condemn someone I only know based on a two minute snippet of their life.  I’m willing to stand in judgment of the behavior, but less so the person.

  • I ran these comments by a number of people, and here was the feedback I got.  Note that it’s feedback on how the comments sounded to the listeners, not on the speaker’s intention; obviously, I can’t know what that was.

    1) It’s inappropriate to refer to someone as sexy when introducing them (the most common concern)
    2) The qualification of her intelligence (“one of the smartest ladies I know”) implies that ladies are in a different category of intelligence.
    3) The way her marriage was communicated echoed an old sexist canard that women aren’t happy unless they’re married.

  • That’s a fair criticism, Steve. I was being a bit ‘tiger mother’ in that comment (to employ another bad generalization), and, for effect, painted with too broad a brush. I should have said ‘active parent’, and I should have been more nuanced. I apologize.
    It was insensitive, and you are correct to correct me on the spot for it. Comment forums are great for that. And real-life panels in a full room with a ticking clock — not so much.
    I agree with you that there are situational nuances, both in parenting as well as in stuff like this. Yes, often we are more effective if we give the ‘transgressor’ the space to save face, and if this gets the change we need that way, that’s ideal. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but that’s what we have to try first.
    Halting the panel intro to fingerwag for sexism is the conference equivalent of going nuclear, and best reserved for cases of explicit malice. So — I hear you, and thank you for introducing more nuance into the conversation.
    The alternative requires fast thinking and finesse — as Dan and another commenter suggested — for a fellow panelist to interject that ‘Rebecca is insanely qualified as well!” It would serve as a repairing signal to Rebecca and the people who don’t know her creds that she indeed is in the right place.
    I wasn’t there, and I’ve never met Rebecca or you. But no amount of good looks or general personal fabulousness should trump the professional creds that she’s earned to qualify her place on the stage. Someone who didn’t know her background already wouldn’t have had a chance to learn all that she’s accomplished. Hence the need for an intro.
    You both seem fantastic. Congrats on your recent marriage. I wish you two, and your family, many happy healthy years together.

  • Paul

    Laura Roeder talks about some of the hassles women face in this recent interview

  • Money magnet

    Caring and compassion are a long way from saying you’re attractive and commenting on the spouse for being fortunate. As I said, the media do not help by showing just the male side of these types of comments without the true female reaction so that young males can see the feelings of not being taken seriously.
    Ironically, I went to a presentation by the head of Canada’s competitiveness Board after reading this blog and one of my male buddies said to a table of women, “I didn’t know lindsey Lohan was presenting.” I thought it was a funny comment as the woman did look like the movie star but I could see others did not like his joke. It was a serious event and my friend did not know the other women. These women could have used some humor back to this fellow to make point to him though instead of discussing later in the ladies room. Women are now sufficiently inside the business world to step forward. When I was 28 I was the only woman in most situations so you duck the head and get on with work.
    I also knew my fund manager was a bit flustered by my female client’s beauty. I spoke to her about that but she gets it so often, she does not want to deal with a male who puts that first in the business relationship. I do give the feedback. My fund manager is a top Harvard MBA I have known for decades so he really surprised me with his reaction but we are all human.

  • Matthew A. Myers

    “Caring and compassion are a long way from saying you’re attractive and commenting on the spouse for being fortunate.”

    I agree, semantically they are – however what if the speaker had 40 other words they learned to express the feelings that were precursors to ‘your gorgeous, your spouse is lucky’ – is there not a likelihood higher that they would opt for keeping the “you’re hot” comment internal, and voicing from the other larger vocabulary? I’m not trying to say that this person doesn’t have that experience, perhaps their personality is that they don’t care and will just tell people they’re hot when they’re physically attracted — though from my observations, especially in the English language, we lack that communication – even the words for that expression — and men have a much harder time with this due to how our culture structures gender roles.

    It seems this issue is a double-edged – with the resistance of the deep-seeded constructs of a male-dominated hierarchy, and more women being interested in and gaining positions that were previously male dominated. I can appreciate needing to be careful to not step on toes in a potential fragile environment.

    Re: we’re human — I agree! Beautiful women (not just physically either) make us men do silly things. :) Combining that with women in power positions can be even more of an added overwhelm until you learn how to manage those feelings.


  • Matthew A. Myers

    Hehe. I’ll message you to find out more about the interviews. :) Also, I’m hoping to line up some potential dev teams to start work in 1-2 months time, though hoping to find someone local (for ease in agile), external could be an option too.

    Michael Stone was in my city the other day and I went to his talk – e’s who I heard it from! He re-defined some other terms that resonated really well too.

    He just released a new book called Awake In The World;

  • Steve Harris

    Thank you Tereza!  We are indeed very happily and newly married.  And I really appreciate your very thoughtful response. 

    One thing that I neglected to mention that adds even more to the nuance of the situation is that Dan did not transcribe the entire introduction which was actually rather lengthy and detailed Rebecca’s impressive credentials before he made the “sexy” remark.

  • Burton

    So right, and we need to call them on it. Typically someone else talks us out of calling them on it but that would be the right thing to do. And you are right, so many have so much to offer, let’s keep it open. Thanks

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  • Jamal Burgess

    That’s true…

  • Although I’m coming to this discussion a bit late, after I read all of the comments I felt the need to post, mostly for Sarah Schacht, Geekly and any other women who may visit this page sometime down the line and get to my comment.  It’s lengthy, but bear with me. Hopefully it’s worth the time investment.

    Sarah and Geekly both expressed that seeds of doubt have been planted in their minds because of this issue.  My business partner is male, Jewish and straight. We recently had a meeting with a highly respected Seattle VC who went out of his way to point out how we are opposites. He also emphasized, directing his comments to my partner, the need to replace me as CEO with someone else, all of his examples of course being white males.  This same person had a meeting with me where he couldn’t seem to get off of the subject of my sexuality.  At one point, I thought he was a champion, but I recognize now that he is not.  

    We should call this out when it happens but we don’t have to shame to educate.  Gotham Gal gives great examples of how to do that. However, anyone who knows of her knows her position in the tech community. This is an advantage she has over Sarah or Geekly, who might feel that they endanger their chances if the person corrected has a bruised ego, which is easier to do than is often let on and with people you might not expect.  And while I often scoff at the idea that the transgressor has the right to have their feelings protected, the reality is that if they feel ashamed, it can often hurt you more than it can help you.  Choose your battles wisely and strategically; proceed with tact.

    Calling this out and trying to break down the “other” issue is important. There’s a post here and a comment in one of Dan’s other posts that highlight why.

    Here, Matthew A. Myers wrote “It’s not to say they should get the business deal, though I would see it as that they’re not ready for receiving it, because you’re wanting to support people who will mirror and role model the values you hold.”

    In “Companies that would do best without venture capital,” Dan wrote:  
    “Here are the people VCs really love to invest in: 
    Entrepreneurs who’ve already made them lots of money
    Their closest buddies”

    The mirroring doesn’t stop at values.  And while we’d all like to think that tech is a meritocracy, bias and prejudice creep in all the time because it’s human nature.  Being or becoming a “close buddy” can be also mean “is like me.”  And if you’re not like me, then you better be one of 

    “the people who VCs can be convinced to invest in:
    People who have been wildly successful at high-profile past jobs that are related to their new business  (e.g. a former executive VP at a Fortune 500 company, inventor of thingamajig that everyone knows)
    New graduates from top-of-the-top tier schools who have built something amazingly cool already
    Extremely charismatic type-A personalities”

    One could look at this situation and this list, think that they don’t fit in to any of these categories and conclude that it’s hopeless.  But at the end of the day, your success will be predicated on the relationships that you build.  So find your champions who want to invest in you and grow those relationships. Whether they are a part of the VC world as we know it, is likely not as important as any knowledge of operating in your field that they bring to the table and their belief and interest in investing in you.

  •  It took me a minute to find the comments Brenda was referring to, so here they are for future reference:

    Sarah Schacht wrote:

    I applied for Tech Stars, Seattle. Makes me wonder how well my application was received, being young, female, and blonde.

    Geekly wrote:
    I applied for YC & Techstars (few rounds ago) and I couldn’t help but wonder how my my application was received.  I’m a young, black female and while I acknowledge my project may just not have been “good” enough, when I saw the demographics of people, backgrounds, and projects chosen in those rounds, I had to wonder why I’d wasted my time.

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  • AC

    This has nothing to do with this post but as a woman, can you guys jussst tell me what to buy my tech startup CEO entrepreneur for his bday – that I can buy in a store – not a website!
     Oh that would be so helpful!

  • Dan, I read a two bumper stickers yesterday on the back of the same car (bumper stickers are where I get most of my life’s wisdom apparently):  one said “the dude resides”.  (awesome).  the second said “say what is on your mind…even if your voice shakes”. 

    nuff said.  well done.  

  • There are a lot of comments here speculating on what the woman in question could have said to defuse the situation created by her colleague. This is pointless. 

    It is NEVER the job of the person on the receiving end of this stuff to “correct” their colleagues. It’s the job of their colleagues to not make the sexist comments in the first place.

    Women are in a terrible double bind: It’s terribly risky to correct a colleague who makes such a comment, because you’ll be perceived as angry, unreasonable, catty, reactive, etc. The other option is to say nothing, which telegraphs that the comment was fine, and that this sort of thing is acceptable. 

    I repeat: It’s not women’s job to fix this.

  • jett moore

    Can society please start caring about things that actually matter?

  • Every woman everywhere

    This is a disturbing trend. Even not-macho men are hard enough to tolderate. I’ve had men make the “rweeer” catty noise in meetings. This week, I received an email with “tits” in it. It was supposed to be folksy. Men need to seal that crap in an envelope and mail it back to 1950, because we are not putting up with that horsesh*t anymore, and we take note of any men who don’t openly object to it along with us. I work in a hierarchical company that pretends not to be. I made sure the senior email writer got the message through my manager that such references have no place in the workplace.

  • Every woman everywhere

    It’s not the woman’s job to evolve the cavemen, but it is her responsibility to stand up for herself. It’s hard to do so without anger or the temptattion to shame, but a firm public ‘no’ is what this industry needs.

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  • Origami_Isopod

    “… that there are of course a lot of people men in tech, who feel awkward around women and handling their own sexuality.”

    Clue: “Men” aren’t synonymous with “people.” Also, social awkwardness isn’t the same as malicious misogyny.

    I’m glad you’ve come to a conclusion that it’s OK to discriminate because trying not to would be too, too hard for poor ickle white male geeks. I’m sure that makes you feel so much better.

  • Origami_Isopod

    Oh, you poor menz. So **overwhelmed** by the women around you… that you still get to run the world, basically, and earn most of the money. Boo hoo hoo.

  • Origami_Isopod

    Oh hai thar, victim blamer.

  • Origami_Isopod
  • Origami_Isopod

    So, uh, what explains the misogyny experienced by women who aren’t HAWT by dudebro standards?

  • Origami_Isopod

    I shed a tear for the plight of the poor, oppressed white menz.  ;__;

  • Origami_Isopod

    Yeah, how dare she not argue about what YOU want to argue about.

  • Origami_Isopod

    Aw, it’s just not a thread on sexism without privileged d00dz coming in and telling us silly widdle gurlz what we should and shouldn’t be offended by!

  • Origami_Isopod

    “Are professional women not allowed to be sexy too?” Why is the focus on the “sexiness” of professional *women*? Why does nobody focus on that of professional *men*? That’s the question.

  • Origami_Isopod

    Yet another privileged male who thinks the playing field is actually level. No, pro-woman orgs aren’t what hold women back. What hold women back are sexism, and d00dz like you who denies it exists.

  • Origami_Isopod

    What’s wrong with anger or shaming, when appropriate? And some women CAN’T “stand up for herself,” because of fear of reprisals. I really doubt you’re a woman, btw.