I want to cover a an issue that raised its head in the final panel of the Echelon 2012 conference.
The final panel on day two was ‘The X-factor in tech’ gathering five extremely accomplished ‘startup’ people (including one marvellous work colleague) on the stage. They all happened to be female.
Unfortunately this turned into a discussion of “women are from Mars and men are from Venus”. The questions seemed to push the answers in a simplistic direction and only enabled stereotypical “women are different from men: emotionally adept, creative, special” responses.
Questions from the audience included the gem “Why aren’t women more entrepreneurial” to a panel of 5 female entrepreneurs. Answer: they don’t know quite how to answer that, because they, as individuals, already are!
As a couple of the panellists noted emphasising the ‘differences’ between the sexes is total bullshit. In every walk of life you meet individuals with individual skills. To stereotype 50% of the population based on their gender is a) stupid and b) demeaning for everyone. Of course your gender plays a role in who you are as much as where you grew up or how your parents raised you, but to force focus on it is incredibly short-sighted.
Good work environments are built from mixtures of skills, talents and tempraments and a lack of assholes. Which is what you get from a mixture of individuals.
This panel should not have existed in the first place. The very act of putting these accomplished people into a panel to talk about “women’s things” belittles them and the issue as a whole, they all had more to add the general cenference than to ghettoise their discussion.
The issues between the sexes are a wider historical, societal and systemic ones, a result of hundreds of years of patriarcal ‘rule’ where physical strength was the eventual signifier of power. Hopefully now we’re moving past that era of civilization.
So what can we do? My advice is to start focussing on your own behaviour. This article by Matt Gemmell is awesome. If you are ‘in startups’ mentor everyone, evangelise because its the right thing to do and examine your own prejudices. It’s important that we share the love for our work with those who might enjoy doing the same stuff that we do. Make this a welcoming industry for all.
We do need to get a better balance of personalities in startups and the workplace in general, but emphasising the differences is not the way to do it.