I didn’t have high hopes for the “Male Allies Plenary Panel” at the Grace Hopper Celebration on Wednesday night. But at least I figured the assembled male tech leaders would at least know better than to repeat the same tired “encouragement” that women have heard over and over. Especially considering that most of the 8,000 conference attendees are female, and likely know those lines by heart.
It was even worse than I expected.
The panel consisted of Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer; Google’s SVP of search Alan Eustace; Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy; and Tayloe Stansbury, CTO of Intuit. The assembled white men set out to tell the audience what their companies are doing to make women more welcome and how men and women (yes, that’s right—women, too) can change the boys’ club culture in tech.
Instead, they ended up reinforcing many of the stereotypes women are already all too familiar with. In essence, their advice to women was: Work harder, build great things, speak up for yourself, lean in. It got so bad that at one point, the audience started heckling the speakers.
“I don’t think people are actively protecting the [toxic culture] or holding on to it … or trying to keep [diverse workers] from the power structure that is technology,” Eustace said. “I don’t think that’s it.”
To which women in the audience said very loudly: “Yes it is!”
Tone Deaf Response
A number of women thought this panel was problematic when organizers of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing first announced it. In particular, a lot of ire focused on the participation of GoDaddy, a Web-hosting company infamous for a series of ads that sexualized women to draw attention to itself. Although Irving took the CEO post in December 2012 and put a stop to the ads, people still equate GoDaddy with the busty models gratuitously featured in its old Super Bowl ads.
In fact, the real problem turned out to be the remarkable tone-deafness of all the male panelists, none of who seemed to understand what women go through.
Some highlights from the panel include:
- Eustace: “The best thing you can do is excel, and to push through whatever boundaries you see in front of you. Just continue to push and be great.”
- Eustace: “It will be twice as hard for you … but you can make a big difference in your company.”
- Irving: “The only thing I would add is speak up … Speak up, be confident.”
- Schropfer: “It’s more expensive to hire women, because the population is smaller.”
- Schropfer, after describing a Facebook student program on computer science: “The program was 96% diverse, we actually got anecdotal feedback they wanted some other men in the program.
- Irving: “When a guy has an idea, he gets really pumped up about it, really vocal about it. Back to that notion of speaking up, if you have an idea … tell people your story and then execute it.”
What Went Missing
Missing, of course, were any women to field the questions the men so gingerly talked around. The panelists exhibited little genuine sense of self-awareness, and while the men said existing tech culture needs to change, they offered only stale encouragement, and had little to say about any of the repercussions women and other outsiders can face when they do “speak up” or “tell people their story” or “lean in.”
Trust me: People who are not white males already know very well that they have to be “twice as good as them to get half of what they have,” as the saying goes.
By contrast, other panels and talks throughout the day forthrightly addressed the issues that can arise when, for instance, women advocate for themselves and ask for career advancement. One talk entitled “Winning At The Game Of Office Politics,” specifically focused on how women are consistently passed over and denied recognition for good work.
“Women should be leading this conversation,” Julie Ann Horvath, designer and developer at AndYet, and outspoken critic of tech culture, said in an interview. She knows firsthand how toxic tech culture can be—Horvath left GitHub after suffering harassment in the workplace.
“We should be building platforms to amplify the voices of women in tech, not to cater to the egos of men,” she said. “Men who want to help need to get the hell out of our way, basically. Because we’re coming. And we don’t need their support.”
Horvath wasn’t at the Grace Hopper Celebration, but she initially criticized the Anita Borg Institute’s decision to host the panel in the first place. Like many others, Horvath was also following along with the comments on Twitter.
Real allies do not pretend to be qualified to talk about women's issues and lived experiences, let alone take up our space
— Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrrdcore) September 28, 2014
really disappointed that they didn't take live audience questions at the Male Allies panel #GHC14
— Julia Ma (@joulesm) October 9, 2014
If you consider yourself a male ally, please go look at #ghcmanwatch to see what it sounds like when you speak without listening.
— Tess Rinearson (@_tessr) October 9, 2014
— Aki the Conqueror (@gesa) October 9, 2014
— Anne-Marie Imafidon (@aimafidon) October 9, 2014
The "speak up" advice is so painful to hear. Women who speak up put themselves at tremendous risk. #GHC14
— Jennifer Jeffrey (@jenniferjeffrey) October 9, 2014
Maybe in 20 years, they’ll let women talk about the role of men as allies in computing.
— Glenn Fleishman (@GlennF) October 9, 2014
Get excited about your startup like men do
Get funding like men do
— Selena Larson (@selenalarson) October 9, 2014
The highlight of the evening was “Ally Bingo,” a satirical scorecard activists handed out at the beginning of the talk. Each square contained a common phrase uttered by men at panels and events such as these—for instance, “I am related to a woman” or “I asked a woman and she agreed with me.”
About midway through the talk, one woman cried “BINGO!”
— Alex Qin (@alexqin) October 9, 2014
Update: The “Male Allies Plenary Panel” at the Grace Hopper Celebration was live streamed. An earlier version of this story stated otherwise.
Update: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote about the cost of hiring women to Stansbury when it was said by Schropfer.
Lead image by Selena Larson. Promo image by Marlon E.