What My Uterus Can Teach You About Being a Tech Leader
Spoiler alert: my uterus doesn’t have much to say on the matter of technology and how it can improve people’s lives, though my brain has quite a bit to offer.
The same is true for all the other women who have leadership roles in the tech industry. So why is it that when women get up on stage at tech conferences, the conversation so often turns to child-rearing, pregnancy, and “work/life balance”?
A few months ago, I attended Fortune Brainstorm, a tech conference in Aspen with an impressive lineup of speakers, including my former colleague Susan Wojcicki, who currently serves as CEO of YouTube. Susan has one of the most celebrated careers in tech, and I was excited to hear her talk about her vision for YouTube, a product I worked on for a number of years and still care deeply about. She also happened to lead Google’s advertising business for years. This woman is a pro. So I was expecting some exciting insights into how she thinks about the industry, how YouTube’s monetization efforts will evolve, etc etc.
The interviewer started off by saying,
“So, you have some superlative numbers associated with you. For example, you were employee number 16 of Google. That’s pretty impressive… But the number that I want to share with all of you that is truly extraordinary about Susan is the number five. Because not so very long ago, Susan just had her fifth child. And I think that’s worthy of applause.”
It was like all the air got sucked out of the room. He must be joking, I thought. All the other stuff she’s done, that’s not worthy of applause? The conversation proceeded to detail all of her pregnancies and how they coincided with major projects she’d led. He then asked the question that seemingly every woman leader — but apparently no man — is required to answer:
How do you do it all?
You can watch it for yourself in this video. The first four minutes of a 21-minute interview with the person some call the most influential woman in the industry was focused on parenting and pregnancy. Sigh.
Things continued to go downhill when I looked inside my conference gift bag, given to all attendees. It included — and I am not making this up — men’s underwear, a men’s Birch Box sample kit, and men’s toilet wipes. Way to make me feel at home!
The only redeeming moment of the experience was when Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, and his brother Ari Emanuel, a renowned talent agent, took the stage at the end of the day with the same interviewer. The session covered all kinds of timely topics in politics, tech, entertainment, and other subjects on which the Emanuel brothers had much to say. But Rahm Emanuel had also apparently been unimpressed with the focus on Wojcicki’s role as a mother of five instead of her groundbreaking contributions to the tech industry. As the session wrapped up — and you can see the tail end of the interview at the 40:30 mark of this video — he said,
“Can I say one thing? You know, I watched your interview with the CEO of YouTube. You know your first four questions to her were about her children and you didn’t ask either one of us about our kids?… If you want to get to know Ari and me, we could spend until four in the morning talking about our kids.”
Well said, Mr. Mayor, well said.
These shenanigans played out all over again, like some recurring professional nightmare, at last week’s Salesforce Dreamforce conference.
Wojcicki took the main stage once again and was joined by Jessica Alba, the CEO of $1 billion-plus Honest Company. Both are incredibly impressive women business leaders. The conference organizers had this time put a woman in the interviewer’s chair, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Unfortunately, the interviewer had very little understanding of technology and didn’t seem to be prepared to dig into the amazing things these two women have accomplished in their careers.
The conversation — which was titled the “Women’s Innovation Panel” — had little to do with tech or innovation. Instead, it focused extensively on parental leave policies and included such comments as, “Susan, you know something about babies,” a question about whether Wojcicki had all five of her children with the same husband(!), and a compliment on how great Alba looks in a bikini. You can see the whole session in this video. Journalist Lauren Hocksenson wrote an eloquent flamer of a write-up that you should read if you want to hear more unfortunate details. These are just two examples of many wasted opportunities to learn from women leaders.
I am so sick of this BS.
Being a parent is hard. Executive jobs are hard. We all know this. And parents need a lot of support and advice on how to achieve all they are capable of work-wise but still be there for their families. If I am asked to serve on a panel that’s explicitly about this topic, I can decide whether or not I want to participate in that conversation. But when the venue is a tech conference, let’s talk about tech, for goodness’ sake. Making motherhood a required topic for women leaders minimizes their contributions to the industry.
I wish there were a feminine equivalent to the term “emasculating,” because that’s how this makes me feel.
Like I am less than I thought I was, that my technical knowledge and achievements are less impressive than my ability to keep track of work and school field trip permission slips. Anyone who knows me knows that in the right contexts, I will bore people to tears talking about my kids, the joys and challenges of raising three teenagers while leading a major area of Facebook Product Design, blah blah blah. But not when I am being asked to represent my company and my design community in a context that is about the work. It minimizes my expertise and accomplishments and those of my fellow women tech leaders.
Maybe you think this problem is limited to the tech world, but you only need to follow the current presidential race to see these forces in full view.
Donald Trump is the obvious poster child for belittling women with comments about Carly Fiorina’s face or a certain journalist’s menstrual cycle. But there are lots of other more subtle examples of unconcious bias when we focus on candidates’ appearance, or a woman’s ability to lead the Armed Forces, or a woman’s ability to negotiate effectively in high stakes contexts. The closer we get to the possibility of a woman president, the more these biases will show their ugly faces. In a recent article about how women candidates are portrayed in the media, Austin Gordon reported,
“Women candidates are more often than men described by the media in terms of their sex, children, and marital status, which can affect how voters view their ability to hold political office by stirring up stereotypical images of their responsibilities as mothers and wives.”
We need to become attuned to how the portrayal of women in the media impacts how we assess people, whether it’s in business or politics or any other industry.
Let’s start by making sure that we first and foremost value what’s in people’s brains and hearts and resume instead of focusing on damaging stereotypical gender roles.
If you think you are above this pettiness and see women and men as equal, do yourself and society a favor and take a free online assessment of unconscious bias. The same holds true for biases against people of color, attitudes about age, sexual orientation, etc. I have never met anyone who has not walked away humbled by the results.
So here are a few asks I have for the various players in these scenarios: the communications/PR teams who help prep these speaking opportunities; the conference organizers who plan these events; the interviewers and journalists who have the opportunity to interview bad-ass women in tech; and most importantly, for my fellow women leaders.
PR/communications people: please do your job.
Make it clear that your women executives are here to talk about their work and the industry, and not about their fertility! Allowing these narratives to persist is not a progressive communications strategy, and it hurts both women and the industry.
Conference organizers: please choose your interviewers carefully.
Being a woman does not necessarily make someone qualified to interview women tech leaders. If you were planning a one-on-one interview with Bill Gates, would you choose someone who had intimate knowledge of Gates’s professional accomplishments and the technology he cares most deeply about? Of course you would! Please show the same respect for women. If I’m going to watch someone interview a woman leader, I’d rather see a qualified man than an unqualified woman in the interviewer chair, and I suspect most audience members would agree. This is a meaningful industry learning opportunity we’re planning, not a tea party.
Interviewers and journalists: please focus on the work.
C’mon, people! You have the chance to talk to these amazing women in a context that is supposed to elevate their work, but instead you are robbing the audience of their critical insights. Do your homework, and if you don’t understand enough about a field to do it justice, then pass on the opportunity. And please avoid focusing on their private lives and their parenting. You rarely, if ever, ask men these questions, giving male leaders more opportunity to show their work-related prowess, while women are stuck giving too much of their already limited airtime to pregnancy, mothering, and other unrelated topics.
As I see it, you have two choices: you can either ask everyone these questions about their private lives and their role as a parent, or you should ask no one.
I have a challenge for you: in the next three interviews you do with male leaders, please ask them the same questions you seem so blasé about asking women. How do you balance caring for your kids and your work responsibilities? Did you feel your career was hurt by taking time off with your babies? Do you feel like working makes you a better/worse parent? If you try this three times, you are going to learn something.
You’ll find it’s incredibly awkward to ask men these questions which are very personal in nature and not related to what they really came to talk about: their groundbreaking accomplishments as tech leaders. And guess what — women feel that way too! A secondary benefit: by asking men these same questions, you may start to lead us down the road of actually having the same expectations of men as we do for women when it comes to childcare responsibilities. And to that, I say, “Hallelujah!”
Lastly, but most importantly:
Women leaders: please don’t engage in these discussions when the focus is supposed to be on your professional accomplishments.
Maybe some women are OK talking about this stuff in work-related contexts. It can be fun to chew the fat about our families and the different struggles we all — men and women —face day to day. Maybe some women like the press angle and how it makes them approachable and likable. I get that. And I don’t care.
For the community of women in leadership roles and the many more who aspire to them, we need to say no.
Because making them feel proud of and empowered by their talents and accomplishments is the only way we will get more women on the stage in the first place.
Even if it makes us feel good to engage in these discussions in the short term, in the long term it’s bad for us and bad for the industry. It might be a bit awkward at first, but it’s worth it to just say, “You know, I’d love to get coffee afterwards with anyone — man or woman — who wants to talk about raising kids while working full time, but right now I think the audience really wants to hear about how I’m leading a revolution in robotics.” Then drop the mic, and walk off the stage.