The price of admission

After I wrote my last blog post on women in tech (or more accurately the invisibility of women in tech), both organizers of Startup Fest emailed me. They weren’t happy with the article. And (surprise!) they wanted me to MC the Granny Den.

They offered to let me help organize the Granny Den, make it more respectful and I’d also get to go to StartupFest for free.

For those arriving late to the party, Startup Fest had planned an event where startups would pitch their ideas to grandmothers. Their reasoning: that if even a grandmother could understand it, anyone could and it would made good business sense.

I called the premise sexist.

The organizers argued that the implementation wouldn’t be sexist, that they had a lot of respect for the grandmothers. They said they wanted to get more women involved in startups. They even went as far as to ask me how to attract more women to the event. I spent a lot of time emailing my suggestions and discussing options. It was time-consuming, but for a good cause, I thought.

But I still thought that the organizers didn’t really “get it”.

Asking grandmothers to be judges is not real empowerment. It’s targeting a group with little perceived know-how (perceived, because grandmothers could easily be running a startup or two!) and little real power in society, and setting them up to either fail and be ridiculed to the amusement of the audience, or succeed but then go right back to being ignored and disenfranchised. Basically it’s a PR strategy, a one-off event, a curiosity. But what it doesn’t do is lead to any real change in women’s participation, especially older women’s participation, in technology.

Contrast this strategy to deciding to make 50% of all the regular judges and pitchers at Startup Fest women, or having a strategy in place to require the inclusion of older women as startup pitchers, or even requiring startups to provide market research from a representative cross-section of society, or any other strategy that gets women in the game in large numbers.

Of course, these strategies will be refused for exactly the reason they will be effective. They require real change. They require the people currently in charge, men, to make a concerted, long-term effort to include marginalized groups, and at the short-term expense of their own group. (I would argue that long term, the benefits to society would benefit them as well.)

And Granny Den will be included because it might be entertaining (if they fail) and so novel as to attract the media, if they succeed. Which just about says it all when it comes to the ratio of while males between the ages of about 25 and 40 and, well, everyone else in the startup world.

But I’m a realist, and I still thought that something positive could come from my participation in Startup Fest. So, despite the risk of being co-opted, I agreed to participate for the greater good.

Three days before the event, the organizers told me I had been replaced with a sponsor, and given a perfunctory apology.

I had also submitted a talk to MobileCamp, part of Startup Fest. I even presented the same talk, The Future is Mobile, at WordCamp Montreal.  It was good enough that one of the speakers in the all-male (are you surprised?) MobileCamp line-up asked me why I wasn’t presenting it at MobileCamp. Why indeed?

“Your talk would be great right before mine!”

I agree. It would.

Needless to say I was upset. What happened? I had really believed I was going to be doing something positive.

For the starry-eyed, it’s called being derailed.

It’s offering just enough incentive that you stop fighting quite so hard for what you know is right, and necessary. It’s offering a seemingly reasonable, but ultimately inaccurate (or incomplete, if you’re feeling generous) justification for unacceptable behaviour. It’s both the carrot and the kick out the door. Because that’s how Startup Fest treats who they refer to as the “girls of tech“.

It’s the free ticket. It’s the price of admission.

[Added July 18: Julie Matlin, one of the people who helped co-ordinate the Granny Den has written her own summary of the event. It sounds like she had a lot of fun and I’m happy that the Granny Den was such a positive event for the grandmothers who participated. I just wish it were part of a larger effort to get grandmothers in the startup scene all the time.]

Agree? Disagree? That’s what the comments are for. Contribute to the discussion.

Published by Shannon

I’m the founder of Café Noir Design Inc., a boutique Montreal web design company specializing in bilingual or multilingual web design. This is my blog where I talk about making the web a better place. I support things like making the web accessible for everyone, using open source software, helping organizations find greener more sustainable ways to operate through online technology and helping non-profits with online community organizing. I also talk about women and tech.

8 replies on “The price of admission”

  1. This makes my blood boil.

    And, for the record, I’m a grandmother. And a woman in tech. And I am seething. And so very sorry.

    Bottom line, these aren’t people you want to work with, present for, share ideas with. Not now, not ever. They suck. You’re better than that.

    In fact, you’re fantastic. Screw ’em.


  2. Shannon – 

    I think you misunderstood what this was all about. I say this because I was the one helping coordinate. I was actually there. If you’re interested in what really happened I’d be happy to talk to you about it. 

    1. I can only tell you what I was told by the organizers themselves. I was asked to MC by both organizers. I was told that I would help organize the event and choose the grandmothers. Then at the last minute I was told by the organizers that I wasn’t needed and that the organizers had asked a sponsor to MC instead. Perhaps they decided to do things differently than they had described to me initially. I can’t confirm this because they never explained the reason for dropping me at the last minute, to me. I can only confirm what they did tell me. What I describe in the blog post is an accurate description of their conversations with me. This is what “really happened” in those conversations. I did not “misunderstand” those email conversations.

    2. Someone has mentioned that my last comment may have seemed a bit harsh. I may have typed too quickly. (That’s what happens when your baby wakes you up way too early in the morning.) If it sounded that way, I apologize. It wasn’t intentional. II still think the Granny Den premise is sexist, but I don’t necessarily think the implementation had to be. Otherwise, I never would have agreed to participate! I just wish the organizers could have included me in the way that they had promised. I’m a big fan of making events more diverse. I’d be happy to hear what you have to say about the event. Thanks for reaching out.

  3. Shannon…take a deep breath before you read this because you might not like my response. First off, I rarely comment on blogs unless they really are inspirational. And, yours was!

    Why? You misread the genius of that so much that your actions were polar opposite of right and you received the brunt of your mistake. Here’s why…..

    My personal mission at 65 is to teach people that being old is a good thing. We have years behind us and tons of wisdom and intuition. I switched from coaching to mentoring because I wanted to show people I CAN do technology…don’t roll me over…..listen to us wise women! We live in a youth driven society where age is frowned upon….whereas, it can actually prevent you from mistakes if you “see” and “listen”.

    That Granny Den idea was GENIUS! It wasn’t sexist at all. It said “Hey, here’s some women that might not be up to snuff and we’ll have some fun with them. In reality. it was so genius that we could have rebounded with the MOST SAVVY, INFORMATIVE WISDOM they have ever heard.

    If you had looked, there are “Wise Women” everywhere. We could have even come in via video feed. That’s how savvy we are.

    Shannon, I am so sorry, it turned out the way it did and I appreciate your blog about it. Thank you for giving me the forum to express myself.

    Long live us oldsters! We rock!

    1. I agree that older women are awesome. They have tons of wisdom to offer. But I think you’ve missed the point of my article. I think that the startup scene should include a varied and representational cross-section of society, which of course includes older women. It currently does not. I don’t want to see grandmothers featured in a Granny Den. I want grandmothers in the startup scene every day, all the time (or at least whenever they want to participate, which I hope is often).

      You say that I’m wrong, that I’ve made a mistake and that I’m essentially paying for my mistake.

      I say that advocating for older women’s participation in technology (and all facets of live) is a worthy goal. Being excluded from one event doesn’t change that, at least not for me. But it doesn’t make that exclusion justifiable, just because someone disagrees with me on whether or not the original premise is sexist.

      Keep on rocking!

Comments are closed.