Tech Vet Shares Insights on Sexism, Being Gay in Silicon Valley

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    Earlier this month, I wrote a post about Silicon Valley tech advisor and investor John Chisholm, who had some unconventional tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. In the interview that led to that post, Chisholm also provided an enlightening look at the issue of sexism in Silicon Valley from the perspective of someone who is openly gay.

    Chisholm, author of the new book, “Unleash Your Inner Company: Use Passion and Perseverance to Build Your Ideal Business,” is probably as familiar as anyone with the culture of Silicon Valley, so I asked him about the widely held notion that Silicon Valley is sexist, and whether he agrees with that premise. He paused to ponder the question, and responded by sharing his own experience:

    At one point, over half of my management team at CustomerSat were women. My VP of professional services, my director of finance, my VP of service and support, and my director of engineering were all women. Those are some traditionally male fields, especially engineering. Is Silicon Valley sexist? Certainly some people are, there’s no doubt about it.

    I mentioned to Chisholm that I have spoken with a lot of female tech entrepreneurs who have found that it’s considerably more difficult for women to obtain venture capital than it is for men. I asked Chisholm for his thoughts on that, in his capacity as an angel investor who works closely with venture capitalists. He responded not only in that capacity, but in his capacity as a trustee of MIT and president of the worldwide MIT Alumni Association:

    I’m trying to think of the last time an entrepreneur who was a woman even approached me. … Certainly most of the partners at VCs are men, rather than women. … In my case, it’s so novel to be approached by women that I think I would welcome it.

    My general sense is that there are not enough women who go into STEM fields. I see this at MIT, but it’s also changing. At MIT, I served on the Visiting Committee of the Math Department. Math, probably more than any other STEM field, does not attract very many women. On the other hand, biology is more than 50 percent women, even at MIT.

    Women and men at MIT are now accepted in essentially the same proportion as they apply, and it’s pretty close to 50 percent—[the percentage of women] is in the 40s. This is a huge difference from when I was there back in the 70s, when 1 out of 11 of the people in my class were women.

    When I was at Harvard Business School in the late 70s, I think there were 80 of us, and 12 were women. So we’re getting a lot more women into IT, and especially into biotech, than we did previously. We’re making good strides, and the situation is improving, as more and more women enter these fields. And maybe it’s taking care of itself—I’m not sure. It’s hard to aggregate over all of Silicon Valley, because any one person, myself included, only has a window into a subset of Silicon Valley, and the companies and venture capital firms I visit.

    That said, Chisholm noted that the culture of Silicon Valley is changing:

    One of the interesting phenomena that’s happening in South of Market, which is the super high-growth area of San Francisco where so many startups are located, as well as Salesforce, Facebook, and Google, is co-housing. You might have anywhere from a handful to a couple of dozen guys and gals all living and working together on different startups under the same roof—it’s also their lodging, and it’s a real mix of men and women in these co-housing arrangements. It slightly relates to the question of sexism—men and women are not only working, but living, side by side.

    Chisholm went on to address the sexism issue in terms of his own experience as an openly gay male:

    Incidentally, I’m gay, and I come out as gay in the book. Have I ever been discriminated against because I’m gay? The answer is probably. But I think it’s held back the folks who discriminated against me more than it’s held me back. In order to get to the point where you can say that, you have to have a lot of self-confidence. In the book, I talk about ways to build your self-confidence, and one of the principles is to never say anything negative about yourself.

    Chisholm said most people wouldn’t consider being gay an asset from a business standpoint, but he disagrees. He said for him, it’s been an asset for at least five reasons:

    One: When you’re growing up and you’re gay, you know unambiguously, with absolute certainty, that at least some of the world’s routine assumptions are wrong. People routinely assume that guys are attracted to gals, and vice-versa. If you’re gay, you know unambiguously that that’s not universally correct—it doesn’t apply to you. So I think growing up gay has helped me think outside the box, to not necessarily accept the status quo. That’s made me a better executive and entrepreneur.

    Two: I’m not a minority in any sense other than being gay, so it’s helped sensitize me to what it’s like to be a minority.

    Three: It wasn’t socially acceptable to be openly gay when I was growing up, so at least some of the energy I might have put into dating, I put into sports, school, and career instead. Today, 30 years later, I’m hugely enjoying the benefit of that early investment.

    Four: When people find out that I’m not trying to hide the fact that I’m gay, it helps build trust between us because they can see that I’m comfortable in my skin, and I’m not trying to hide who I am.

    Five: I think it further conveys that I have strength in reserve if I can be openly gay.

    I came away from the interview with a sense of what we all can learn from Chisholm’s experience. He encapsulated it this way:

    If there’s something about yourself that you genuinely cannot change, such as being gay or your gender, find a way to view it as an asset. Set the bar very high—don’t use this as an excuse to accept some aspect of yourself that you can change, and would like to change. But if you genuinely cannot change it, finding a way to view it as an asset will be hugely empowering for you. And that aspect of yourself will become one of your assets.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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