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.