Two days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed suggesting that a good way for women to combat sexism in the tech industry would be for them to "create an online presence that obscures their gender" because "a gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them."
The opinion piece was written by John Greathouse, a respected venture-capitalist and serial entrepreneur, who also teaches entrepreneurship at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Greathouse has written previously about the problem of gender bias, and has even encouraged women who shy away from speaking at conferences because they are primary care-givers for their children to bring their kids and let the children experience seeing their mother as a professional. I have no reason to doubt that he made the suggestions in this week's column in a sincere effort to help women, and that, sadly, the technique that he described might even be effective in some cases.
But, any recommendation that women obscure their gender is a terrible idea. It tells women to acknowledge and accept sexism - and to suffer through its consequences - rather than tell the world what it needs to hear: that the time has come to put an end to sexism once and for all.
I know firsthand that sexism in the tech industry is a serious problem. Two years ago I wrote an article in Forbes about some of the terrible incidents that I have witnessed - from people at a conference exhibit hall openly referring to the female founder of a tech company as a "booth babe," to suggestions that hiring women would ruin "team cohesion," to a highly inappropriate request for sex made by a potential investor to a female startup-founder he had just met - and my article only scratched the surface of a huge issue.
Sexism has contributed to women leaving the tech industry for other professions; as I noted in 2014 "Thirty years ago nearly forty percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women; today that number is under 20%, and, depending on how one measures, may be as low as 12%. As of a few years ago, there were approximately six times as many males as females taking AP Computer Science exams. It is not hard to discern that sexism and its offshoots are impacting girls' career choices." While there have been some gains in the past couple of years - I myself wrote about a program that Twitter has been running to encourage women to attend its tech events and regain interest in the field - there is a long way to go.
And telling women to obscure their gender is not part of the solution.
Women's gender is not the problem. Sexism is.
If we want to defeat sexism, we simply do our best to put an end to it. Plain and simple.
Men and women, together, must realize that the demeaning of women is not a women's issue. It's at a men's issue, and a societal issue. Everyone needs to be cognizant of the problem, recognize when it is happening, and stand up against it. Most men know that sexism is wrong, but never having experienced it, often don't sense when it is happening. We need to notice, and to take a stand. And we must support others - both men and women - who take a stand; I know firsthand how such folks are often harassed or "trolled," we need them to know that respectable folks stand firmly along with them.
Furthermore, after years of poor conditioning and exposure to rampant sexism, some people who exhibit sexist behaviors might not even realize that they are doing so. So, pay attention. Are we all treating our female colleagues and employees the same way that we treat males in the same positions? Sometimes it is useful to imagine our wives and/or daughters in similar situations. How would we want them to be treated?
And, of course, we must encourage girls and women who are interested in technology-related fields to pursue their passions, the same way that we do for boys and men - and we must not let others discourage them.
We simply must stop pushing half of our population away from the industry that literally creates the future.
As such, I firmly believe that the Wall Street Journal should not have run the op-ed calling for women to hide their true selves. That suggestion is not only offensive, it is simply wrong.
UPDATE: After I wrote this piece, but before it appeared on the Inc. website, Greathouse (who, it is reasonable to believe, had noble, but misguided, intentions when crafting the op-ed) issued an apology via his Twitter account. He acknowledged that he "told women to endure the gender bias problem rather than acting to fix the problem" and that his "insensitive comments only made matters worse."
History teaches us that sometimes it takes negative incidents to facilitate positive changes. I hope that Greathouse's op-end and subsequent apology - which certainly reached many influential people via the Wall Street Journal - will serve as a catalyst for significant societal efforts to combat sexism. Let's all do our share.