Diane Hessan Seeks Common Ground in Era of Fake News and Facebook

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get a critical mass of organizations that think about diversity. There are bootcamps at Startup Institute that for a while have given scholarships to people of color or to women, to come in and learn technical skills. We have a lot of learning institutions, both for-profit and nonprofit, in Boston working on that.

We have an incredible research project that gets done every year by The Boston Club on gender diversity that literally takes every company in Massachusetts and rates them based on how many women are in senior management and how many women are on their boards. And that data works because if you are a “no-no” company—meaning you don’t have any women in senior management and you don’t have any women on your board—it’s bad reputationally. And there are a lot of tech companies that show up there. Those companies should be embarrassed. [According to The Boston Club’s website, the study Hessan referenced covers the 100 largest public companies in Massachusetts; a second report looks at the state’s largest nonprofits.—Eds.]

And now, there are organizations, there are women’s groups, for instance, that call up those tech companies and say, “Aren’t you embarrassed to be on this list? I know it’s probably difficult to find qualified women for your board, but we actually have a list of five women. You should talk to them.”

X: Do you see the #MeToo movement as giving more momentum to the effort to increase diversity and talk about some of these issues in tech and VC?

DH: It helps, and it hurts. I’ve had male friends say to me, “I’m done. I’m not going to take any of my women executives out to dinner anymore. I’m just not doing it.”

That’s one person saying that to me, but if that is how all male executives are thinking, that’s a really negative impact for me. I’ve had some of my career development conversations sitting over dinner with a male board member or a male boss saying to me, “Let’s talk a little bit about your career and what’s possible and what do you need to develop.” And getting out of the office and hanging out with somebody who can really help your career is a hugely important thing for women. And if men are going to walk away from those sorts of things … just because they’re worried, I think that’s bad. So, there are negative things that come out of it.

But again, it’s not just about what those men decide to do. I think what women also need to do is step forward and say, “I really need some help. Can we do breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, anything?” Everybody has a responsibility to figure out how to take all of this stuff and turn it into something that’s positive and motivating.

X: Are you optimistic that’s going to happen?

DH: I’m super optimistic it will happen in Boston. I’ll just say that Boston tech is filled with phenomenal male executives and investors who want nothing more than to help their women colleagues and friends. They really do. They’re not jerks who are hanging out in locker rooms saying, “I wish I never had to hire another woman again.” It’s just not the case.

There are a few bad eggs here. But I think we have a critical mass of really phenomenal male leaders in tech who want to do the right thing. They will all figure it out. And they’ll figure it out more if the women and the people of color can just come in and help them—call them on their issues, make suggestions, have a voice. Say, “Hey, I know you’re trying to work on this. I have two ideas. Do you have five minutes?” All of that helps. I think there are a lot of guys who are really willing to listen.

And I’ve had more men call me on the phone and say, “Diane, let me just check here, have I ever done anything inappropriate with you?” Which is a great thing to do. And the guys who call you up on the phone and ask you that are never the ones who are guilty.

There are other men in this city who will be called out. It’s hard because I can tell you that when you have an incident and you’re a woman, there are a million reasons that women don’t talk. But one of them is you think you’re the only one. If you think you’re the only one that’s ever had a guy do that, you start saying, “OK, so, maybe it was my fault. Maybe I was too flirtatious. Maybe I interpreted it the wrong way. Maybe I didn’t say no loudly enough. Or, or, or.” What happens is then you find a whole bunch of other women who have the same story, and you go, “Yeah, it wasn’t me doing the wrong thing.”

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