"How does someone get that much space," Nicole Sanchez asks, to write about a subject when "they don’t understand the world they’re talking about?" Sanchez—who currently works at GitHub as its vice president of social impact and has been a decades-long technology diversity activist—was referring to an op-ed written in the Wall Street Journal.
In the tech industry, where sage advice is hawked so often it might as well be considered a liquid asset, the headline for the post in question summed up its thesis: "Why Women in Tech Might Consider Just Using Their Initials Online." The piece was written by investor, entrepreneur, and frequent Wall Street Journal contributor John Greathouse. In it, he suggested that the way to provide an impartial good impression in a male-dominated industry would be to obscure identifying information that could cloud their perception—if you are not a man.
An online firestorm ensued. Former business journalist Shane Ferro took to Twitter to explain that while research found that people’s names can instantly cloud others’ judgments, Greathouse’s prescriptions are not the correct course of action.
Sanchez believes that Greathouse’s argument uses a popular mental sleight of hand for cultural conflicts. "It was a classic example of putting the onus of inclusion on the people who are being excluded," she says. Indeed, the first sentence in the piece did just that: "Professional women, are you properly curating your online first impression?" Sanchez says, "It’s a very well-worn, poorly developed argument for how we create more equitable experiences." If people are being pushed to the fringe because of others’ actions, the oppressing group ought to be the ones to make things right.
What Greathouse proposes not only doesn’t solve any problems, it reifies the assumption that technology is a male-dominated industry and always will be. For women to admit that and hide their own identities only makes the intrinsic misogyny more insidious.
"I’ve been in leadership roles all my life in industries dominated by men," writes Jennifer Keough, cofounder of JND Legal Administration and CEO of JND Class Action Administration. In an email to Fast Company, she says, "Sure, there’ve been times I’ve thought it would be easier to conform to the gender bias, but I’ve worked hard to defeat that voice—it isn’t who I am, nor do I think it helps do the hard work we need to do to stand up and be counted."
Freada Kapor, technology investor and diversity advocate, echoes this sentiment. In a statement to Fast Company she maintains:
Shielding your gender online may be a reasonable adaptive strategy for individuals, if we accept the idea that tech can never change its culture, but that would be giving up, wouldn’t it? Tech prides itself on being able to use innovation to solve complicated problems. Certainly we can figure out a way to challenge and fix the industry’s biases.
Aside from avoiding the main problem, there are plenty of holes in this strategy. If most men are using their full names, and the majority of women are using their initials, it would be pretty clear who is who. And in this era of online profiles, a 30-second search is all it would take to reveal gender and other characteristics.
Importantly, this strategy won’t help women whose last names indicate a likelihood of being African-American or Latina. Numerous examples of rigorous resume studies show how racial bias is far more pronounced than gender bias in the workplace.
The technology industry is known for patting itself on the back for entrepreneurial individuality. The cult of the founder—someone who thinks outside the box and dares to be different—is said to ultimately lead to business success. But it’s a certain type of different that investors have traditionally looked for; being white and male is almost always a prerequisite. Research confirms that less than 10% of venture-backed companies are led by women.
Ximena Hartsock, cofounder of the advocacy communication platform Phone2Action, sees her personal identity as something she brings to the table. She's a Chilean-born, female entrepreneur. Both these pieces define who she is as a businesswoman.
"You want to put everything out there to make it very clear that’s who they’re dealing with," Hartsock says. Meeting with potential investors is as much interviewing them as it is vice versa. And if someone doesn’t like you because you’re a woman, well you likely wouldn’t have wanted to do business with them anyway. "You can weed out all the investors," she says, like Greathouse, "who clearly thinks he’s giving good advice. But he’s doing the opposite."
GitHub's Sanchez says she appreciated that Greathouse apologized. "I love seeing people grow on these specific topics," she says. All the same, Sanchez, who has spent decades working to educate the technology sector about the need for diversity, can’t help but wonder how that article went from an idea to publication.
"There wasn’t anyone on the process who put the brakes on," she says. "There wasn’t someone fluent in this topic—maybe not even a woman in that process." Someone, she says, "who would’ve given it much more nuance."
While the apology is good and shows that people in the space are owning up to their own misgivings about the gnarly issue of diversity and unconscious bias, it’s still worthwhile to think of the damage it may have caused.
"This is a really dangerous article," says Hartsock. "We have a lot of women out there—especially young women—who need to hear the opposite." Most of all, she says, "they need to hear [this] from women and also from men. Especially investors."