The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why I am stepping out of the debate on women in technology

I started advocating for women in engineering in 2006 when my dean at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Kristina Johnson, made me aware of the declining numbers of women entering the field. As a former tech entrepreneur, I found the situation alarming. I had spent the last few years researching how education, immigration, and entrepreneurship drive innovation. The fact that half of our population was being left out of the fields most important to our future seemed deeply wrong to me.

When I moved to Silicon Valley in 2009, I realized that what I had thought was a well-functioning meritocracy actually was nothing of the sort. It was a boys’ club that regarded women as less capable than men and subjected them to negative stereotypes and abuse. I wrote about this and took intense fire for my public views from some of the Valley’s power brokers. I was advised by male friends to stay away from this topic, because it would hurt my credentials and career. My universities also received complaints from powerful alumni and other potential donors, but they stood firmly behind me.

It used to be that when the media wrote about Silicon Valley, they repeated the myth of meritocracy. These days, it’s understood that sexism exists in the technology industry. Thanks to years of work by brave, vocal women who have consistently and eloquently raised the issue, we have made progress. Along the way, some men, such as I, have tried to contribute by speaking out alongside them and proposing ways in which to make the industry a safer, more welcoming place for women. Now, Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, and Twitter have disclosed their dismal diversity data, and, where there used to be silence and ignorance, we hear their CEOs pledging to create the necessary opportunities. The National Venture Capital Association has established a taskforce to look into why there are so few female venture capitalists and how to improve the ratio.

I have little doubt that we will see a significant shift in the culture of the technology industry towards greater acceptance and inclusion of diversity. But achieving this will only be possible if moderate and constructive voices lead the debate. My worry is that personal agendas, fringe groups, and the mainstream media will make the discussion toxic.

This issue has always been controversial, but the intensity of mistrust and vitriol on all sides of it has made it toxic. I have experienced this first hand. Over the past few weeks, I have been accused of financial impropriety, arrogance, insensitivity and worse. This started with a podcast – completed without an attempt to contact me for comment — which included inaccuracies and was later taken down. It continued with bloggers piling on and attacks through social media that got out of control.

Rumors now move at Internet speed. Once false information is out there, it is nearly impossible to correct. For example, I was accused of profiting from the pain and suffering of women. My attempts to clarify this publicly were impeded by the sheer volume of angry messages on Twitter. Each time I tried to address the points of my critics, I found others piling on or taking my words out of context. I got frustrated, and it showed, and the quality of the discussion suffered. Social media are powerful means of spreading information, but also for fostering misunderstandings.

The effects of the toxic debate are not confined, however, to any particular group or person. The diversity debate has itself become incendiary. Moderate voices are drowned out by shouting and vile invective. Women and men who might otherwise want to voice their intelligent opinion have been silenced by fears that they too will be maligned.

I am very glad to have spent time and energy advocating for women in technology. I have written more than 75 articles on this subject in global publications. I completed two research projects at Duke and Stanford Universities on women in technology. And I have worked with many talented women to create a book, Innovating Women, which gave voice to hundreds of great women from all over the world. I am hopeful that my efforts have had a positive impact and have helped elevate the issue.

But I may have made the mistake of fighting the battles of women in technology for too long. And I may have taken the accusations too personally. Today there is a chorus of very powerful, intelligent, voices who are speaking from personal experience. The women who I have written about, who have lived the discrimination and abuse, as well as others, deserve the air time. So I am going to bow out of this debate.

I am still going to be an advocate for disenfranchised minorities; I will continue to mentor women and men entrepreneurs; I will surely coach my friends who are in positions of power in corporations; and I will echo the words of great women. It gives me great hope to see women taking their rightful place alongside men in building the innovation economy and in having Silicon Valley become a true meritocracy.