At a networking event last night, I did some guerrilla research for a product idea. This event was full of target users and the organizer had kindly suggested setting up a research table for surveys, talking, and casual insights. It worked out beautifully! I'm grateful that we could use the space and grateful that a handful of people volunteered a few minutes to talk to me when they could have been business-card-collectin'.
This event was good, too. There was an interesting lineup of impressive speakers. I met some new people who were rad. There were free snacks.
However, as I listened to people describe their challenges within the product space, one conversation spiraled into a completely different topic: the lack of diversity and inclusion in professional networking. Hearing another person's negative experiences got me fired up. In fact, all of the speakers at this event were white men, which is hardly even remarkable because it's so common.
Sometimes it seems like we hear the same entrepreneur stories from the mouths of different traditional white men. Not to say these stories aren't great, because there's no problem there. Truly, no offense to those guys.
But there are so many unheard stories that don't fit the mold. It's not only the speakers but a larger culture that is very homogenous. And when we're used to our voices being collectively unheard, we learn to expect feeling out of place in these settings. We either stop showing up, or we keep showing up and grit our teeth and do the best we can.
Now I'll only speak for myself here, as a white female, with examples from this particular evening. Despite my sharp-as-heck blazer and knowledgable demeanor, after interacting with one dude at the research table he asked me if I was doing all this for a college class project. It had a real condescending vibe, like "look at how cute it is that this girl is pretending to have a place here!" I stared at him and laughed. I do look young, but I'm a professional with a consulting business and a PhD. Would the same dude assume that a young man was following a professor's orders? I can't be sure, but I don't think so. A different dude asked for my number. These sorts of interactions are so normal that they hardly register. I've experienced much worse, and so has anyone who is female, black or brown, or otherwise an odd duck in a pitches-and-investors setting.
Women-only groups (and the like) are often really great, but there's more we can do. Although empowering minorities is a fabulous feeling, it doesn't fix the problem. Relying on empowerment shifts the problem to us. It tells us that we are the ones who need to create a space at the table for ourselves. In reality, even if we have all the confidence in the world, we are not fixing the diversity issue if we still operate in an ecosystem where we are undervalued or even mistreated.
It's disturbingly normal in the tech and startup scenes to hear gay jokes, to observe sexist behavior, and to hear a person's foreign name being mocked.
We have to do better than this!
I know and respect plenty of people and organizations in the community who are inclusive and wonderful. I've come to really value those experiences. But instead of choosing networking events based on who I trust, wouldn't it be nice to feel welcome everywhere?
I can hear you asking "Awesome, what can I do to help?" Here's what you do:
- Make sure your speakers and organizers have diverse experiences and viewpoints.
- Don't hold events at golf courses or other exclusive settings where many feel out of place.
- Avoid a cost barrier by finding sponsors (this is difficult, I certainly know) so you don't have to charge a lot of money for events.
- Discourage behavior that is sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, or just plain rude - if you see something, call it the hell out.