Sheer Madness: Animal Farm

by Jim Burnett, founder of ExpertOpinions.info

As an outsider to the start-up world in the Bay Area, I’m taking a crash course in the culture of Silicon Valley. And at the moment, Startupland seems obsessed – and for good reason — with the thorny subject of sexism.

At the top of the Valley food chain, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is unsuccessfully coping with a nasty sex discrimination suit filed by Ellen Pao, who was hired as a junior partner in 2005.

At the other end of the food chain, the sophomoric creators of Titstare – and the organizers of the TechCruch Disrupt conference, who gave them a public forum – serve as a stellar example of the overtly sleazy, bottom-feeder side of sexism.

The latest brouhaha comes courtesy of Twitter, which is limited to 140 characters, almost none of them female. As Claire Cain Miller reported in the New York Times on October 4, the IPO filing from Twitter lists a seven man board of directors and an almost all-male roster of executive officers, with only newly hired legal counsel Vijaya Gadde breaking up the monopoly of guys.

The latest haha comes from CEO Dick Costello, a former stand-up comedian with stale material. After Vivek Wadhwa called out Twitter, describing the absence of women in its upper ranks as the “same male chauvinist thinking,” and “the elite arrogance of the Silicon Valley mafia,” Costello tweeted an alleged joke in response to Wadhwa, who has taught at Stanford, Yale, and Emory.

“Vivek Wadhwa is the Carrot Top of academic sources.” In a later tweet, Costello offered up some public relations blather. “I think I have an acute understanding of the topic & host of related issues. Of course, proof is in deeds.”

And the deeds to date speak for themselves.

Some Twitter insiders told the New York Times that Costello had “prioritized” the selection of female board members, but he couldn’t find any worthy candidates.

That deserves a belly laugh. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management, said he came up with the names of 20 highly-qualified women in 10 minutes. Reporter Miller, in a follow-up story on October 8, listed 25 women with top-notch credentials.

When it comes to gender issues, it seems fair to say that Costello is a first-class Dick. But he has plenty of company.

The paucity of top-level woman execs or female board members at Twitter is the rule, not the exception in Startupland, where only about 10 percent of board members at start-up and tech companies are women.

That’s just one of the dismal statistics for women in the Valley. Only about 10 percent of start-ups are founded or run by women. Only about 10 percent of investment partners at VC firms are women. A recent report found that women leave the tech industry at double the rate of men, beaten down by lack of advancement, loss of family time, and unwelcoming company cultures.

Women are badly underrepresented in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, the fast-track pathways to high level positions in start-up companies. And the situation is getting worse instead of better. According to the Labor Department, the percentage of women in computer science and math declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2009.

Of course, you could explain away such disparities by taking the position that Larry Summers espoused in his 2005 speech at the National Bureau of Research conference. That’s where Summers opined that genetics account for not just differences in height and weight between men and women, but also differences in “overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability…” In Summers’ view, fewer women excel in math and science because they lack the capacity to do so.

Summers subsequently oinked that he didn’t really mean what he clearly said. The incendiary speech led to Summer’s ouster as president of Harvard and helped torpedo his chances of replacing Ben Bernacke as chairman of the Fed. A woman replaced him as president at Harvard and another woman, the eminently well-qualified Janet Yellin, will take over at the Fed.

Call it poetic justice.

As Summers demonstrated, a male would have to be a fool to tackle the subject of sexism in STEM or Startupland. What guy would be crazy enough to voluntarily enter the lioness den, dive into alligator-infested waters, wallow like a pig in a trough, and otherwise mix animal metaphors – we’ll get to the gorillas later – to tackle such sensitive issues?

Oops. Looks like I’m the foolish one. I feel like Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove,” my hand shooting into the air no matter how much my mind says, “Nooooo. Don’t do it!”

But in past lives, I’ve worked on discrimination cases filed against the City of Seattle that involved gender, race, and disabilities, prepared an affirmative action plan for the Port of Seattle, and written about Supreme Court decisions involving affirmative action and the admission of minority law school students.

Since 2010, I’ve been a volunteer mediator at the Nevada County Courthouse. We primarily handle cases involving landlord-tenant disputes and civil harassment. The landlord-tenant cases often center on the eviction of people who have no money and no place to go. The civil harassment cases often focus on stalking and threats of violence, if not actual violence. It’s an understatement to say that these are emotion-laden cases.

Although I spent three years at Duke Law School learning to think like a lawyer — coldly and objectively focused on the facts of the case and the applicable legal principles — generally, I tend to side with the underdog, I root for my hometown team, the Seattle Mariners, though thin and thin. And I feel like an underdog myself these days, a 63-year-old poverty-riddled start-up founder with a liberal arts background.

But I’m quite certain that if I were a 63-year-old female start-up founder of ExpertOpinions,info, my chances of success would be exponentially smaller. (For the record, our start-up group consists of me and four other key people, two co-founders and two principle advisors. One co-founder and one advisor are female.)

To me, Startupland feels like déjà vu all over again. This is the second time I’ve been immersed in a subculture that where woman are routinely demeaned. In 1996, I spent a year traveling with and writing a book about the women’s golf tour. (TEE TIMES: On the Road with the Ladies Professional Golf Tour [Scribner 1997].

The level of sexism and boorish behavior directed at some of the finest female athletes in the world was astounding. The women were dumped on for a multitude of supposed sins. They weren’t very good, especially when compared to PGA pros. They weren’t very attractive – and most were lesbians anyway, hence the commonly-heard sniggering references to “dykes on spikes” and the “Lesbians Professional Golf Association.” With the rare exception of an Annika Sorenstam or a Nancy Lopez, the women weren’t considered interesting or compelling personalities either.

The most prestigious golf club in the United States, August National, with a membership consisting of the titans of corporate America, was the prime example of in-your-face sexism. The boys club was happy to host The Masters every year, but it didn’t welcome women members until 2012, when it deigned to offer green jackets to Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore.

I never expected to write about another subculture as hostile to women as the golf world. But Startupland is a strong contender.

Two recent high and low dramas in Silicon Valley lend support to the notion.

In addition to its status as Valley royalty, Kleiner Perkins is regarded as one of the good guys when it comes to gender. As the New York Times reported “the firm is one of the few exceptions to the venture world’s disinterest in hiring women.” Roughly 25 percent of its 50 or so partners are women.

Yet it has handled the Ellen Pao case with all the finesse of the Three Stooges, a classic example of smart men making foolish choices.

The case might not come to trial for another year or so, but it’s already dragged on since May 2012, besmirching Kleiner Perkins’s stellar reputation with every passing day. The firm has responded to Pao’s charges with the haughty, thin-skinned, and stubborn “How Dare You?” attitude often demonstrated by the wealthy and powerful when challenged by underlings.

Compounding its folly, Kleiner Perkins fired Pao in October, 2012, denying the move had anything to do with her lawsuit. Yeah, good luck selling that one. So in addition to the original discrimination and retaliation claims, Pao has been handed a wrongful termination suit, a gift that is likely to keep on giving.

Granted, Pao isn’t the ideal plaintiff. A jury might not cotton to the notion that she admittedly had consensual sex a few times with her alleged harasser after the harassment began. Or that she’s married to Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, a controversial figure who lived with a gay partner before marrying Pao – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But Kleiner Perkins should have taken Shakespeare’s advice before it decided to dig in with its $500 per hour attorneys and fight like rabid dogs. It should have settled the case and appointed a no-bullshit committee of women from inside and outside Kleiner Perkins to investigate the culture of the firm in regard to its treatment of women. In short, it should have acted like the good guys instead of the bully boys.

If the case goes to trial, Kleiner Perkins is in a no-win position. The testimony of Pao and her witnesses is likely to pummel Kleiner Perkin with more body blows to its once-impeccable reputation, regardless of the verdict.

But it’s not too late. I’m willing to bet a few of my fellow mediators could sit down with Kleiner Perkins and Pao and settle the case without breaking a sweat.

And then there’s Titstare, which not only crossed the line, but kept on driving until it reached the junction of Disgrace and Humiliation.

In some respects, the antics of the guys behind Titstare are understandable. One good idea can be worth a fortune in Startupland, and the Valley hothouse is overloaded with youngsters in search of the Golden Ticket. And, as everyone knows, the third certainty in this world, alongside death and taxes, is that sex sells.

Plus, the line between innocuous and offensive is often in the eye of the beholder.

Consider LacerGirls.com. For the uninitiated, LacerGirls provides a simple but useful service for the ultra-busy male corporate executive. With a cell phone in his ear and a brief case in his hand, what’s a warrior to do if his shoelace comes undone in public or in the boardroom? Does he bend down to tie his shoe, a look so undignified it could destroy his meticulously-burnished image?

No, you call LacerGirls. In minutes, an attractive young woman in a Los Angeles Lakers  outfit will arrive to tie your shoe and perform a personalized “2,4,6,8, Who Do We Appreciate” cheer. And she’ll buff and shine your $550 Forzieri handcrafted Italian dress shoes. Cost: $100 plus an extra $50 for the buff and shine. It might seem like a lot of money, but think about it. Instead of bending down to tie your shoe and looking like a putz, you’ll dazzle your colleagues with a bit of Showtime.

Over the top? Sexist and disgusting? Good clean fun?

I’d vote for the latter, although I might feel differently if the founders of LacerGirls had followed through with their initial plans to have the cheerleaders apply shoe polish – nontoxic, of course – with their tongues. That’s just gross.

And kudos to the boys behind Lacer Girls for adding a service for women called Farrier Terriers. When a woman executive snaps a pencil-thin heel on her sky-high $765 Jimmy Choo suede pumps, she’s in a pickle. Lurch into an acquisitions meeting wearing the sawed-off shoe, walking like a drunk? Waltz in barefoot like some sort of hippie? No need. Just call Farrier Terriers, which will immediately dispatch a licensed equine farrier, dressed in a jockey silks, to your location. One or two well-placed nails, and perhaps a little glue, and you’re ready to roll.

Okay, enough with the frivolities.

The sexist nature of Startupland is more than just juvenile and degrading. It undercuts the cherished notion that Silicon Valley is a genuine meritocracy. Picture a man running a 400-meter dash against a women running the 400-meter hurdles. Not exactly a fair contest.

Sexism is bad for business, too. As Nilofer Merchant noted in Time magazine on October 7, a study of Fortune 500 companies found that companies with the highest percentage of  women board members substantially outperform companies with few or no female directors. Why? Because diversity brings new perspectives and fresh ideas, keys to innovation.

“The number one most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in tech is to show a multiplicity of different role models,” said Marissa Meyer. That won’t happen overnight.  It will require a big push to get more women into the STEM pipeline. It will require ambitious women who are prepared to muscle their way to the top. It will require men already at the top to dismantle antiquated obstacles and attitudes to female advancement.

It will require role models such as Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, who tackled the subject of sexism in her best-selling Lean In, an earnest and research-laden pep talk for women seeking to break through the glass – and often crass – ceiling to launch a start-up or work their way into a C-class corner office.

Yet women such as Mayer and Sandberg only appear once or twice in a generation. They can’t change a deeply entrenched culture by themselves, no more than Sorenstam and Lopez could club the sexist nature of the golf world into submission.

The message from Lean In is that women must raise their hands and voices to reach the top.  Unfortunately, in order to cope with the fierce headwinds produced by blowhard males, women often have to Lean In just to keep from being blasted out of the room.

Which brings us to the gorillas. Recently Patrick, a 23-year-old gorilla, was transferred from the Dallas Zoo to the Riverside Zoo in South Carolina as a result of his so-called sexist behavior. Patrick’s boorish antics included biting and sneering – yes, sneering! — at female gorillas. “It’s not like we haven’t tried [to socialize Patrick], he’s been here for 18 years,” Dallas Zoo spokeswoman Laurie Holloway told NBCNews.com.

Fortunately, the Riverside Zoo specializes in gorillas with behavioral problems. If the zookeepers can cure Patrick of his sexist ways, maybe they can be hired to work their magic on the chauvenistic males in Startupland.

More Sheer Madness…

Part 1, “Sheer Madness: Starting a business in your 60s is anything but glamorous.

Part 2, “Sheer Madness: Building a billion-dollar business or going bust.

Part 3, “Sheer Madness: With VCs get an intro or get lost.

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