I’ve always thought the phrase “compassion fatigue”—the tendency to become overwhelmed with tales of human suffering and tune out—was a useful, albeit depressing addition to the modern lexicon. Lately, I’ve been feeling a variation of that ailment; let’s call it outrage fatigue. I couldn’t help thinking about that as I read the beginning of the Atlantic’s new cover story entitled “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women?” What does it say that I’m no longer surprised by the highly persuasive accounts (the assertions in this story come from parties identified by name) of condescension and harassment described in this article? Well, a big part of it is that we’ve all been reading a lot about problems at any number of Silicon Valley companies—you know, the bright, youthful idealistic ones that turn out to have all the human flaws that dog big established organizations. That said, I urge you to stay with this story, because the further in you read, the more fascinating and unexpected it becomes. It’s filled with tidbits and observations, including a basic one that surprised me: “the percentage of female computer- and information-science majors peaked in 1984, at about 37 percent. It has declined, more or less steadily, ever since. Today it stands at 18 percent.” Or that it goes on to explore why a culture that worships merit and brilliance above all else ends up, paradoxically, devaluing merit. How could that be? Because, the article explains, brilliance is often seen as innate—and more linked to males—and less linked to women and minorities. So the latter’s ostensible virtues are seen as “mere” hard work and capacity for drudgery. For example:
“The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female PhDs,” the study found, pointing out that the same pattern held for African Americans. Because both groups still tend to be “stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent,” the study concluded, “the extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor of women’s and African Americans’ representation.”
The article has many interesting things to say, also, about corporate programs aimed at combatting unconscious bias including (yes, you may have guessed this) that they may exacerbate the very problem they’re attempting to fix.
So what happens when you say that bias is natural and dwells within all of us? Duguid and Thomas-Hunt found that telling participants that many people hold stereotypes made them more likely to exhibit bias—in the case of the study, against women, overweight people, or the elderly. The researchers also suggest, provocatively, that even just talking too much about gender inequities can serve to normalize them: When you say over and over that women come up against a glass ceiling, people begin to accept that, yes, women come up against a glass ceiling—and that’s just the way it is.
Ultimately the article explores some new approaches to fighting these problems (I’ve gone on too long, so you’ll have to read the piece to see them). All I’ll say is they were strikingly simple and practical and they made me think they’re well worth a try.
The Travails of an Idealistic Start-up
If you’re looking for an unexpected companion piece to the Atlantic article, read “Thinx Promised A Feminist Utopia to Everyone But Its Employees” in Racked. Thinx is a start-up selling underwear for women. It has attracted attention for what some view as provocative advertising that touts the underwear’s purported ability to prevent the leakage of blood or urine. And like more than one start-up, the company has viewed itself as much more than a business; it’s a mission. The core of the article is captured here:
behind the scenes, many current and former employees paint a picture of dysfunction and hypocrisy, with clashes between [co-founder Miki] Agrawal and key members of her team, employment policies that seem to fly in the face of the company’s women-first messaging, and an increasingly volatile work environment that’s led many of those who were instrumental in creating the brand to tender their resignations.
… In interviews over the past month with a half-dozen current and former employees, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, all described a company culture in which substandard pay, flimsy benefits, and scarce perks are endured in exchange for working toward a mission they truly believe in. Almost all referred to the team as a “family,” yet say their work was routinely impeded by Agrawal’s erratic behavior and refusal to shoulder blame for problems with the business while taking credit—often in very public forums—for its successes.
This article is not as deeply reported as the Atlantic’s, and the company denied much of what is described. To my mind, though, it’s a clear example of the following: It’s noble to have an idealistic mission. But translating that into a functioning organization and culture requires a lot of hard work and perhaps even drudgery (of the kind that Silicon Valley maybe doesn’t appreciate–see above?).
Some years ago, the writer Malcolm Gladwell made the argument in a New Yorker article that people often conclude that if a technological development occurs later in time, it must represent an improvement on what came before. He posed this hypothetical by way of example: Imagine that you had lived in a world that had only computers and electronic devices. How might you respond if somebody then invented paper, a medium with all sorts of advantages in display, portability, and storage? You just might have viewed paper as a technological breakthrough. I couldn’t help thinking of Gladwell’s analogy as I read a defense of a different sort of paper, this one called “In Praise of Cash,” in Aeon. The article reminded me how quickly cash has gone from the standard medium of payment to something now viewed either as an annoyance or a seamy tool for drug traffickers and money launderers. In many ways, this article is a populist cry against the rise of giant financial intermediaries—banks and credit card companies—which have interposed themselves between buyers and sellers. The article’s author concedes he’s personally happy to use plastic; the people he’s really talking about are the poor (particularly in developing countries), who are effectively excluded from the system. This article probably won’t change your personal preference on using a card vs. cash, but it may persuade you there’s still a lot of value in limp old bank note.
Bonus: The Oxford Comma & The Phony McDonald’s Tweet
I’m not sure either of these two articles quite qualify as the “best of the week,” but let’s say they earn honorable mention in the grammar and rhetoric category. “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute,” in the New York Times, appealed to the nerd who writes this newsletter. One misplaced comma in a state law, it seems, could cost a trucking company $10 million. Think of that next time you denigrate what we scribblers do! (Admittedly, that sounds a tad defensive.) Finally, for a quick chuckle, check out “That Deleted McDonald’s Tweet? Too Surreal, Even For Fast-Food Twitter” in Wired. Not since the brief Twitter vogue of Kim Kierkegaardashian have I enjoyed such deadpan surrealism in 140 characters or less. Good on ‘ya, Denny’s.