The following was first published in "Model View Culture" in June 2014. You should subscribe.
Misogyny in the Valley
by Nancy Householder Hauge
(with contributions made by Henry Higgins and Lean In)
“Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?”
30 years ago, when I first joined a rapidly-growing-Silicon-Valley start-up-soon-to-be-very-successful-company, a young female engineer, named Katie, came to me for some help. She told me she felt uncomfortable with a situation, but she did not know what to do or say about it.
“Have you noticed that all the servers have been given girls’ names?” she asked me. “Why do you think that is?”
“I assumed it was like planes, ships and cars. Guys always refer to that stuff with girls names,” I replied.
“Maybe,” she went on. “But did you know that the protocol for starting up a server is called ‘mounting’?
“No, I’ve never heard that,” I said, looking at my watch, wondering when she would come to the point. I can be slow.
“Well, every morning I have to listen to my male colleagues yelling down the hallways, ‘I am mounting Cathy now!’ or ‘I mounted Judy a few minutes ago and she is purring!’ or ‘Jenny is being a tease and will not let me mount her!’ or maybe the worst, ‘Katie can I watch while you mount Joan?’”
Oh. Now I saw what she was talking about.
I pictured the group she was talking about. A cluster of offices ran down two sides of a long hallway, near a big cold room with a raised floor, as server-rooms had to be in those days.
Each office was occupied by two or three of the nerdiest-nerds you have ever met. These were engineers who demanded that they control the servers on which their work resided, not trusting them to the IT department’s care. These very smart boys were the most important brains in the company. Recruited from the top three engineering schools in the nation, their hair was long and unkempt and they wore jeans, T-shirts and sandals to work in 1984, but when they went to college in the 70s their pants were too short, they wore pocket-protectors and they knew how to use slide-rules.
Many of them never had a date in high school or college. Many worked so many hours they often slept under their desks at work, did not shower and smelled pretty ripe on a Friday… and it was pretty clear they still had limited contact with girls. They were arrogant, contemptuous of anyone without a technical MS, know-it-alls. Some were geniuses. All were socially inept.
So, as I sat there picturing these horny, smelly nerds and juxtaposing Katie’s story of them bragging about “mounting” their high-tech girlfriends, I did what anyone in my position in 1984 would do.
I laughed out loud.
I told Katie I would look into it, but I advised Katie to develop a sense of humor.
In truth, on that day in 1984 I saw no harm in what was going on. I thought Katie was just being uptight, a whiner…she was looking for things to complain about and did not understand how to get along with boys. I assumed she was not as good an engineer as the boys. I assumed she was one of those malcontent-girl-engineers with dirty hair and too much political correctness to ever have fun.
Why were those girl engineers so whiny and malcontent anyway?
Well, in retrospect, it might have been because of people like me.
People like me, who did not see much harm….no, it was worse than that… people like me, who saw charm in the misogynistic hijinks of young men.
Inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s poster boy for chauvinism, Henry Higgins, I wondered, “Why can’t these girls be more like the boys?”
Why can’t they nut-up, develop a thicker skin and a cooler sense of humor? Why do they look for mistreatment everywhere? The boys are just having fun. Get along, do your job. We need to keep those boys happy, ya’ know. We need to do anything we can to keep the nerdy-brain-trust-happy. And if I confront them, they might bolt over to another company where the culture is still cool and not full of rules about behavior. So, Katie, can you just take a chill-pill and get with the program a bit?
What a dumb-ass I was.
I am so sorry, Katie. I was a wrong-headed young woman, raised with four brothers, living in the male-dominated high-tech world and addicted to trying to make the boys like and accept me. Could someone reach back 30 years and put a sock in my mouth, please?
Luckily things, and I, have really changed over the past 30 years, right? Isn’t that a relief? At least we don’t have those boys clubs of the 1980s to contend with anymore!
What do you mean you “have a sock for me to taste?”
The 21st Century
In 2011 I was consulting to a Silicon Valley start-up seeking a bunch of Ruby on Rails developers. The CTO was panicked about finding the right team. I understood his concerns, although I had never seen so many qualifiers attached to screening candidates. As the recruiting team and I tried to fill a pipeline with qualified developers, we had to submit the names to the entire engineering team so they could check out the candidates’ GitHub accounts.
The engineers called it “GetHumped.” Over and over we submitted woman engineers, and over and over they were rejected, supposedly based upon the “quality” of their code submitted to GitHub. Or, they didn’t have code posted on GitHub at all. But what I would hear the engineers say is, “Can’t ‘get humped’, can’t get hired.”
Welcome to the 21st century version of “mounting Cathy.”
When I confronted the CTO with the remarkable rejection rate of women, he said, “I can tell you this because you are a consultant and not really ‘HR,’ but… I have a cool team with a good culture and I just do not see woman on that team, ok? None of the women I went to school with were enough like the guys to fit in.”
I was a bit stunned that one of the millennial generation could be so 1984 in his attitude. But, I was paid to advise, not preach. So, I sat the CTO and his CEO co-founder down and said, “Boys, let me tell you how the deposition that is in your future is going to go.”
I explained that the consistent elimination of female candidates was going to come back to bite them. I explained that their product was used by women 95% of the time and a few women on the product team would be a good thing.
They thought about my “advice.” Then they agreed among themselves that they could not tamper with the chemistry of the current team, that female engineers would make the boys uncomfortable, that women just wouldn’t fit in. They were disappointed that I did not “get it.” They expected more of me because I was part of the culture of Silicon Valley in the 1980s, where we did not have so many “PC” rules.
Well, the desperate-for-male-approval-Nancy of 1984 would have fit in fine, but apparently Nancy in 2014 no longer fit in…. they ended my contract.
But there it was, 30 years later the lament: “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?”
“Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Woman?”
Early in Sheryl Sandberg’s disappointing book, Lean In, she recounts speaking to a group of graduate students. She was impressed by the “thoughtful” questions the male students asked. The men were focused on business model and operational questions. They asked questions about how to run a company.
She was less impressed by the questions from the young women, questions such as; “Did you feel guilty leaving Google?” “Were you concerned about going to your company’s biggest competitor?” “Did you think about commitments you had to the people you left behind?”
Sheryl was disappointed in the lack of “thoughtfulness” and focus in the women’s questions. She wondered why they did not ask the same valuable questions as the men.
But Sheryl totally missed the point of the women’s questions. The men asked “how to” questions, because Sheryl’s level of professional and financial success gives her gravitas and credibility in their minds. The women asked values and relationship-based questions, trying to determine if Sheryl shared their values and ethics before they would take her advice. Because, regardless of her financial success, Sheryl would not have gravitas until she scaled those hurdles among women. In my experience, young women are no less interested in the “hows” of learning, but they are far more rigorous in qualifying the “who,” before taking advice.
“Successful” behaviors in corporate America were set by men, based upon how men use their brains and how they interact. Women do not readily fit into the corporate culture created by men, which values only the standards set by them. Alternate models of workplace skills are not yet understood and appreciated. Prevailing thought has always assumed that stereotypical male work behaviors are empirically proven to be winning behaviors.
Sandberg perpetuates that antiquated myth throughout her entire tiresome book. She holds men up as her only model for success and continuously compares any differing behavior from women as “heartbreaking.” Sheryl is so enamored of the male behavior she indulges in a book-long version of what the character, Jenna Maroney of “30 Rock” calls “back door bragging:”
Jenna: “Backdoor bragging is sneaking something wonderful about yourself in everyday conversation. Like when I tell people it's hard for me to watch American Idol ‘cause I have perfect pitch.”
Sheryl continually explains that she went through life embarrassed by her “bossiness,” when in fact, she is back-door bragging. And we are all supposed to think, “Wow, she ‘takes charge’ just like a man! Isn’t it just awful she had to be embarrassed about being so great?”
Men in tech often “take charge” in a competition of dominance. They rush to see who can solve the problem fastest and then rush to see who can find the flaws in that solution fastest. Often, when men in a tech workplace are in an animated discussion, one of them is likely to stand up in an unconscious attempt to physically dominate. After the first one stands, they will all stand in order to avoid looking up at any other male in the room. Soon the whole meeting is taking place at six feet in the air. That makes it pretty tough for a five-foot-tall woman to participate without standing on a chair.
It must also be hard to thoroughly think through a problem when you are so intent on maintaining dominance.
But how about “taking charge” like a woman?
Ten years ago I was part of Ruckus, a social media company whose value proposition was downloading music and movies legally into dorm rooms. During the summer of 2005 we had 18 college interns working with us. We had a variety of projects for them to do, most of which were focused on making the site sticky and expanding the subscriber rate.
For one project, we decided to split them up by gender and asked both the boys and the girls to solve the same problem: How to get more students to subscribe. We gave them two hours to brainstorm and then present their ideas.
The boys solved the issue in about 10 minutes. They placed a flip chart outside of their conference room that read: “Invest more in on-campus marketing. Invest more in branding.”
Then the boys went to shoot hoops for the next 110 minutes. The boys’ answer was focused on exactly what the senior team had concluded and we were pretty pleased with what we had taught these guys over the summer.
The girls took the entire two hours and then asked to see me privately. I went to the conference room where they had been working. The white boards and flip charts were covered in ideas with cross-outs and edits in every color pen. It was clear that this had been an unfocused session.
Two girls were at the front of the room and they seemed a bit nervous. I understood why - it was clear they had been all over the place in their ideas. I was feeling pretty sorry for the girls and their lack of clear understanding compared to the boys…. when one of the girls said, “Nancy, we know why the site is failing. But we are not sure management will be willing to solve the problem.”
“Try me,” I said, a little put off.
“The site needs erotica,” one said.
“The site just does not have enough sex on it,” said another.
Now, part of our commitment to the schools we sold to was that we would not serve up porn. I was disappointed that the girls did not remember that and was sad they had wasted 2 hours. But they went on: “We don’t mean porn. We mean erotica. For example, European movies have much more sex in the context of the stories they tell. European content would be attractive to educators. And girls like sex in movies. Management has to secure a volume of erotica that appeals to young women and market it appropriately.”
I sat there a bit astonished. I looked around the room and now saw the covered white boards and flip charts in a different light.
The boys had served up the answer that would please management and they took pride in their expedience. The girls worked long, quietly and hard on something that would not just validate management but also actually solve the problem. And they took huge risk of self-exposure by talking about how girls like explicit sex in movies.
The Temple of Male Behavior
Without credible workplace role models for behavior other than the male behaviors Sheryl proselytizes, women are left trying to emulate them, and risk abandoning some of the best parts of themselves when they leave for work in the morning.
The young women interns at Ruckus worked in a very different way. As I explored their notes, I noticed that ideas were expanded upon, not abandoned. Challenges were identified, but the male language so often heard in Silicon Valley conference rooms - “Well, let me tell you what the problem with that idea is….” - was not in the room. These young women, without men to define the “appropriate business behavior,” used different behaviors and came up with a startling and valuable solution. They showed many of the values that exist outside of dominance-based leadership: strategic thinking, intuition, nurturing and relationship building, values-based decision-making and acceptance of other’s input.
Women need space to be themselves at work. Until people who have created their success by worshipping at the temple of male behavior, like Sheryl Sandberg, learn to value alternate behaviors, the working world will remain a foreign and hostile culture to women. And if we do not continuously work to build corporate cultures where there is room for other behaviors, women will be cast from or abandoned in a world not of our making, where we continuously “just do not fit in,” but where we still must go to earn our livings.