Tag Archives: startups

I take it wearing cat ears wouldn’t help?

Moskowitz

A Twitter friend of mine linked to a cute post that Asana — a startup that makes collaboration software — has on their web site. It’s a joke proposal for furnishing the office with kittens. This is a nice type of humor because it doesn’t rely on making fun of anyone. I would have appreciated it, if not for one thing.

Back in June 2013, I got a recruiter email from Asana. I was already considering leaving my job at the time, and it seemed like the company was doing something pretty cool. I asked whether they offered trans-inclusive benefits. The recruiter looked into it for me, and came back with the following answer:

“We researched this and went back and forth with the insurance company and our insurance broker. It appears we probably do not have the coverage you are looking for. Sorry about that. I would have liked to be able to talk.”

So that was it. I would have considered the job otherwise, but not if I was clearly going to be a second-class employee. There was nothing particularly unusual about this interaction. As trans people, we’re not a protected class under US law, so it’s okay for insurance companies to deny us medically necessary care as long as it’s care that only a trans person would need. This isn’t because insurance executives actively hate us or something like that — no, it’s because of something worse. They know that because the American public considers us subhuman, they can get away with cutting costs by denying us health care — just because we happen to be in a politically unpopular group. To me, that’s worse than being actively hated.

Is this the fault of a small tech startup? No, of course not. But at the same time, many companies — big and small — have found ways to be fair and just in how they provide benefits to employees. Generally, this just means negotiating a deal with an insurance broker to add a rider for trans-related care. It should be the default, but in the meantime, negotiating that deal is the right thing to do. Engineering is supposed to be about solving problems, not reassigning blame so as to accumulate more of them.

Negotiating a better insurance plan is also the smart thing to do, because at a time when it seems widely accepted that there’s a shortage of tech talent, turning somebody away because a doctor assigned them an incorrect sex category at birth makes no sense; being trans has no bearing on anybody’s ability to write software. And even when you are not actively discriminating against trans people, saying (explicitly or tacitly) “it’s not worth our time to treat trans employees the same way as everybody else” is effectively equivalent to active discrimination.

So when I saw that “kittens” link, this is what I thought about. Somebody at Asana had enough time to write a cute, silly blog post — that nevertheless must have taken some effort — on the clock. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But at a company with more than 50 employees, nonetheless, nobody has time to spend a few hours executing a simple, well-documented procedure to make sure that they are treating all employees as equally welcome. So that says something about their priorities.

When I made this observation on Twitter a few hours ago, it didn’t take much time before Asana’s co-founder Dustin Moskowitz was in my Twitter mentions explaining to me that Asana doesn’t have any trans employees (how does he know that, exactly?) but if they ever did, they would be sure to make their health insurance coverage fair after that person got hired.

Even more mind-bogglingly, he defended this choice by saying that many HR processes work this way, using pregnancy leave as another example. This is like saying “we are only going to install men’s restrooms in our office, and wait until a woman gets hired before installing a women’s room. Too bad if she needs to take a bathroom break while we’re interviewing her.” Lazy evaluation can be a great feature in a programming language, but it’s a terrible way for a company to ensure it’s meeting minimal standards about equity and inclusion right from the beginning.

Right now, I’m thinking about the free labor that I’m expected to perform by virtue of my membership in a marginalized group. If I actually did apply to Asana and was hired, I’d be expected to out myself to, potentially, people outside HR, just so I could get something every other employee takes for granted: health benefits. As it is, Moskowitz attempted to deflect criticism by asking me if I knew which insurance brokers were willing to negotiate trans-inclusive riders. Is that my job? And anyway, I reported the problem directly to Asana over a year ago — if they had acted on my feedback (as a job candidate who would have considered working there if not for this), the whole conversation would never had had to happen! How much more work do I have to do for free? In the time Moskowitz spent writing defensive tweets, he could have instead called up Blue Shield and gotten a price quote for a trans-inclusive rider. It took me less than five minutes on Google to find that Blue Shield has been offering such riders since 2012. Moskowitz never claimed that cost was an issue in deciding not to provide equal care for trans employees, so what’s the problem, exactly? Is this a good way to do public relations?

I don’t mean to single out Asana here. There are many companies that fail to provide this basic health coverage to their employees. But today, there was only one whose co-founder chose to spend his time arguing with me instead of fixing the problem. Is that a good way to do business? While Moskowitz eventually replied to me saying that he recognized he’d been wrong and would look into it more, still, I’m tired. I’m tired of the knee-jerk reaction to constructive feedback about how to stop marginalizing people that amounts to, “when you do more work for us for free, we’ll stop marginalizing you.” Again, no startup founder made the decision that insurance companies shouldn’t treat trans people equally by default. But by expecting trans people to take the lead in working around that decision, they reveal their own complicity with it.

What it amounts to when a startup co-founder says, “fix the problem for me, being fair isn’t important enough to me for me to do it myself” is attempting to convince users that a problem those users are having isn’t really hindering them, in lieu of just solving the problem. I think engineers can do better than that. If you want to build reliable software, you do the research on tools for static analysis, debugging, and testing; you don’t ask your customers to tell you what the best test framework is. Likewise, if you want to show that you treat people equally — that you try to be like a meritocracy, even if that abstraction is unrealizable — then you take the lead. I think business people call this “being proactive”. And when proactiveness is selectively applied so that no work ever gets done to move a company closer towards fairness unless the people being treated unfairly do all the heavy lifting — well, we notice. There is nothing complicated about what trans people are asking for. We want to be treated like everybody else. Apology or not, Moskowitz’s reaction to criticism today confirmed what we already knew: for many of the companies that employ us, treating us fairly is just too hard and takes up too much time that could be spent writing proposals about kittens.

Edited to add, October 19, 2014: I wanted to note that Dustin Moskowitz actually took the time to email me on September 11 (I just didn’t read it until now) to say that he had researched the issue and found out that Asana already had a level of trans-inclusive coverage comparable to Yelp (see their entry on the MicroActivism wiki). I’m glad they do, and hope that the lesson to other startup folks who see this post is to know the level of benefits you offer up front, before a potential hire asks; as well as familiarizing yourself with your state or locality’s laws about what types of coverage must be provided.

It has been zero days since the last sexist incident in tech

[Content warning: sexual objectification.]

Obie Fernandez is the author of The Rails Way, the editor of Addison-Wesley’s Professional Ruby Series, and a co-founder and CTO of Javelin, a startup that builds “tools and services to help you change your world”.

Fernandez also, apparently, can’t talk about technology without reminding everybody that he has, on some occasion or another, had sex. Despite being a CTO, he also apparently doesn’t know that the Internet doesn’t have an erase button — which goes to show you that extremely poor judgment doesn’t stop you from getting copious VC funding for your company, if you’re male.


A screenshot of a tweet from Obie Fernandez, which he later deleted

Fernandez’s Twitter bio declares, “Author, Programmer, Dad”. Usually (certainly not always, I’m aware!) being a dad implies that you have had sex at least once. But it’s so important for Fernandez to remind us that he has had sex — with people of multiple ages — that he also has to inject tortured sexual analogies into what could have been a perfectly benign programming language flame war.

At 8:36 PM tonight (in my time zone, anyway, Fernandez tweeted, “still not sure exactly what I’m supposed to apologize for other than being a bit crass about 20-year old people.”

By 9:11 PM, Fernandez had evidently thought about it deeply and carefully enough to issue a retraction. I guess the “lean startup” approach is so powerful that its adherents can go from sneering at their critics (including a risible attempt to backjustify his sexism with an appeal to pansexuality — folks, we’ve been over that already) to heartfelt apology in less than 40 minutes. (I fear that his apology may not be entirely heartfelt, though, as he quickly moved on to declaring that he’s “not a sexist” and attempting to pay for his blunder by citing all the women he hires.)

Readers of this blog are aware that one asshat in tech would have little effect on his own, if he were indeed an isolated case. They are equally aware that Fernandez is no anomaly of asshaberdashery. I think the hapless Fernandez is providing us with a valuable lesson: the message to “not feed the trolls” is a dangerous one. While any given individual absolutely can and should disengage with trolls when necessary to protect their physical and mental health, engaging with them can have value. Judging from his Twitter avatar, Mr. Fernandez is at least 30 years old. That makes 30 years or more in which not a single person in his life has told him that the world generally does not need to know that he has done a sex. Perhaps his demeanor makes them afraid to challenge him. Perhaps they don’t think it’s worth the time. Who knows? But at one point in his life, one presumes that he was impressionable — one knows that he’s impressionable, since nobody acts like he does unless they get rewarded for it. Rewarded with laughs, with buddy-buddy slaps on the back from fellow bros, with congratulations on how delightfully politically incorrect he is, with 1.5 million dollars of venture capital money from the likes of Mark Suster, Eric Ries, and 500 Startups.

Back when I was first dabbling in Usenet in the mid-1990s, it was conventional wisdom that trolls were usually children sitting at a computer in their mothers’ basements. That, in other words, they had no real power other than the ability to rustle a few jimmies for a moment. It’s 2014 now, and some of those children have grown up and become technology executives — people with hiring and firing power, with a lot of control over a big part of the economy. If the adults in the room had spent a bit more time trying to socialize those children (because clearly, they weren’t getting it from their parents) and less time stating their troll-starving prowess, perhaps we would be able to attend a conference without hearing about some guy’s crotch.

Postscript: On Twitter, Matt Adereth pointed out this 2005 blog post from Fernandez:

I didn’t particularly like Ruby the first time I met her. I thought she was interesting, but a few months later (to my surprise) something changed. I started seeing her appealing qualities. My friends really spoke highly of Ruby, so we started spending time together. The love affair began in February 2005 and about a month later, things started getting pretty bad with my wife, Java. Even when I was doing Java, I couldn’t stop thinking of Ruby and how much better she is for me.

So it looks like Mr. Fernandez has been unnecessarily sexualizing technical discussions for fun and profit for quite some time. As Adereth observed, it also looks like Fernandez’s use of the “who said I was talking about women?” derailing tactic is entirely disingenuous.

Take arms against a sea of links, and by spamming, end them (18 April 2014)

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

The linkspam is a harsh mistress (19 March 2014)

Super spam today folks!

Kicking off with our traditional can of miscellaneous linkspam:

The Mythology edition of Model View Culture is out, and its entire table of contents is of interest! This spammer couldn’t trim it down!

Look out for an interview with Model View Culture founders Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane on Geek Feminism tomorrow!

And finally, Julie Ann Horvath left Github, describing harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour. Some coverage and responses include:

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

The linkspam is in another castle (2 April 2013)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

I have no mouth and I must linkspam (18 December 2012)

  • On Software Startup Culture: “So how do startups come to be even more white and male than even the general software industry? And should they be as celebrated and glorified as they are in software culture? I can only speak of my experience as a white trans woman working for a small ~6 employee startup but for me it comes down to risk and the way privilege mitigates those risks.”
  • The Woman Charged With Making Windows 8 Succeed: “As the head of Windows product development at Microsoft, Julie Larson-Green is responsible for a piece of software used by some 1.3 billion people worldwide. She’s also the person leading the campaign to introduce as many of those people as possible to Windows 8, the dramatic redesign of the iconic operating system that must succeed if Microsoft is to keep pace with a computing industry now shaped more by phones and tablets than desktop PCs… An expert in technical design, she also led the introduction of the novel, much copied “ribbon” interface for Microsoft Office, widely acknowledged as a major improvement in usability.”
  • Sexual and Gender Diversity in Physics: Discussion of a session on gender and sexuality issues at the American Physical Society March Meeting.
  • Tide of history must change to swim with Nobel penguins: “The locals call it Penguin Mountain. Each year, on December 10, on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, residents of Stockholm witness the awarding of the world’s most prestigious prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and economics to rows of men in tuxedos. Rows of grave looking, exceptionally clever men in penguin suits. It’s a sobering, thrilling spectacle. But since 1901, only 44 of all 861 Nobel prizes have been given to women.”
  • NASA Johnson Style (Gangnam Style Parody) – YouTube: Replaced “sexy lady” with “Science daily ” and “It’s amazing”. Hilarious and catchy.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

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Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Eredar Lord of the Burning Linkspam (28 August 2012)

  • What I Learned At Facebook’s Girl Geek Dinner: “Is timing everything? You can’t rush time… Everyone will create a unique arc or trajectory in life. As Sheryl Sandberg says today’s careers are jungle gyms. Your life will not go up and to the right in a straight line or trajectory. Remember it’s the journey that counts – keep learning, keep producing, keep shipping.”
  • Men of Silicon Valley: We’re sexist, we just don’t know it. “Women are a big market, maybe the biggest, and women founders and engineers bring a unique and needed perspective to female-specific pain points. We need them involved, but any women in the audience for the pitch listening to the juvenile wisecracks probably felt discouraged from doing something like this. Why would they want to put so much effort into starting a company if that’s what they would have to endure in front of hundreds of people every time they want to promote their business? To put it in user experience terms, some men in the room were adding unnecessary and unfair friction for women founders.”
  • Guild Wars 2 and the misogynistic bad guys: “If you dig into the lore, you’ll find they have pretty similar rationales for the exclusion of women. In both cases, there was a woman hundreds of years ago who stood up to them, and they decided to generalise from that woman to all women, decide that women can’t be trusted, and ostracise them thereafter. I want to say that this is just cartoon supervillainy, with the evil turned up to 11. I want to say that it’s as if they revealed that these factions stand for punching kittens and pouring toxic waste in duck ponds. I want to say that, but I can’t, because that kind of ridiculous exclusion of women is too prevalent, still, in real life.”
  • How to Criticize Women in Technology: “If you want to deliver a cogent, non-sexist criticism to a woman in a non-traditional field that doesn’t reinforce nasty cultural norms, (which we need as much as the next person) you have to take the rhetorical tool of patronizing them out of the tool kit. Speak respectfully and recognize their achievements in public. It’s not too much to ask.”
  • Let’s Discuss Apologies: “Oh no! Suddenly your social media feeds and inbox are full of irate people peppering you with accusations of being insensitive, a bigot, all because you used a sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/etc. word, image, or phrase. What do you do?! Fret not, I will go through a list of actions you should take and avoid.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspam Emerges Victorious (24 August 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

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Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Remorseless husband-stealing no-good linkspams (15th August, 2011)

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Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Baby and startup? Big deal! Or, perhaps, a big deal?

Years back I read Paul Graham’s How to Start a Startup essay, which includes this footnote:

One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon.

Which, well, OK, I’m not in the business of forcing Paul Graham to start businesses with people he doesn’t want to start businesses with. But it bugged me for the obvious reasons, not least because, well, you know, men have small children too sometimes. Thank goodness they don’t have to put any work into them. Phew. Lucky escape there, men. Better make sure we keep that labour division in place.

Anyway, in the last few days, Tara Brown wrote this, in response to a few posts by men about having kids and doing a startup.

I am 35 years old, I have an 8 month old child that I breastfeed full-time and I am doing a startup. Big deal. Who isn’t?

Many women start businesses after having a kid, usually because they want to stay home and have an income. This was what I wanted to do after I had Ripley. I decided I wanted to look after him exclusively for his first year and then get a job as a consultant or something where I could continue staying at home with him. My husband and I took off with Ripley to Singapore and France and during that time somehow I ended up a co-founder of Noot.

I have a 9 month old baby (breastfed a fair bit as it happens, although you should have seen him get stuck into ciabatta bread today), and… I’m not doing a startup. I wouldn’t have been a great business partner or core employee for a while after birth, because it made me sick. I wouldn’t be a great partner or employee right now either, in fact, because he brings home illnesses from daycare and so we’re sick and exhausted constantly. (Not that I’m keen to encourage Paul Graham to add to the people he won’t start businesses with, but my husband gets these too, funnily enough.) I did recover our main fileserver when he was 12 days old. Pro tip: if you have any suspicion your hard drive is failing, replace it prior to the birth of your baby. (But then, I had to do the same thing the other week. Pro tip: mobile 9 month olds get in the way of hard drive replacements more than 2 week olds. Wait, that wasn’t a tip. Sorry. Pro tip: don’t have hard drives that fail.) I work various part-time and casual things now to afford the daycare to finish my PhD.

But Tara Brown isn’t telling everyone’s story: she’s telling hers, and she acknowledges that she has some advantages:

Honestly, I never expected to write this blog post because I just figured this is what every other woman that is working and has a baby must do, not something to make a big deal out of. But when I saw that email from Jason Calacanis and Jason Roberts, I just had to speak up so that more women can tell these guys that what they are doing is not extraordinary by any means. I mean come on, Jason Calacanis is rich, his wife stays at home and they have a night nanny. Not exactly a tough situation. What’s tough is single mothers and fathers trying to raise their kids by themselves. Me and the “Jasons” have supportive spouses who are at home for big chunks of time.

So moms dads out there that are doing a startup, tell the world YOUR story. Please! I need to meet more of you for the support and inspiration.

Starting, running and managing businesses, especially small ones, has been women’s work for a long long time, and that means mothers have done it. Mothers have done it a lot. But at the same time, I’m not keen to uncritically contribute to a superwoman culture: get back behind the desk woman! Sickness, disability, parenting and family and education and money demands and life preferences, these all vary a lot more than I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children allows for. Sometimes women need to work with small children. Sometimes they need to not. Often it’s in between.

What’s your experience, if you’ve worked as a mother young children? If you’ve been an entrepreneur or business owner, do you think that that was uniformly harder than being an employee, or in some ways easier, or generally easier?