Why do Sheryl Sandberg and Kim Polese have to put up with this shit?

I was just reading through a few tweets before settling down to write a blog post about some of the good stuff that’s been happening to me lately when this retweet from my friend @ubergeekgirl caught my eye…


I read @rachelsklar’s article “The lazy stereotyping of executive women: a case study” then the apology from @ericjackson “Apology to Sheryl Sandberg and Kim Polese [updated]” and then the original article by Eric “Sheryl Sandberg is the Valley’s ‘It’ girl – just like Kim Polese once was” and got ridiculously annoyed. 

I’m visiting Silicon Valley for three weeks from next Thursday and as someone who has campaigned for women in tech for many years now, one of the things I was really looking forward to was finding out what it is like for women there. I was looking forward to finding it an enlightened and empowering place for women. Hmmm.

It’s not always easy being a woman in a male dominated tech world, and one of the ways I deal with some of the more difficult stuff is to talk to other women who know and understand what its like. I’ve been ridiculously lucky to meet some very inspiring and empowering women from all over the world, some of whom live and work in Silicon Valley like Megan Smith at Google and Kiva’s Jules Hanna. Every time I interact with them I get a massive rush of energy and enthusiasm, it’s wonderful 🙂

For some reason, because they are so great, as are many of the other US women in tech that I’ve met too, I naively presumed that it was because they were operating in a more enlightened environment than us in the UK. Having read these articles I wonder if that is the case. 

We are at a difficult time in our history for understanding exactly how to behave in a non-sexist way, most of us have been brought up with some gender bias, so how do we decide exactly what is and isn’t OK. The way that I usually decide whether I should take offense at something that appears to be sexist is to try to look at the intent behind the message rather than the actual message itself. 

Last week a really lovely UK journalist Jim Mortleman wrote a nice piece about me for computing.co.uk “The <goto> girl: an interview with Dr Sue Black“. Jim is a great guy who I love hanging out with and have the utmost respect for, but when I saw the title of the piece he had written about me I cringed. I can see why he has called it that, because I’ve just set up a non-profit organisation called The <goto> Foundation, and <goto> girl is great alliteration, but at the same time, I also see myself being called “girl” at the age of 49. And in some ways that’s flattering. Everyone wants to be thought of as being or looking a bit younger than they are, well I definitely do as I rapidly approach 50 😉 But in other ways, unfortunately it’s not so good. 

So, I know that Jim will be mortified when he reads this, and that makes me feel ill. I know that there is no way at all that he would ever want to write something that was sexist or belittled me, or any other women, he’s not like that. So, because I know that, I’m not offended. I’m deeply flattered that he took the time and trouble to write such an nice enthusiatic piece about me.

But in the general case, it’s not that easy to decide is it? I don’t know Eric Jackson so I’ve no idea of the intent behind his piece. Maybe you do? 

I do know that we need to move forward with this. I think that these days most people that I interact with believe that women and men are equal. I expect that all of us have unconscious bias built in to some extent because of our upbringing and society, and it’s good to think about the way that we treat other people from time to time. 

Kim Polese’s response to Stop comparing female execs and let Sheryl Sandberg do her job is great. It’s ridiculous that she needs to write something like this, but great that she did to put the record straight, to show her support for Sheryl Sandberg and to point out that:

“If women can’t be judged fairly and objectively by their merits here in Silicon Valley — often cited as the ultimate meritocracy  – then this exciting place where we’re inventing the future every day is still stuck in the 19th century when it comes to views on women and leadership.”

So, what do we do? How do we move things forward? Is there going to be equality in my lifetime? It makes me very sad to think that there might not be. We have come so far, can’t we just agree to sort this all out now and then move forward?


Watch this short video How to get more women in tech in under a minute by Caroline Drucker for a start

I’m off to Silicon Valley on Thursday…it’s going to be interesting…..


One comment

  1. Agree entirely, Dr Black. Though I don’t like the other ‘g’ word – geek – either. I find it denigrates all people that work in or are associated in some way with IT/CompSci/SoftwareEng. Engineer, scientist, technian, programmers, analyst etc… – all great. But geek?The etymology is awful: "From British dialect ‘geck’ ("fool")…"http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/geekNerd is no better:http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nerdIn other professions short-forms like these are implicitly understood as being denigratory. Calling an accountant a "beancounter", or a doctor a "quack" – both immediately understood as being terms of abuse. Yet geek persists to mean "people involved in computing and technology" – Picts (hmmm… I wonder if that could catch on).And YouTube’s ‘Featured Video’ selection alongside Caroline Drucker’s video is… "How To Attract Women Effortlessly" – good language parsing and matching, but a completely inappropriate result.

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