Tech world is in turmoil. Girl goes to a convention, doesn’t like what she hears, exposes guys, guy gets fired, strong Internet reactions, girl gets fired. So, what happened in the Adria Richards’ case? Was that the right course of action for a woman in tech? Let’s see…
I have been in the tech industry for over 20 years, working as a business consultant for one of the leading consulting companies, and then moving to a leader in the telecom arena. Also, in the last 10 years I had access to the top executives in companies that ranged from Fortune 100 to small startups. That gave me a broad view on how women are perceived and treated in the tech industry. The tech industry has an unusually high percentage of male employees, but it is not the only one: construction, investment banking, and many math intensive industries have the same issues. So, looking from a broader perspective, let’s see what I saw wrong on this case.
First, picking fights with the wrong people to start a behavior change. You don’t pick up a fight with the small guys; you have to aim at the large targets. People rally behind the ones that they perceive as having being treated unfair, according to their own perception. In The Big Bang Theory, Leonard knows that Sheldon does not behave properly, but if someone fights with him, he defends his friend. So, by attacking them, the effect backfired and gave them a stronger support in the tech community. And, from my previous experience, the lower guys may be an annoyance to women, but they are not the real issue. Just let me continue with my point of view before coming back to this.
Second, you have to pay attention to your job description. As a Business Consulting Director, I gave several press interviews, even on TV. Companies that are professional in handling external messages, like my previous employer, have a strict process. I had to complete a Spokesperson Training before talking to journalists, bloggers or people with a strong voice in the press. You are not hired to express your opinions, unless you are a blogger or a press member, you are hired to increase the company business. That became clear when I accepted the position as Brand Manager for the Latin American Region. The list of no-go increased, as I became one of the local faces of the company. Never say anything that could annoy our customers, and never, ever, expose something controversial in social media. The power of social media is beyond our control, and it can backfire like a cannon. One example is the Locaweb case. Locaweb is one of the largest hosting companies here in Brazil, and to increase their visibility, they decided to sponsor one of the top football (sorry, soccer for our US colleagues) teams in a match against another major team here. In the heat of the game, the Marketing Director that cheered for the other team decided to Tweet his opinions about the team being sponsored. Yes, he actually made offensive jokes about the team that his company was supporting. It went viral, and many users decided to remove their accounts; Locaweb could not do anything else, but to fire him and send out a press release with a brief explanation. The message is, if you want to be an activist go ahead, but select carefully your role.
Third, you cannot complain about sexist jokes if you do them online. One of her tweets had a joke with socks and male underwear.
So, how can women fight for better conditions in the tech industry?
We have to start by getting more women interested on technology. From an early age, we tell our kids that boys play with cars and build things, and that girls play with dolls. Geek girls are portrayed as non-attractive in TV series and films, and that message is spread around schools. By the time that a girl becomes a teenager, she will only go for a technical major if she is really fond of it. That is something worth fighting for; we need to change this perception in society.
Then we have to change the way people behave at work. I want to make a distinction here on things that are annoying, and things that make a career impossible. Annoying for me is hearing bad and sexist jokes, and I had my share too. In 1997, I moved to the US to work as an expat. It was a controversial period, the top of the sexual harassment battles. I had to attend a 2 day-course before leaving my country. The instructor told us: do not enter in a public elevator at work when there is only one woman there, do not say anything that can be misinterpreted, do not open the doors, and so on. I was scared to death, and came to work in a real low profile. In my first week there, one of my female colleagues, someone that I barely knew, made an offensive joke about my accent. It was so bad that another female colleague looked at her and jumped in my defense. Did I go to HR? No. Should I? Good question, but over time I learned a lot from smart female colleagues, and saw that it is not the most effective way to handle the issue. They told me that men in tech were never quarterbacks, top soccer players, nor the popular boys; they get embarrassed quickly, and there is an unwritten rule that if your male friend does something not smart, you should tease him as much as possible. So, when they heard vulgar jokes they would look at the boys and say: “Are you Beavis or Butthead?”, or something similar. The other guys immediately joined the girls, and the jokers were embarrassed. The effects actually changed behavior over time!
Also, you can find tons of men that will support you if you are really annoyed. When we see a woman that is uncomfortable, most of us will do something to help. As a good listener, and seen as a reasonable person, I helped my female colleagues countless times on how to deal with similar situations, deciding the best approach. The majority of the cases was solved directly, without involving someone else, but a few cases were so severe that I helped them to structure a proper complaint with HR. That gave me the insights for the next topic, the real deal: executives that do not like women.
Having access to the top layers in several organizations, I started to see a hidden but strong unwritten policy: women are not fit for top roles. Most of the top guys are still baby boomers, raised in an era that portrayed women as household items. Some of the conversations that I heard were unbearable, revealing the worse in corporate behavior. But, they are perfect at disguising their true colors, acting as supporters of the inclusion of women in the managerial layers. They can hide behind friendly speeches, but are easy to spot: just look at their organizations. Executives with few female managers are actively acting against the inclusion trend; usually they appoint HR and Communications execs to show that they are nice guys. Take your organizational chart, and map the level where you start to see a fast decrease on female leadership. The guys above that are the ones that you should direct your efforts, demanding a higher percentage in the managerial levels.
So, back to Adria Richards. Was she entitled to be angry with the guys? Totally. I also hate when I am at conferences and people keep doing stupid jokes – usually I solve the issue with a disapproval look. Did she do it the right way? In my opinion, no. She managed to get one guy fired, she got fired, and the discussions online did not address the changes that she wanted. In the end, everyone involved lost something, a lose-lose situation.
And you, what is your opinion?