There is ample evidence of gender bias in the American workforce. Résumés submitted with female names, for example, are judged to be less competent than those with male names. This is true when either men or women evaluate the given résumé — all of us seem to think less of experience when it’s associated with a female name.
John Greathouse, a venture capitalist who teaches at the University of California Santa Barbara, surveyed all this research. And he recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about his solution: To avoid gender bias, women ought to hide their gender.
“Women in today's tech world should create an online presence that obscures their gender,” he recommends. “A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
Greathouse finds ample evidence of gender bias in the workforce. He does not suggest that we take steps to fix the gender bias. Instead, he suggests that women simply erase their gender. That’s what it will take to succeed in business.
The argument has, as you might expect, not been well-received by the internet.
Let me just be clear as I can: This VC is a fucking idiot https://t.co/qoJvGGAYuC— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) September 29, 2016
Greathouse’s piece is infuriating because it accepts gender bias as an unfixable part of Silicon Valley that women ought to work around instead of demanding that those who do any actual hiring or decision-making, you know, actually take steps to fix it.
His argument represents a naive view of gender bias in the workplace. Greathouse suggests women should obscure their gender to get their foot in the door. Once they’ve wedged that door open, all opportunities will suddenly become available.
But that isn’t true: The best evidence we have suggests that gender bias only gets worse after women land those entry-level opportunities. So asking women to obscure their gender in the application process isn’t only a bad idea — it’s a bad idea that’s unlikely to reduce gender bias.
Gender bias is real. But it isn’t unchangeable.
Greathouse goes to great lengths to prove that gender bias is a problem in Silicon Valley, and he’s totally right. This is a problem, especially in science and technology jobs.
He then cites data about orchestras to make the case that women ought to obscure their gender in their résumés:
Professional orchestras in the 1970s were comprised of an average of 95% men. Nearly 50 years later, the gender mix of most orchestras reflects that of the general population.
A number of elements played a role in the dramatic transformation of the gender mix of professional musicians, including the overall gains women enjoyed in all professions. However, the single most significant factor was the introduction of blind auditions during the late 1970s, in which a screen obscured the musicians’ age, gender and ethnicity from the panel of evaluators.
It’s great that orchestras recognized a gender bias and created a policy to fix it. But notice that isn’t what Greathouse is arguing here. He’s not saying, “Hey, venture capital firms like mine ought to learn from these orchestras and make our funding pitch process gender-blind.”
Instead, Greathouse accepts gender bias as the baseline — and puts the onus on women to work around that. What he is suggesting isn’t anything like the gender-blind audition process that orchestras implemented. Instead, his idea is more akin to telling a female violinist to show up to her audition with a bag over her head. If the judges can’t see her face and love her music, then maybe her gender might not get in the way.
Greathouse clearly sees the research showing that institutions can change, that they can create policies that change the gender balance dramatically. But that doesn’t bring him to the conclusion that VC firms like his, or the industry as a whole, should change, or that it should consider ways these biases (conscious or unconscious) creep into the hiring process.
Gender bias doesn’t just exist in the hiring process. It’s everywhere.
Greathouse’s argument is all about getting women in the door — that if women could just overcome that initial bias in the hiring process, they would have access to the same opportunities as men.
Most research on gender and the workplace suggests the opposite.
Getting in the door is actually the easiest thing to do as a woman right now. The highest levels of workplace equality exist in entry-level settings. Instead, it’s the promotions to higher-level positions that remain the most out of reach for women.
There was a fascinating study by the workforce data firm Visier that looked at what happens to careers as men and women get older. They found that as women get into their 30s, there’s a massive management gap — men begin to move into management positions at a much faster rate than women.
That new study confirmed what other researchers have found: The gender wage gap gets worse as women get older. The Visier report finds that the wage gap is largest for women between the ages of 32 and 48. This lines up with previous research findings from Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard and leading wage gap researcher.
Greathouse’s solution focuses on that initial pitch, that first attempt to get in the door. But that isn’t where the most bias happens. It’s when women are looking to gain more responsibility, to become the chief executive or the president. And unless women are willing to disguise their appearance for their entire career — more on that in a moment — his solution won’t do much to fix the problems of gender bias where they are worst.
Disguising your gender in a connections-heavy industry is absurd
Okay, so. Let’s set aside everything I just wrote, and say you think that Greathouse offers a good idea — that women in Silicon Valley really should not put their names on their LinkedIn profiles or résumés. They could replace it with their initials, perhaps, or even a ghost emoji for the truly innovative.
Even with all of these steps, it will still prove impossible to hide your gender! Venture capital is an industry that relies a lot on connections — on setting up coffee and drinks, and going to networking happy hours to create personal connections with those you hope will give you lots of money. Who you know is crucial here, and getting to know more people is something it’s a lot easier to do in person. That’s why it’s a whole lot easier to launch a tech startup in the Bay Area rather than, say, rural Nebraska. You can have lots of in-person meetings.
So if you do want to take Greathouse’s advice seriously — and really disguise your gender in Silicon Valley — you’ll probably have to take some steps to obscure your appearance. You can’t really use those Groucho Marx glasses with mustaches attached to them, since that only works in the movies.
Perhaps consider walking around Palo Alto in a rubber man suit akin to this one from American Horror Story — or purchasing a full fake beard for a very reasonable $19.
Yes, this is all a little silly, and I don’t expect to see women wandering around the Bay Area in costume anytime soon. The point is, Greathouse advises women to appear more like the tech entrepreneurs we know now. But that makes absurd demands of women. And it ignores a fairer solution: asking funders to change what they think an entrepreneur looks like.
It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. It will take work, and new policies. But it is possible — and Greathouse knows that. Just look at your local orchestra.