Earlier this week I went to a Chicago tech event called Technori Pitch. A keynote speaker addresses his or her expertise for twenty minutes and then a series of start-ups do five minute pitches on their apps and sites followed by Q&A. Harper Reed, the Chief Technology Officer for Obama for America, was the keynote, and his semi-celebrity presence drew a larger, louder crowd than average.
Reed kept it pretty high-level, with pithy slides and an emphasis on practicing failure over and over again because, as he put it, on Game Day:
One of his last big plugs was to encourage everyone in the audience to work towards bringing more women and more non-Asian minorities in tech. He got big applause. I rolled my eyes, not because I dispute the sentiment, but because awareness of the disparity is only step one and Harper had just finished telling us how the first 25 people he hired were from his personal network. Do you know what happens when white guys with hipster beards hire from their personal networks? They get 25 white guys with hipster beards. Nothing against you guys, but it’s hard to take a plug for diversity too seriously when you just demonstrated exactly why it’s hard to do.
Anyway, that’s not the point, nor is it the sexism I referenced in the title of this post. The format of Technori Pitch allows the audience to anonymously ask questions via an app, and then vote up the questions they’d like the moderator to ask the pitchers. The second pitch after Harper left the stage came from a pair, one man and one woman. These were three of the questions that were voted up.
Are You Single?
What’s your accent, guuuurl?
What’s your accent, guuurrl? (don’t delete this!)
To his credit, the moderator ignored these questions, so the woman presenting may never know they were asked. But seriously, guys? Harper’s point was that you need to work to create a workplace that is not hostile to perceived outsiders. That means treating them like you treat anyone else (which hopefully, is with respect). Calling an adult woman “girl” is not respectful. Asking about relationship status instead of focusing on her work product is not respectful. Declining to treat her pitch as a serious business exercise (as you did everyone else’s) is not respectful. In short, your questions demonstrated exactly the kind of hostile environment Harper Reed just finished warning you about.
There was one black presenter, would you ask in the anonymous questions “Are you good at basketball? Can you dunk? Are you a rapper in your spare time?” Of a gay presenter, would you ask “Are you a top or a bottom? Do you like fashion? Will you be my gay best friend?” Man, I really hope not. In a workplace, the quickest way to make someone feel like an outsider is to point out all the stereotypes attributed to whatever facet of them gives them outsider status. If you’re the “only” in a room, whatever you’re the only of, it’s hard enough feeling like your work represents the work of your whole demographic bloc, without facing asinine questions or shooting down ridiculous assumptions.
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