Newsweek, Allies, and Critique

Earlier today an article came out on Newsweek about the state of women in Silicon Valley. As disclosure, I spoke with Nina before her article, and she mentions this Manifesto that I co-signed. I enjoyed our conversation, and I know the article doesn’t cover the depth of the conversations she had.

It does include comments from Vivek Wadhwa, a Silicon Valley investor, diversity coach and author of Innovating Women (as given in the article).

The comment is “Wadhwa says shaky self-confidence is one of the chief things holding women back. It’s not just about the money, though. Wadhwa says women not only are reluctant to overstate their accomplishments and goals; they habitually understate them. “Often I have to say to them, Why are you underselling?” he says. “When I coach women, I tell them how wonderful they are. Women won’t make the ridiculous projections about their companies that the guys will. They won’t say the really stupid thing the nerds do. They are a lot more realistic and practical and humble.”

I was only loosely familiar with Wadhwa’s work before today. He’s oft-cited in the technology press for working on issues of gender & technology, but I hadn’t dug into the details. I’ve also noticed many women that I respect (particularly Cate Huston) criticizing his involvement.

This comment caught me off guard.

It sounds like a positive. “They (women) won’t say the really stupid things that nerds do.” It’s not positive.

I have an Engineering degree. I say really stupid nerd things all the time. The most excited I’ve ever gotten in an HBS class was when I got to explain Milling Machines and 3D printers. I was most disappointed when we didn’t actually talk about electrical connectors in an accounting case. Wadhwa betrays bias in implying that women aren’t nerds. There’s a wide spectrum of women who work in technology — and yes — many of us are nerds.

The comment also supports the existing narrative that women should “lean in” and exaggerate. I’d much rather everyone give realistic projections than women start exaggerating as well. This isn’t everyone’s opinion, but it is mine.

Today, I wanted to find out where Wadhwa is getting information from because he clearly holds a different perspective from me.

I started out by trying to look at Innovating Women. On Amazon, there wasn’t a list of contents of the book or who he’d spoken to. I went to the book’s webpage and found a similar problem. While I can get to a photo grid of women, it doesn’t list their names. This makes it harder to find out more about these women — or ask them for comment in articles.

I also figured that day to day interaction probably counts for more than one-off interviews. I know that I say things differently when it’s “official” than when I chat with friends. So I also did some quick stats on who Wadhwa’s following on Twitter:

I tried to be generous with my counts. I was liberal in my definition of “tech” — I didn’t look so much at women in STEM as much as women doing operating roles. I included VCs and founders in the count of 33.

This data is just one indicator. It could be that Wadhwa uses Twitter entirely for media relations, and communicates with women in technology another way. He might just not be communicating with women who share my views, and that’s why his comment rings false.

Wadhwa did respond to criticism today:

I’m not sure if he saw my comment, or if included it in his group.

I don’t mind that Wadhwa spoke up. I think we need more allies making comments. I do mind that he made a comment that doesn’t seem to fairly represent women in technology. I also mind the way he’s portraying honest critique.

It’s crucial that we critique public statements on this issue. There aren’t many people who are willing to speak up, so the few voices are amplified to an unreasonable degree. This means we lack a broad, nuanced perspective that could propel us forward. If you’re speaking for a group, you should be anxious to hear how their perspective differs. You should also encourage new voices.

When I started writing about gender and technology issues, I was nervous for this reason. I needn’t have been — I’ve received criticism, my views have evolved, and we make progress. I’ll receive criticism for writing this piece, and that’s okay.

Women need to be able to speak about their own experiences in technology. Writers need a variety of perspectives to write good stories, including those from men. As long as we have so few voices speaking up on the issue, we need to be able to critique them.

The best way to make this discussion and critique less scary for everyone? Write something. Or go as far as to start your own brand.