Hello, Men. Women Need You to Speak Up.
Here are three seemingly unrelated stories that, depending on what universe you inhabit, have recently gone viral.
First there was #GamerGate, the most recent incarnation of the idea that the Internet is a gigantic mean guys club that women enter at their own risk. My colleague Noah Smith details how the messy brawl began, but the crux -- for the wider world of people not particularly invested in video games -- is that an online debate was overtaken by men who threatened to rape and kill women with whom they disagreed. In some cases they doxxed their opponents (meaning that they published home addresses online) and increased the chances that virtual world threats could lead to real world violence.
This stuff, of course, isn't unique to GamerGate (and the ugly fighting words being thrown around don't even represent most people who play games). Women have been harassed and maligned online for expressing opinions, campaigning to get Jane Austen on a bank note, going to law school and simply doing their jobs. As a recent Pew study shows, men who have Internet enemies get called names. Women get stalked and threatened with sexual assault.
Then there was news about a Bain study that shows that female graduates enter the workforce way more eager to reach the C-suite than their male counterparts, but then they rarely get to the top. After about two years on the job just 16 percent of women aspire for top positions, versus 34 percent of men. The study is from the summer, but it became a topic of discussion when Fortune wrote about the findings this week. The writer, Caroline Fairchild, wonders what's going on in companies that might dampen female ambition.
And finally there was the Buzzfeed post that featured a video of a woman walking around New York City. Lots of women, particularly those in big cities, weren't surprised when men of all backgrounds verbally harassed the woman 100-plus times. They catcalled her and leered and sometimes followed her down the street. She never approached these guys. They just felt entitled to call out to her, to tell her when to smile, to direct when she should talk to them, and to generally feel indignant when she didn't behave the way they like -- all because she was just there.
These stories are all subculture dramas -- the gaming world, online flame wars, white-collar office politics and life in the urban jungle. But they share lots of things in common. They all illustrate power dynamics between women and men and, specifically, how men get to be the arbiters of opinions, of behavior, of success and of culture. Clear or fuzzy, articulated or implicit, there are always consequences (and, to be sure, rewards) for how good women are at understanding where the lines are drawn. Punishments are meted out to those who step outside of them.
These incidents have all created a flurry of discussion about what women can do to improve these situations. How do we stop Internet threats? How do we keep one another in the corporate game? How do we fight back against harassment of all kinds? There have been lots of suggestions, most of them valid or interesting or smart.
I think those conversations are great because social progress works, in lots of ways, just like corporate change. It comes from openness, dialogue, debate, strategies and implementation. Women should be standing up for one another, online and offline, and they should be figuring out ways to make the world treat them as equals.
But I can't help but wonder where the super-vocal, progressive men are in all of this. Because real change won't come without them.
There's a belief, in tech at least, that underrepresentation is what makes life hard for women in the industry. Female investors, founders and engineers are outnumbered at big, established tech companies and Silicon Valley startups. That alone makes it hard to have a voice.
To some extent, this is true; companies should work on diversity. But women account for 51 percent of online users in the U.S., which has the highest Internet penetration rate in the world, according to the research firm eMarketer; 80.2 percent of all American women use the Internet, versus 78.4 percent of all American men. Women are also enrolling in college in greater numbers than men.
A woman's place, at least by the numbers, is online. It also is in corporate America, where college degrees are a must. But you wouldn't know it to read comment sections, message boards and sites like Twitter and Facebook or to look at the executive ranks of most companies.
Women have long fought for greater equality and respect, but we need the guys to visibly join the battle.
I had a conversation with Andrew Hawn, a vice president at the Futures Company, a few weeks ago about GamerGate. I respect him a lot and thought his take on the growing diversity in the gaming community was spot on. You can't say gamers are any one kind of person anymore; lots of the blowback against women is probably in response to a demographic shift that threatens the old gamer identity.
But when I asked him why I hadn't read as many male developers decrying the vitriol and sexism, the death and rape threats, he said: "It's obvious that violence against women and games don't go hand in hand; and that it belittles the art of the industry and the medium."
Another smart man in the gaming world, who didn't want his name used, responded to the question this way: "Do men really need to make a statement saying you affirm the humanity of women? That people shouldn't call in bomb threats? These things are evident and obvious."
To them both, my answer is, yes. It's essential for men to say those evident and obvious things because they have power -- and so do their voices.
My point isn't to pick on these guys. They're smart and thoughtful. Many male investors and executives are already having conversations about gender equality in their offices and in their personal lives. But I do want to point out that even the most thoughtful, smart men don't often have the experiences needed to understand why it's just as important for them to have these conversations in public. I can't think of one civil rights battle that was won just because minorities and women yelled. The people in power -- white people, wealthy people, politicians, CEOs, men -- yelled, too; eventually we saw voting laws change, marriage laws change, and certain types of racism and sexism decline.
After Satya Nadella recently put his foot in his mouth at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Tech, he apologized for implying that the system is always fair. But more important, he said this:
I answered basically by my own experience. ... But the mistake is to take your own personal experience and project it on half the humanity. It's just insensitive. ... As I talk to other senior women and generally anyone, and their stories of how, for example, quote unquote, the system has actually not worked for them. And when you hear that and you sort of really recognize what a raw nerve my comments, especially around being passive, makes no sense.
It's important that Nadella is willing to be a vocal advocate. He's willing to say that sexism is wrong and to figure out ways that he perpetuates it and ways that he can stop it. Did it take a huge gaffe for him to force him to see a different point of view? Sure, but he saw it, and he's not shy about saying so.
On a similar note, I was fascinated by the Twitter and Facebook response that men had to the video of the woman walking the streets of NYC. Lots of men were shocked and outraged. This? This is what happens when you walk down the street in jeans and a t-shirt? At all hours? All the time? Crazy! My former colleague Alex tweeted: "This is so appalling. I'm in on whatever we can do to stop it."
What the NYC video doesn't capture is what would have happened if a man had been by the woman's side -- a boyfriend, a buddy, old, short, tall, young. Any man would do. The harassers, for the most part, would have kept their mouths shut and we'd have seen a boring, quiet walk. Maybe that's why guys like Alex were so surprised -- they just don't see this stuff all that often.
Maybe that's why men don't understand just how important their voices can be when it comes to the fight for gender equality in all parts of our lives. There are lots of messages, quiet and loud, obvious and subtle, that tell women they don't belong.
For a long time, women have been saying that those messages are wrong. Now it's time for men to shout back, too.
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Timothy L O'Brien at email@example.com