A few weeks ago, an employee at Google set off a national conversation about women in tech by writing what is now commonly referred to as “The Google Manifesto.” What follows here is a discussion of inclusion, sexism, and equality in the startup community both nationally and here in San Diego.
The Google Manifesto
At the end of July, Google employee James Damore wrote a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”. It was met with interest, outrage and ultimately him being fired from Google.
The crux of Damore’s memo was that women are scientifically different from men and that is the reason they do not do well in tech jobs. In addition, companies should quit trying to include women just to feel good, they should instead look at the economics of it and make sure it makes sense for the company.
In the ten pages, he covers what he feels is Google’s political bias on the liberal side. In citing the scientific differences between men and women he refers to women’s neuroticism, having higher anxiety and a lower stress tolerance. He believes that gender gaps should not imply sexism, but instead just a reflection of the differences between men and women.
Damore is extremely critical of the programs inside companies that work to include women and minorities. He feels programs like that shouldn’t be undertaken “just to do it.” The company should only do those if they help the company in terms of cost and benefits, rather than morals. He also proposed ending the “alienation of conservatives” and de-emphasizing empathy.
Read the memo. There is more. These are some highlights.
Reactions to the Memo
Google responded by firing Damore and by issuing a statement from their newly hired Vice President of Diversity, Integrity, and Governance, Danielle Brown. She affirmed Google’s commitment to diversity and valued the open discourse around this issue. However, she said it is valued only when it works “alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”
There have been any number of responses and reactions to Damore’s memo. From other tech companies, to female engineers, to psychology experts — people have weighed in. As of today, Damore has only said he has one regret. If he could take anything back from the 10-page memo, he said it would be labeling women as neurotic.
How the Ground is Shifting
Over the past few months, the atmosphere around sexual harassment has changed. Reports and very public accusations have caused a shift in the ground. Uber’s now former CEO Travis Kalanick became the poster child for sexual harassment in the tech industry earlier this year, as well as an example of how difficult it is to weed out this kind of behavior at these companies.
This ReCode podcast episode is a great way to understand some of that. It features host Kara Swisher and guests Erica Baker and Sarah Kunst. They both have interesting back stories, but have now become well known for their decision to become public about the sexual harassment, gender, and race issues they experienced in the tech scene. Kunst went public about her experience with Dave McClure at 500 Startups who was subsequently removed from his role after numerous women followed her lead with their same experiences. Erica Baker, now the director of engineering at Kickstarter and a former Google employee, used Medium to begin to share the personal experience she was having in the tech community.
A word you will begin to hear if you start to read up on this is “gaslighting.” Webster’s definition of gaslighting is “to attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation).” This leads to victim shaming and creates a culture in which women do not want to step forward with accusations they know are true because they experienced them.
This also leads to a culture in which there are few consequences for bad behavior. But it seems that may be starting to change. Earlier this year, six women accused the co-founder of Binary Capital, Justin Caldbeck, of sexual harassment and assault. He resigned. His resignation was followed by the development of the Decency Pledge. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman was behind it and it includes three pledges to be made by venture capital firms (VCs). First, to apply the same moral position to entrepreneurs as they would to an employee. Second, to report to a colleague if you see a VC acting different from this standard, just as you would report it as an employee. And last, for VCs to agree to not work with other VCs who engage in bad behavior.
The pledge has been signed by VCs such as Sequoia Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, First Round Capital, and General Catalyst. So, the ground has shifted. Bad actors have been called out and there is a very public discussion going on about women in tech that covers everything from harassment to qualifications to salaries to funding.
What Does This Mean to San Diego?
The big question then was, what does this have to do with San Diego. Do we face these same challenges and issues and, if so, where and what do they look like?
I looked at the local landscape. I looked at social media interactions on the topic and I talked with some founders, funders, and others in town. San Diego’s startup ecosystem has its own issues with inclusion and equality and sexism. They have not played out on a bigger stage yet. In some cases, they have been self-policed. In some cases, they have not.
I first wanted to know people’s reaction to the Damore memo.
Cheryl Goodman is the executive director of Athena, a local professional development organization that serves women in science and technology. She told me, “It’s unfortunate that this Harvard grad sparked a genuine scientific discussion on gender while using old data and poor science. The author’s basic lack of depth of social issues is summed up nicely by Dr. David Schmitt, of Psychology Today. ‘Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm.’” (Ironically, Schmitt is the author of the scientific findings Damore used to substantiate the views in his memo.)
I also reached out to Silvia Mah, founder of Hera Angels, an all-female angel investor group that is looking to create more female funders and entrepreneurs. Mah shared, “As much as women in tech have surpassed every obstacle, solving huge problems in an incredibly fast-paced tech revolution, we are constantly faced with the inner dialogue of legitimacy. Therefore, when a monologue like this comes out with the holier-than-though rhetoric, our inner dialogue becomes a loudspeaker of at least 100 outer dialogues any women in tech has had.”
San Diego has a good base of support for female entrepreneurs through organizations like Athena, Hera Hub/Hera Angels, and others. Hera Hub founder Felena Hanson hosted a thoughtful panel discussion during San Diego Startup Week about how to boost female founders’ funding. But, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the less female dominated part of the ecosystem here and see what was going on.
The Elephant in the Room
I reached out to Melani Gordon, CEO and co-founder of Taphunter and a well-respected leader in the local startup community. She has created a solid place for herself in a community which is largely occupied be men. What followed was a thoughtful conversation about her experience, how she saw the shifting ground referenced above and what she is worried about in her own backyard. She recommended the above-mentioned podast with Kunst and Baker, saying it “deserves a listen by everyone in our community.” I agree.
“The local scene matters a lot to me,” said Gordon. “For our tight-knit San Diego scene there is no room for bad actors.” She raised the question of where the accountability and consequences for bad behavior will come from as we discussed the recent lawsuit against Underground Elephant CEO Jason Kulpa.
In May, a story ran in the San Diego Reader about Kulpa. One of his employees, Alyssa Adamson, and her friend filed a suit against Kulpa that centers around an incident in which he allegedly came to her apartment, made unwanted sexual advances, and then physically assaulted her friend. A visit to the website Glassdoor.com, where employees review the companies they work for, shows Adamson’s experience with Kulpa isn’t unique. Kulpa has accused Adamson of making false accusations for her own benefit and fought to keep the details of the court case hidden.
On May 5, the founder and president of Loan Hero, Derek Barclay, posted a link to the Underground Elephant story on Facebook, creating a small forum for discussion. Once the lawsuit went forward, Underground Elephant went into crisis mode on the public relations front. One of their moves was to sponsor San Diego Startup Week. For weeks leading up to Startup Week, if you googled San Diego startup news, the press release announcing their sponsorship was the first item that would appear as a promoted post. Some observers saw this as the company using the sponsorship to boost their local reputation.
“In Your App, Can I Pick a User by How Hot She Is?”
On July 26, the San Diego Venture Group (SDVG) held its annual summer Beer Bash event. The next day, local entrepreneur Sabrina Gallier posted an article on Medium and shared it in a local tech founders group on Facebook. The article chronicled her experience at the event, where a drunk attendee took a conversation about her latest project and turned it sexual. She didn’t get his name so there was no room for accountability. SDVG president Mike Krenn immediately commented, “That absolutely isn’t right. And it needs to change.” He also shared that SDVG has worked to involve more women on their board and on their panels and that they discuss it at their board meetings. Other comments ranged from outrage to shared experiences in attending these kinds of events as a woman. One woman even shared that her fiancé, a company CEO who also attended the event, commented to her on the way home that he “didn’t know how she did it” because he could see how the men looked at her at the event.
Against the Grain
I was at the SDVG event that night. It was a typically attended tech event with maybe 90% men and 10% women. My experience that evening was much different than that of Gallier. In fact, one conversation from the evening stands out amidst this discussion. I ran into Andy Taylor, CEO and co-founder of Approved. I don’t know how the topic came up, but we were talking about women in tech. He started to share with me a study he had seen recently that showed that not only do women entrepreneurs have a harder time raising funds, but companies that simply have women on their team tend to bring in less capital. He seemed genuinely concerned about the revelation and we talked about how his company was working to hire more women.
And those programs designed for women that Damore criticized in his memo? You can find one downtown at Zeeto. The company’s Chief Product Officer, Marcie Gately, has extensive experience in the tech space, specifically working for SaaS companies. She was hearing from the female employees that they wanted to learn from a female executive on topics such as how to understand their business better, how to be successful in a male-dominated field, and how to support each other and future female hires. When Gately pitched it to CEO Stephan Goss, he was immediately on board with the idea.
So where does that leave us? While the Bay Area has Sarah Kunst and Erica Baker, San Diego has Alyssa Adamson and Sabrina Gallier. We seem to be moving toward a culture locally in which women feel they can speak out. But, Gordon wonders about how those who behave inappropriately will be removed from the scene. “Underground Elephant is still hosting events and bringing more people in the company. I am still unsure of where the accountability lies.”