Upending the invisible culture gauntlet

One of the ironies of culture is that it is often invisible to those swimming along in it (in a manner of speaking.) By that I mean when we want to see change in a culture the first step is often quite confronting to those who see their “norms” and in many cases privileged assumptions being challenged.

Socrates said “an unexamined life is not worth living” and what he meant by that is that in modern terms we need to look at the the subtext and check to see if our values and our experiences are meaningful and we need to actively and consciously engage in order to really live.

There are many examples but the one I’m interested in today is gender politics.

I was lucky enough to be at university in the late 70’s and early 80’s and in that environment there a real sense of optimism about the future and how diversity might open up opportunities for a much more diverse group of all comers. My sense is that our present corporate and business cultures are still quite unwelcoming places but it is more subtle than it was in the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m disappointed since my generation looked like it was going to do more and here we are many decades later with many of the same invisible cultural barriers.

Some of this was discussed in a recent Moxie Sessions podcast written up by Vaughan Davis over here

“Girls Can Do Anything.

Thirty years on, (setting aside the whole girls/women thing) not many people would argue with that sentiment. Women can do anything, as they’ve proved convincingly and repeatedly through senior roles in business and politics. (And yes, every keystroke of that sentence felt cringingly patriarchal to write but we’ll keep moving…)

The thing is, though, while they can, they’re not. Women are under-represented in senior business roles, board positions, the investment community and all levels of politics.”

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On the question of what can be done…

So, if women are underrepresented and businesses are missing out because of that, what can we do about it?

Have a policy. If you’re a company that employs people, have a policy on diversity. What’s in the policy matters but not as much as having one. Tell people you have it, let them read it, and prepare to be held to it.

Start with their daughters. If you want business leaders to change their thinking about employing, leading and promoting women, move the conversation from the abstract to the personal. Ask them if they’d be happy if their daughter was hit on, overlooked for promotion or sidelined on boys’ nights out on business trips.

Disclosure: I have a daughter – but even if I didn’t I still would want to see business and culture generally to be a much more inclusive and welcoming place.

An anonymous post over on Forbes makes for painful but necessary reading What It’s Like Raising Money As A Woman In Silicon Valley

“What we need is a public conversation about gender, power and respect, one that’s not just women talking to other women”.

“As Amanda Hess noted it is difficult for men to see misogyny. Even The Masseuse continues to contact me regarding our investment progress – a clear sign that without direct confrontation about his impropriety, he is unaware how his actions were perceived.

It is not just the perpetrators of abuse who are clueless. Many of the amazing men – some who have invested in our company, others who call me boss – are oblivious to the additional hurdles and harassment I face on a daily basis. These men can be allies, but not if they are left out of the conversation.”

Matthew Goldman @magoldman has written a response to the Forbes post above called Disrupting the Male-Dominated Startup Culture where he says we need to balance the ecosystem and that we should recognise that our own culture needs to be disrupted.

Another recent post that I have come across is called The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt big time: its own culture By Carlos Bueno.

The culture issues are much more than just gender based, there are a whole range of implicit diversity issues in many workplaces that need to be called out as Bueno does.

“The problem is that Silicon Valley has gone completely to the other extreme. We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.
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It’s even been stated: “The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible.”…

On the other hand, so many nice-seeming candidates seem to fail the interview process for trivial mistakes that fall under the catch-all category of “culture fit.”

Even if you take his statements at face value they make no sense. Suppose that it’s a scientific fact that wearing a suit signals that a candidate is unfit for duty. Assuming that’s true, then what does teaching the poor bastard how to camouflage himself actually accomplish? Does clothing indicate a person’s inner qualities or not? What, exactly, is the moral we’re supposed to learn from this grubby little drama?
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The theme is familiar to anyone who’s tried to join a country club or high-school clique. It’s not supposed to make sense. The Culture can’t really be written about; it has to be experienced. You are expected to conform to the rules of The Culture before you are allowed to demonstrate your actual worth. What wearing a suit really indicates is—I am not making this up—non-conformity, one of the gravest of sins. For extra excitement, the rules are unwritten and ever-changing, and you will never be told how you screwed up.
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Clothing is the least of it. Your entire lifestyle and outside interests are under examination, as is your “commitment”

The problem with gathering a bunch of logically-oriented young males together and encouraging them to construct a Culture gauntlet has nothing to do with their logic, youth, or maleness. The problem is that all cliques are self-reinforcing. There is no way to re-calibrate once the insiders have convinced themselves of their greatness.

The first step toward dissolving these petty Cultures is writing down their unwritten rules for all to see. The word “privilege” literally means “private law.” It’s the secrecy, deniable and immune to analysis, that makes the balance of power so lopsided in favor of insiders.
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Calling it out and making fun of it is not enough. Whatever else one can say about the Mirrortocracy, it has the virtue of actually working, in the sense that the lucky few who break in have a decent rate of success. Compared to what, well, that is carefully left unasked. The collateral damage of “false negatives” is as large as it is invisible. But it is difficult to argue with success. It takes a humility and generosity that must come from within. It can’t be forced on others, only encouraged to develop.

Carlos is writing much more about culture than about any specific aspect of that but the challenge is the same as for any kind of diversity in action and that is to call out the unwelcome behaviour and barriers where we see them and do what we can to level the playing field.

Many of us have privileged lives. It is up to us to challenge the status quo and to create opportunities where we can.

With my daughter we play a simple game called “what’s the subtext” many times; it helps her and me to think about media, culture and our lives and to reflect on what else we may rather want to see instead of living the “unexamined life”.

After looking around for some other positive examples of culture I came across this photo of a Wellington based startup which has a female majority. Go @SiobhanBulfin and Social Code. We need more companies that have cultural diversity in every way and this is a great shot / example.