Tag Archives: sexism

The Social Network and the real villains of the old/new economy

The other week I finally got around to watching The Social Network. It’s great fun and I recommend going out and watching it whether you’re a self-professed social media expert or don’t even have a Facebook account.

Here are some of my thoughts about the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here).

1. Remember this is a Hollywood movie: Before (or after) you watch it, read Lawrence Lessig’s fantastic critique of the movie. This review is so soundly brilliant and devastating I’m basically willing to say, if you only have 5 minutes to read, leave my blog right now and go check it out. If you are a government employee working on innovation, copyright or the digital economy, I doubly urge you to read it. Treble that if you happen to be (or work for) the CIO of a major corporation or organization who (still) believes that social media is a passing phase and can’t see its disruptive implications.

2. It isn’t just the legal system that is broken: What struck me about the movie wasn’t just the problems with the legal system, it was how badly the venture capitalists come off even worse. Here is supposed to be a group of people who are supposed to help support and enable entrepreneurs and yet they’re directing lawyers to draft up contracts that screw some of the original founders. If the story is even remotely true it’s a damning and cautionary tale for anyone starting (or looking to expand) a company. Indeed, in the movie the whole success of Facebook and the ability of (some) of the owners to retain control over it rests on the fact that graduates of the first internet bubble who were screwed over by VCs are able to swoop in and protect this second generation of internet entrepreneurs. Of course they – played by Sean Parker (inventor of Napster) – are parodied as irresponsible and paranoid.

One thought I walked away with was: if, say as a result of the rise of cloud computing, the costs of setting up an online business continue to drop, at a certain point the benefits of VC capital will significantly erode or their value proposition will need to significantly change. More importantly, if you are looking to build a robust innovation cluster, having it built on the model that all the companies generated in it have the ultimate goal of being acquired by a large (American) multinational doesn’t seem like a route to economic development.

Interesting questions for policy makers, especially those outside Silicon Valley, who obsess about how to get venture capital money into their economies.

3. Beyond lawyers and VCs, the final thing that struck me about the movie was the lack of women doing anything interesting. I tweeted this right away and, of course, a quick Google search reveals I’m not the only one who noticed it. Indeed, Aaron Sorkin (the film’s screenwriter) wrote a response to questions regarding this issue on Emmy winner Ken Levine’s blog. What I noticed in The Social Network is there isn’t a single innovating or particularly positive female character. Indeed, in both the new and old economy worlds shown in the film, women are largely objects to be enjoyed, whether it is in the elite house parties of Harvard or the makeshift start-up home offices in Palo Alto. Yes, I’m sure the situation is more complicated, but essentially women aren’t thinkers – or drivers – in the movie. It’s a type of sexism that is real, and in case you think it isn’t just consider a TechCrunch article from the summer titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men” in which the author, Michael Arrington, makes the gobsmacking statement:

The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.

Really? This is a country (the United States) where women start businesses at twice the rate of men and where 42% of all businesses are women owned? To say that women don’t want to be entrepreneurs is so profoundly stupid and incorrect it perfectly reflects the roles women are shoveled into in The Social Network. And that is something the new economy needs to grapple with.

The Sad State of Vancouver's Entrepreneur of the Year Awards

Last week I noticed Business in BC published its Entrepreneurs of the Year Awards list. The list is filled with deserving and excellent candidates as well as inspiring stories of businesses that are thriving and innovating in a difficult business environment. The recipients are worthy of praise as many embrace values and determination that any city would want to see reflected in its business community.

There is however one thing you won’t find in either the winners, or Runners Ups lists.


That’s right, of the 8 winners and 16 runner ups, which included a total of 29 people, only a single woman made the list (Queenie Chu, and her business partners Kin Wah and Kin Hun Leung of Kin’s Farm Market, were winners of the Business to Consumer Category).

This, quite frankly, is scandalous. According to the Government of British Columbia research on small business and business in BC:

In 2008, 34.3 per cent of all business owners in British Columbia were women. This was on par with the national average of 34.4 per cent and the fourth-highest rate among the provinces. British Columbia trailed New Brunswick (38.3 per cent), Quebec (36.7 per cent), and Ontario (34.5 per cent) in terms of the share of businesses owned by women.

So 34% of all businesses in the province are owned by women, and yet the number of women cracking the Entrepreneur of the Year finalists’ list is… 1 out 29. So roughly, 3% of the finalists if you are being generous (counting by people), 1.3% if you are being accurate and counting by category.

There are a couple of theories that might explain this.

1) There are no excellent women entrepreneurs.

2) There are excellent women entrepreneurs, but they aren’t on the radar of E&Y and BCB.

3) Business culture defines excellence in terms that were created and modeled by men – and so the selection committee and nominators tend to (without malice or intent) favour men.

4) More men than women care about these types of awards, and so they go more out of their way be noticed and nominated

5) Women have less access to capital and inherit fewer businesses so will have a harder time growing businesses that would meet E&Y’s criteria

6) Answers 2-5, plus a myriad of other reasons…

This post is not an effort to take a swipe at BCB or E&Y – although I would encourage a little introspection on their part to assess why their survey (keeps) producing few, if any, women nominees. I’m not looking for parity but it would be a start if 20% of the field were women. Yes, such a number is still far too low, but it would at least come a little closer to reflecting the actual gender breakdown. I’m quite confident that the reason (1) from above is not why they are not making the list. Indeed, the E&Y committee in Ontario was able to hit this low bar for Ontario’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award. 20% (10/50) of its nominees were women.

It would be nice if these awards instigated a greater degree of introspection in the business community at large, for while no one likes to think sexism exists in Canada, we are, sadly, still not at a place of gender parity. In a recent Accenture survey, approximately two-thirds of Canadian male and female executives (67 percent of men and 64 percent of women) believed gender equality in the workplace has improved in the last 10 years. However, one-third (32 percent) of those executives surveyed believed that men and women have equal opportunities in the workplace, and one-third (34 percent) of the female executives believed that their gender limits their career opportunities. While those demonstrate things have improved from where we were a decade or more ago, they are still sobering numbers.

Women in Open Source and Florida's Bohemian Index

Just a quick somewhat brief follow up to yesterday’s post on women in open source.

I got lots of great feedback and comments for which I’m grateful and wanted to say one or two things.

First, I recognize the title to the post, particularly the “Canary in a Coal Mine” was far from perfect. The exclusion of women from Open Source is not – as some might read the title – an existential threat to open source. OS communities will not collapse or fail if more women are not included (the broader IT industry seems to continue, for better for worse despite a poor male to female ratio). The point is that growth will, however, be limited. Moreover the success of OS communities  – defined in terms of an active and engaged community, one whose members treat each other well and where differences and disagreements are resolved respectfully and effectively – might also be limited.

Actually I’d go further – Richard Florida found a positive correlation between gay household and regional (especially tech) economic development among cities. This quote is from one of his academic papers on the subject:

Florida and Gates (2001) found a positive association between concentrations of gay households and regional development. This tolerance or open culture premium acts on the demand side by reducing barriers to entry for human capital; increasing the efficiencies of human capital externalities and knowledge spillovers; promoting self-expression and new idea generation; and facilitating entrepreneurial mobilization of resources, thus acting on regional income and real estate prices.

The same hypothesis could could hold true for open source communities with regard to women.  Gay men in America and women in tech are both (sadly still) marginalized groups. As such, women are the canary in the coal mine in that the more women you find in an open source community – the more likely that community is tolerant and open to new ideas and self-expression.  In short, the number of women participants is probably a pretty one good metric of the community’s health.

Second, I think the stats around the post are quite interesting. So far:

Page hits: 600+

Feedburner “reach:” 2379

Tweets: 7 from women, 1 from an aggregator

Comments: 10 comments from 7 people (not including mine). All from women

2 emails: both from men

In short, no men participated publicly the the post. My inclination is not to believe that men in open source don’t see this as an issue (I’m sure some don’t, but I know many do), but I do suspect that many don’t feel like it is safe to talk about. That’s a problem in of itself. (Alternatively, and I accept this as a very real possibility, but my blog may not be popular enough to gain attention – or that people haven’t had a ton of time to respond).

As the author it is important to me that nothing in yesterday’s post lead open source participants to believe (or feel accused of) deliberately excluding women. However, I know that reading it, that accusation can feel like it is (implicitly) there anyway. A key to success in communicating around difficult subjects is to separate impact from intent. Open source communities, and the men who participate within them may not be trying to exclude women or other groups (intent). But that doesn’t mean women aren’t being or shouldn’t feel, excluded (impact). The key is for a community to acknowledge and accept that it can be having an impact without that intent – and the solution is to get really intentional about the skills, tools and culture of the community to change the impact.

It was important to me that yesterday’s post resonate with the women who read it AND that men involved in open source read the post without feeling accused of being sexist or part of a sexist community. The goal is to generate discussion on how we can change the impact since, given most of the people I know in OS, the intent is already there.

Women in Open Source – the canary in the coal mine

The other month I had the pleasure watching Angie Byron give the keynote lecture at Open Web Vancouver on Women in Open Source. The synopsis from Open Web Vancouver:

The open source world is rich with opportunities: Working with people of all cultures from all over the world; Collaborating with some of the biggest and brightest minds on the ultimate solutions to complicated problems; Changing the world by providing free tools for organizations such as non-profits, educational institutions, and governments; Building up marketable skills and practical knowledge.

But yet, so many women are missing out. Why is that? And what can we do to change it? This talk will endeavour to answer these questions, as well as provide tips and strategies for women who want to dip their toe into the waters.

I wish I could embed the video on my blog but alas, it is not possible, so I encourage you to wander over to Angie’s blog and watch the video there.

The important lesson about Angie’s talk is that it isn’t just about women. The power and capacity of an open source community is determined by the quantity and quality of its social capital. If a community fails to invest in either – if it turns off or away qualified people because its culture (however unintentionally) discriminates against a gender, race or group – then it limits its growth and potential. The same is true of a community culture that doesn’t allow certain groups to improve their social capital. These may seem like large, intangible questions, but they are not. I’m sure every open source community turns some people off. Sometimes the reasons are good – the fit might not be right. But sometimes, I’m certain the reasons are not good. And the community may never get the feedback it needs because the moderate, productive person who walks away doesn’t create a scene, they may just quietly disappear (or worse they never showed up to begin with).

So Angie matters not just because women are missing out (although this is true, important and urgent). Angie’s talk matters because women are just the canary in the coal mine. Millions of people are missing out – people with ideas and the ability to make contributions get turned away because of a bad experience, because a community’s culture is off putting, too aggressive, not welcoming or not supportive.

For me its opened up a whole new way of thinking about my writing on open source communities. After Angie’s talk I sought her out as I felt we’d been talking about the same things. I’m interested in developing norms, skills and tools within an open source community that allows more people to participate and collaborate more effective, in short how do we think about community management. Angie is talking about developing open source communities that support and engage women. Working towards solving one helps us solve the other. So if you wake up today and notice there are no (other) women on the IRC channel with you… maybe we should both individually and collectively as a community engage in a little introspection and think about what we could change. Doing so won’t only make the community more inclusive, it will make it more productive and effective as well.

I've never seen a political speech like this

I was going to post about the Quadra byelection today (I’d even written something so will post tomorrow) but yesterday afternoon I started getting emails from friends in the US asking me if I’d seen “the speech.” I’d locked myself away for much of the day and was trying to avoid the great distraction that is the internet, so… I hadn’t. I finally loaded it up on YouTube and figured I watch a few minutes.

37 minutes later, and now a night’s sleep, and I’m still feeling pretty stunned.

I thought Obama displayed courage when he gave his speech on homophobia within the African American church at MLK’s church on MLK day. This speech takes that courage to a whole new level. What made it work – for me at least – was how he seemed to serve as a conduit, a translator, for African-American and white communities. Breaking down the stalemated debate between them and trying to offer a path out.

Most impressively, he did this while trying to bring complexity and nuance back into political discourse. I don’t know if he’ll succeed but I’m glad someone is finally trying.

Finally, the comparison to Hillary is again, quite stark. When the controversy over Geraldine Ferraro’s remarks spun out of control Hillary threw her under the bus. Did she use the opportunity to talk about the glass ceiling for women? The subtle and pervasive effects of sexism? No.  This would not have been politically expedient. And yet, to paraphrase Obama, Ferraro’s frustration and anger was real, legitimate, and powerful. And to simply wish it away and to condemn it without understand its roots only served to widen the chasm along both racial and gender lines.

And yet this is what Hillary did. She wished it away and condemned it, instead of using it as an opportunity to elevate the debate and actually try to address a serious and legitimate problem.

But then that sums up the campaign in a nutshell:

Hillary is playing to win – and her supporters believe she can better manage Washington. Obama is playing to make change – and his supporters believe he can remake Washington like Reagan or FDR did. So today they are reveling, as their candidate  has again demonstrated his willingness to take on a dangerous issue – like race – that no other politician can or will touch.

Here’s a youtube clip of the speech: