Why Paul Graham's Problem Isn't Sexism or Xenophobia
It looks like Paul Graham has put his foot in his mouth. Again.
In a new interview with The Information, the ever-candid co-founder of Y Combinator had some pretty controversial things to say about women in technology. Reporter Eric P. Newcomer asked Graham whether his incubator, which is chock full of twentysomething males, discriminates against women. Predictably, Graham insisted that Y Combinator doesn't discriminate. But it's what he said next that attracted the Internet's wrath over the weekend:
"If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it on their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.
"It's already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13-year-old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that."
There's a lot to unpack in that statement. Graham asserts that women aren't coding, that it's a lost cause for them to even try as adults, and that persuading 13-year-old girls to code is, itself, a mind-boggling proposition. But certainly the most glaring problem with this, and indeed, Graham's other past media blunders, is his tact. Because beyond his typically bombastic proclamation that "it's already too late" for most women to become programmers is a much more important message: Computer science ought to be a basic part of school curriculum, giving both male and female students early exposure to an increasingly important skill set in today's economy. A lot more might be achieved by focusing on that fact, rather than debating whether one man is or isn't a sexist.
As venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote in a blog post defending Graham's stance, "We see very few women entrepreneurs walk into [Union Square Ventures] and that is disappointing to me. And I agree with Paul that one of the issues (but by no means the only issue) causing this gap is that young women are not embracing tech in the key development years in middle school and early high school."
This is not the first time Graham has gotten burned for speaking too frankly about why he thinks Silicon Valley is so homogenous. This summer, during an interview for Inc.'s September issue, Graham told me that founders with "strong foreign accents" are less successful after graduating from Y Combinator.
"I'm not sure why," he said. "It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can't if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you're going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it's a strong pattern we've seen."
Again, bloggers jumped at the chance to call Graham xenophobic. Later, Graham responded to the backlash on his blog, writing, "A lot of the people you encounter as a founder will initially be indifferent, if not skeptical. They don't know yet that you're going to be huge. You're just one person they're meeting that day. They're not going to work to understand you. So you can't make it be work to understand you."
It's another valid bit of advice for founders--communicating clearly is key to success--masked by Graham's overly blunt delivery. But the part of all this that should be most troubling is the fact that Graham, a Silicon Valley rainmaker, seems all too willing to point out problems without offering concrete solutions. The problem is not that he's sexist or xenophobic, but rather, that he's overly passive. Graham is an important gatekeeper in Silicon Valley. He could just as easily be a gateway.
If founders with accents are harder to understand, Graham and other investors like him might want to listen more carefully. If women founders are harder to find, they should seek them out. It's his passivity about the very real lack of women in tech and the undeniable uphill battles faced by foreign entrepreneurs that ought to make people mad, not his ineloquent delivery. If Graham had more evidence showing he's trying to solve these problems, and not just talk about them, it might be easier to explain away a gaffe...or two.