Vivek Wadhwa, voice for women in Silicon Valley, is foiled by his tone

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February 27, 2015 12:02 AM

Silicon Valley has lately come to the realisation that it is not the meritocracy it has long pretended to be...

Silicon Valley has lately come to the realisation that it is not the meritocracy it has long pretended to be — at least not for women and most minorities. Now, after years of ignoring the issue, and some serious prodding by the likes of Rev Jesse L Jackson, tech companies say they will do something about the hiring gap between white and Asian men and nearly everyone else.

But what should we make of the fact that one of the most outspoken voices for women in tech has been — rather oddly — a man?

Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur-turned-academic who is a co-author, with Farai Chideya, of the book ‘Innovating Women’. Wadhwa, 57, holds affiliations with Stanford, Duke and a Silicon Valley-based think tank called Singularity University. He is also a fixture on the lecture circuit and in the media, where he has frequently called on tech companies to address gender diversity.

At least he did, until he swore off speaking out for gender diversity after intense criticism from women in tech who saw him as neither their ally nor their spokesman. “I’ve done what I needed to do,” Wadhwa said in an interview. “I’m not needed anymore, I know it.”

Men who would like to become allies in the fight for women’s equality in tech will find in this story a lesson on how to conduct themselves: Look at the way Wadhwa behaved when faced with criticism from female technologists. Then do the opposite.

Women in tech criticised Wadhwa for clumsily articulating their cause. They said he was prone to outrageous gaffes, including once referring to women at tech companies as “token floozies”, a phrase Wadhwa later blamed on his poor English.

Critics also argued that Wadhwa’s message to women — that they should become more confident to survive in the tough world of tech — was outdated and could backfire on the women who followed it.

And when he was called out on those points, Wadhwa, who conceded that he can be “a hothead”, adopted a defensive — even wounded — tone on Twitter. He said he was under assault by “extremist feminists”, claimed that he had “done more for the cause of women in tech than almost anyone”, and frequently deflected criticism of his language by saying that he was an immigrant who did not understand web slang. “He pulls the immigrant card, the victim card, and it is so much work to stay on point,” said Mary Trigiani, a management consultant who has gotten into a few dust-ups with Wadhwa.

The whole episode could be written off as a mere Twitter-fuelled debate. But the women who have criticised Wadhwa say the battle carries a bigger message.

That he became a spokesman for women in tech despite their questions about his message is, they say, symptomatic of an industry that seems bent on listening to men over women, even when the men aren’t especially qualified to comment. “I don’t think he has done much good,” said Karen Catlin, a former software engineer and vice president of Adobe Systems who now works as a consultant and advocate for women in tech.

“He has burned a lot of bridges with the women’s community.”

Wadhwa began writing about women in tech in 2010, after his wife pointed out how few women were at the Crunchies, an annual awards show for start-ups. He had been researching entrepreneurship and immigration, but he found the women-in-tech issue to be an unexplored niche.
So he took up the mantle, exploring the imbalance in dozens of guest op-ed columns as well as in lectures. Soon he was a fixture on the issue, a go-to source for reporters looking for a sheen of expertise.

Wadhwa was interviewed recently by a Newsweek reporter, Nina Burleigh, for a February cover story called ‘What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women’.

In the article, for which she also interviewed more than 30 women, Burleigh paraphrased Wadhwa’s ideas this way: “Wadhwa says women not only are reluctant to overstate their accomplishments and goals; they habitually understate them.”

That didn’t sit well with Amelia Greenhall, a web designer and executive director of Double Union, a community workshop for women in San Francisco, who wrote a widely shared blog post condemning Wadhwa.

Greenhall declined to discuss her post with me. But Wadhwa insists that he has a sincere interest in seeing more women succeed in technology. Several women who know him and who have worked with him back up that claim and say his heart is in the right place. Others blamed his critics for not giving him the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think the feminist movement, as a whole, was ever that interested in figuring out how to work with Vivek,” said Elissa Shevinsky, co-founder of a messaging company called Glimpse.

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