How to marginalize a person and reduce her sense of self-worth

Recently I attended the wedding celebration of my friend, who is a Bay Area tech entrepreneur.  It was a well-attended event, bustling with some of the who’s who in Silicon Valley.  I was introduced to the founder of a successful startup and learned about his next startup, which is working to address the national shortage in tech talent.  The startup is a training and placement program that gets people trained with software skills for a career in tech in just six months.  It seems to be successful and is getting a lot of visibility from business and government leaders.  These days the lack of women and minorities in tech, especially in Silicon Valley, is getting a lot of attention.  So I naturally asked if the program was recruiting minorities and women.

And the answer was “No.”  As my face registered surprise, he went on to add “because companies don’t want them.”

At this point my face flushed red and I started to feel hot and sick to my stomach.  But in the way that I normally am, I calmly responded “that seems odd because my employer is actively recruiting women and minorities”.

The conversation became even more interesting when he responded that “companies that are rich can afford to pad their numbers with low performing employees.”  Okay, maybe he didn’t say low performing, maybe he said filler, inferior, or sub-par.  “Smaller less rich companies can’t afford to pad their numbers.”  What I heard is that he, along with others, believes that women and minorities do not make good employees.

This was really offensive to me.  My head is still spinning.  My twenty five years as a woman at a large tech company relegated me to an inferior status.  I felt personally marginalized, and still do, when I think about this conversation.

And then he went on to use an analogy, asking me this question “if you were going to have heart surgery, and you were given a choice between a surgeon who is a minority, and may have benefited from affirmative action, or a surgeon who is a white male, whom would you choose?”  I responded that I would probably choose the minority because that person likely worked much harder to achieve their position.  He informed me that “not many people would agree, and that most people would choose the white male.”  Okay, he’s right.

I responded by describing a recent study that exposed implicit bias in the hiring process. The study, published in Harvard Business Review, describes how having more than one woman in the interview pool makes a bigger difference than probability would suggest.  When an employer interviews a panel of four candidates, and one of them is a woman, she has zero chance of being hired.  However, if the panel of four candidates includes two women, then the chance of a woman being hired goes up to 50%.  The study exposed the implicit bias that minorities face, and also showed a potential fix of having multiple women in the interview pool.

The article also cites other studies that expose implicit bias.  “When employers use a blind audition to hire their programmers and engineers, women tend to be hired at a higher rate than men. The same is true in blind auditions for professional orchestras.”

The next day I sent him a link to the studies and said I’d put him in touch with the recruiting department where I work to help find jobs for his program’s graduates, in particular minority and women.  I still feel personally marginalized from the experience, even after being a woman engineer in tech for 25 years.  My achievements are overshadowed by a cloud- I’m just padding, for my employer to meet diversity numbers.  It is a feeling that I still can’t shake off several days later.  But I am grateful for the experience of knowing what this Bay Area entrepreneur thinks, without a fake sugar coating.  His feelings are the same as the feelings of many others, he isn’t an anomaly.  It’s good to know where I stand, even if it hurts.

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7 responses to “How to marginalize a person and reduce her sense of self-worth

  1. 12thhouse

    Sad and frustrating to read — I do for sure relate to the shock and hurt. What disappoints and even wounds me more is your old school soothing and enabling: keeping his name and his program anonymous, trying to make him a better man with educational links he has no interest in, and then enabling him professionally by connecting him to your company’s resources.

    I don’t think you truly have internalized this: he and others like him don’t respect your mind (and whatever comes of it) due to your gender. He’s not interested in changing, what he’s doing works for him very well. So well, you continue to engage him, want to influence him. That’s all that matters, power. So if you want to make a point and a change, use your power.

    You work for a large influential company that prides itself as entrepreneurial. That’s a lot of power. How about a note to your company’s recruiting Director and HR VP about your conversation, much as you wrote it here, your company’s long history of entrepreneurial training, along with names of competing software training programs that actively recruit women and minorities for start up mentality? This may surprise him.

    He’s right though that start ups are different environments than large corporations. And your company actually also has an extremely well-funded capital investment arm — a start-up incubator. I doubt he knows that. Send the note to that VP about your conversation and the alternatives as well. Send a copy of those letters to Mr. Anonymous, letting him know if he is ever interested in seeing the data behind the recruiting decisions big companies can afford to study and execute to, The Harvard Business Review for one does an excellent job. Let him find his own research, he’s a grown up.

    Many of us know factually his bias will actually keep some of the best candidates out of his program, and that if he manages them he won’t utilize them well. Data-driven women and companies would benefit by being informed who he is so they can avoid each other.

    He isn’t ashamed of his opinion openly, so you shouldn’t be ashamed of sharing them either. An update of this entry with his name or at least his program’s name would help people on both sides avoid unproductive relationships.

    And then get to a place of strength by including (part 2?) a conversation with someone who runs a competitive software training program that actively recruits women. What are their experiences filling the pipeline? What does their success look like? What is their name, the name of their program so women and minorities can find them? Chances are you will come away from that conversation rejuvenated.

    Healing is finding that place of strength, of being able to have a real effect on your environment. You clearly have a lot of resources at your hands. I hope you find them, use them and model their use.

    • I followed up with the person and shared my blog with him. He clarified that his company’s training and apprenticeship program does not discriminate against minorities or women. In fact there are some efforts that are focused specifically on women. He described his experience in trying to place diverse candidates into apprenticeships. Employers did not respond or offer apprenticeships when candidates or programs were labeled as diverse. When he removed any mention of diversity then employers were much more responsive. So… he learned the hard way that diversity programs result in backlash. The further discussion about large companies being able to afford to pad their numbers was hurtful to me personally since I am one of those who works for such a company. Where I work I witness diversity backlash all the time, in internal blogs and comments, and so forth. To me there is no point in attacking an individual when diversity backlash is so widespread. On top of that, I am very busy working on technical accomplishments. I feel the best thing I can do is to be good. That’s where I want to spend my energy. By being technically accomplished, mentoring, and role modeling, I give inspiration and strength to others to stick with it. Data shows that when the number of women and minorities in tech reaches a tipping point that many of these issues will be resolved. I work to actively recruit women and minorities into tech, to support them in their careers, and to be a good example showing that it is possible to be a successful woman in tech.

  2. Thank you for sharing this incredibly depressing story. It will take me a little while to process your blogpost. The first thing I did was check your profile where I see you have Electrical Engineering degrees from Northwestern and Berkeley, as well as patents. And yet, even you are lumped in as inferior. Such candor is rare but is the conversation that we know occurs, and it is the one I hear in unguarded moments. Again, thank you for sharing. I may share this widely through my own networks, as well.

  3. Dee Jai

    There are lots of bias related stupidities in the world, many of them far more tragic in outcome than this one. Do not misconstrue that I don’t think this a tragedy, as I do. However there are distinctions to be made.

    It is not fair and equitable that women and minorities are subject to this bias; one can only be the very best one can be, make a decision on whether the person(s) perpetrating and/or believing the bias are uniformed or simply small-minded, and then either try and educate them or simply disengage and don’t try to change their minds. One cannot affect all outcomes in an arena on any given day, this one most surely.

    What gives me pause is that the author, who is fierce in the most wonderful, powerful, respected, cool way; highly educated, informed, empathetic, well achieved….could possibly feel marginalized by some unmannerly unprofessionalism/buffoonery.

    I am curious to know if the communique had come from a woman whether she would feel the same? If not, one needs to consider bias on the part of the author.

    If she would feel the same, then in my view, it is a puzzle. Is it not clear to her self that she is highly accomplished, more so than most, and is likely regarded by people who are smart and reasonable as positively wonderful?

    To be wryly amused, disappointed, contemptuous of this man’s comments is the reaction I would expect.

    I write this as the woman founder of a tech company. I am smart, presentable, well-educated with many business recognitions, honours and awards (I don’t care about these personally, ‘telling’ to support what the reasonable world happens to think of me). Yet I’ve had dozens of rude, ignorant, unthinking comments thrown my way, from men and women, including, recently from a woman, ‘do you know what you are up against? you’re a woman in a man’s kingdom’.

    It makes me feel sad for the persons who deliver these comments, and, in a diametrically opposed way, makes me feel all the more powerful by comparison.

    You can’t always change the world; but you can change yourself.

    Your company doesn’t regard you with the worth you are entitled to? Find another company. Remember who you are, every day. Be self-assured, calm, graceful – who you ARE, most especially around people who you know are biased. If they’ve any intelligence at all, it will make them understand at some level that they are lacking, not you.

  4. Keep fighting. The world is changing. My grandfather, a white doctor, was horrible racist & sexist. My father was just as bad. By contrast, my high-tech engineer son believes diversity gives a company strength.

    I’m currently reading the book Sapiens which has a much longer perspective and points out in the last hundred years change in this arena has been dramatic.

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