Of Gender Discrimination, Demanding Empathy & Seeking Change For Women & Tech. 

[Guest article by Ashwini Asokan, co-founder of MadStreetDen. Ashwini shares some real perspective on being a women entrepreneur.]
For those of you that didn’t follow a nasty episode of sexism that happened last week, here’s a summary. A founder (male) posts an article about a success story where the entrepreneur is a woman, on a Facebook Startup group, one of India’s biggest (unfortunately!). And what followed left me stumped. Guys on the forum started saying how women needed to be trained more, respected and guided more than men. That they were not trustworthy because work was time pass for them. Another jumped in to talk about how women have more freedom and 50% rape and dowry cases were false. And continued to rant about how they have laws that provide them with reduced taxes and reservations which they misuse. The madness went on for a few hours.
Now there are trolls everywhere. If you have any doubt – ask any of our amazing women journalists on twitter that get rape and death threats every day. A lot of people have asked me, why get worked up about a bunch of trolls. A bunch of us tried to call out the madness that was going on and uttered a curse word each. In a forum as big as this startup group which is probably one of the more active facebook tech communities around, there have to be rules. Rules that don’t allow the kind of trolling that borders on direct discrimination against an entire gender on its platform. I was surprised to find this was not the case.
As I saw more guys piling onto the rubbish there, myself and a bunch of other guys explicitly called out to the moderator and asked him to moderate the discussion as we realized this wasn’t stopping anytime soon. The moderator started by asking me not to curse, saying the guy that posted the article & I had violated the rules of the forum by cursing. When I refused to respond, he followed me to twitter where I’d already started circulating the link to this piece of trash.
When confronted with the question ‘why do you see the cursing as the only offense on that forum’, the moderator and the founder of that group responded saying the reason the group was a success was because it had no ideology. That such comments were merely a difference of opinion and highlighting the differences of opinion was a political move to get attention. Several others piled on, saying this forum was successful because it didn’t have such silly conversations that were unrelated to startups. I’ll save the rest of the abuse that went on for another day.
All too often, we forget that startups are nothing but people building a business/a product. And the product or any result of that startup is dependent on the people. Keeping those people productive and happy is core to the functioning of their startup. And that means it’s essential to set the right culture, ethics and respect diversity on one hand, and on the other, it’s important to have guidelines that prevent harassment, abuse or discrimination of any kind. Unfortunately this discourse is entirely missing in our startup scene except for dedicated orgs like Sheroes. We’d all rather hear of fooseball tables and bean bags, than be cognizant of nursing moms, child care, paternity leave or more women’s restrooms! When was the last time you heard about any of those?
And it shows! It shows in the discussions on such forums. It shows in the composition of our VC firms, it shows in the % of men to women in our startups. If your response is “that’s because there aren’t enough women in startups and they’re worried they won’t get married”, I’d like to say to you that you’re full of it. And that you’re part of the problem. There are some fabulous women entrepreneurs out there, and even more fabulous women in other roles in tech. But listen in on social media and you’ll realize how most of them are scared as hell to voice their opinions in fear of the kind of shaming and abuse that we witnessed in that forum last week. Most others don’t see the point of making noise, it is but a reflection of the larger society we live in for them.
But I believe tech is different. Maybe I’m naive to do so. If there’s anything that can change the reality for women in this country, it’s tech. Tech changes access to power, platforms, relationships and gives voices to people that otherwise don’t have any. And it has given a platform to all those men that share this opinion with women. There were several men that supported me and the guy being pummelled the other day. There’s hope. But that hope will fade into absolutely nothing, if we just sit quiet and rejoice the celebrity positions we all seek in tech. ‘Oh I’m the moderator of this forum and by speaking against it, you’ve questioned the empire I’ve built’ pretty much sums up the response by the moderator the other day. That kind of attitude will not get us far.
But I have hope. Thanks to the men in my life everyday, I think we can level the playing field and stop this madness. We’re all too proud, young, full of energy and promise in tech and specifically in startups to go with the status quo. We’re supposed to represent change, a new generation that’s changing the way our country and tech works in the world. Find a way to be a part of the solution. Hire more women, speak up for them, put guidelines and rules in your organization to prevent harassment or abuse. Be done with your ‘brogrammer’ culture. There’s tons of writing out there about the Valley and the sad state of women in some sections, there’s even more on how not to go down that path. Demand empathy from your employees, your peers on such social forums and be the voice that shows the world India does startups differently. Next time you hear someone say at a startup event “make sure to date a girlfriend who understands you run a startup”, respond back with “please, it’s 2015, get a grip!”

Recommended Read : High growth Entrepreneurship & Women : Carry a “I don’t care a f***” attitude” [Pearl Uppal]

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