Last week, in response to numerous reports of sexual harassment of female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, actor and Sound Ventures investor Ashton Kutcher took to LinkedIn to start a conversation about gender equality in the workplace. He kicked off with a list of questions ranging from, “What are the Rules for dating in the work place? Flirting?” to, “Are there known mentorship programs for female entrepreneurs?”
The backlash was swift and sharp, prompting Kutcher to post a series of tweets (not an apology, per se) in response to statements he’d intended as a prelude to a Facebook Live session. “Hope we can find space to be wrong in the pursuit of getting it right,” he said.
As promised, Kutcher appeared on Facebook Live yesterday with Effie Epstein, a partner and the COO of Sound Ventures, to get that conversation under way. Although Kutcher admitted immediately that he was “genuinely terrified” to be hosting the discussion, he also confessed that writing that LinkedIn post “took all of about a minute and a half to compose” and that his question about dating and flirting in the workplace was the wrong place to start.
What followed wasn’t dramatically better. While Kutcher and Epstein touched on many important issues, their discussion could’ve benefited from Kutcher being less of a charming apologist and both of them doing more homework before broadcasting to over 300,000 people. Here’s a look at what they discussed—or should have, but didn’t.
How Inequality Affects Everyone
To be a responsible venture capital firm, Kutcher pointed out that “if we aren’t addressing [inequality] personally and internally, we are screwing ourselves and a lot of people who don’t deserve to be screwed over.” He’s right.
According to a study by First Round Capital, having a women on a founding team meant startups outperformed those led by all men by 63%. However, female CEOs get only 2.7% of all venture funding, while women of color get virtually none: 0.2%.
work place gender equality discussion w/ ashton and effie
Posted by Ashton Kutcher on Monday, July 10, 2017
But Kutcher and Epstein lost their focus a bit when it came to talking solutions. By remarking that “80% of this problem is men and can be solved by men,” Kutcher seemed to suggest that the disproportionately male leadership in the business world is on the hook for workplace gender issues, but the truth is that correcting them will take everybody—all genders, races, ages, etc.—working together.
Access To Funding
Kutcher claimed that his LinkedIn post’s most controversial question—”Should investors invest in ideas that they believe to have less merit so as to create equality across a portfolio?”—was just meant to be “pseudo-provocative,” as a jumping-off point to get feedback. (He admitted he did a “really shitty job” with that one.) But Kutcher didn’t seem to have much insight on the issue of female founders’ access to funding, suggesting at one point that they aren’t sending enough cold pitches. “Buck up and send an email,” he said, only to concede moments later that a warm, personal introduction is the better way to reach out.
For her part, Epstein pinned some of the problem on the storytelling and visioning skills women use when they pitch investors. She suggested better mentors who could coach female founders to project outward for the next few years–like the guys do–rather than focus on what their businesses can achieve in the next few months. Epstein also encouraged more women VCs to give feedback to female entrepreneurs. “It would be great if male VCs jumped in as well,” she added.
It isn’t clear, however, that these are the main obstacles women face while seeking funding. Black women founders, for example, are the fastest growing and most educated group of entrepreneurs in the nation. But lack of access to networks, accelerator programs, and the like prevent them from getting that critical funding. Perhaps it’s time for Kutcher and company to send a few cold-email introductions of their own to black-owned VC funds and other underrepresented minority firms that have recently opened.
On unconscious bias, Kutcher said, “I would love to hear and understand from this audience how to unearth it.” He mentioned Harvard’s bias test, which anyone can take to discover what they’re biased against. The closest Kutcher got to acknowledging his own unconscious biases was in recounting how the women at his company came to him to explain what abuse looks like. Prior to that, given the preponderance of women who worked for him and were in executive roles, Kutcher said it was easy for him to imagine the problem wasn’t as pervasive.
He did muse briefly that the name on somebody’s resume could contribute to unconscious bias in hiring. But smart recruiters and hiring managers are already tapping a wealth of AI-driven solutions that remove qualifying information (including names and gender), mask voices, use chatbots to navigate the application process, and even offer analytics dashboards to show recruiters how diverse the candidate pool is.
Kutcher later asked participants to name a film where a heterosexual man and woman worked together as friends on a shared goal. When few movie titles cropped up, he pointed out that popular media doesn’t really model this type of relationship. “Story architecture hasn’t historically supported that,” even though friendships are the “organic compost” for building new businesses, Kutcher said. “We don’t even support the storytelling that says these relationships are valuable.”
It’s a fair point; storytellers of all stripes have traditionally relied on tension between genders to push a narrative. But it probably isn’t one of the top causes of sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the workplace, which isn’t likely to vanish with better movie plot lines. It’s going to take a lot more dedicated effort.
Communication In The Office
Epstein acknowledged that the way people communicate in the workplace makes a difference, and mentioned the importance of reinforcing women’s ideas during meetings and giving them due credit. She was right to bring this up, since it’s something women deal with on a routine basis. Kutcher chimed in to say this goes for conversations on social platforms as well: “Find ways to highlight across gender, ethnicity. It actually means something, white dudes! I am going to make a conscious effort to do it more.”
Epstein noted that women’s networking events tend to fixate on work-life balance issues rather than concentrating on business, while Kutcher took a wider view. “We need to have a serious discussion in the U.S. about government-supported childcare,” in order to keep women on the career track longer, he said.
Many working moms would agree, but so would working dads. We know that the astronomical cost of childcare is causing some women to leave their jobs, as Kutcher pointed out. Yet while he said he’s “lucky” to be able to share childcare responsibilities equally with his wife, the actress Mila Kunis, all fathers need more paid family leave–and a workplace culture that encourages them to use it–so that Kutcher doesn’t have to be among the privileged few.
Before the Facebook Live chat ended, Kunis made a brief appearance to point out that her husband, like other men, have good intentions. She suggested that women tend to miss that by focusing too much on semantics. This prompted Kutcher to plug the controversial books The Female Brain and The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine, a researcher who has been criticized for dividing the genders along cognitive lines that aren’t always well supported by science.
Ultimately, brain science probably isn’t the best place to look for solutions to the discrimination and disparities women face in the working world every day. But to be fair to Kutcher, Epstein, and Kunis, solving these issues all in one go wasn’t the idea. “The goal is collective learning and to create a safe forum for that,” said Epstein, “we are not going to solve [gender imbalance] with a one-hour stream.” By the close of this one, that couldn’t have been clearer.