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What I learned last week from Web Summit and the U.S. election

Image from Travelette

It was my first Web Summit last week. I was grateful to have gotten a free Women in Tech ticket. It happened to coincide with the U.S. Presidential election. Though I am an American living in the U.K., it felt particularly strange being somewhere like Portugal on election day. No English language 24-hour news channel as the results came in, and worse, no play by play analysis the morning after when the shocking results were announced to try and help me understand. Though there were thousands of Americans at Web Summit, I didn’t know a single one personally and I felt a bit like a woman without a country at that point. I felt very foreign indeed as one of the most poignant political events in my lifetime was happening back home and I was “missing it”.

The election result hit me hard, as it did millions of Americans if social media and protests are anything to go by. And it put this feeling of foreignness, or otherness, into sharp relief.

This no doubt coloured my perspective of Web Summit, where suddenly every talk, startup stand, corporate display, looked like a bastion of an exclusive club I could never be a part of. Though I have a tech startup, I am not a techie myself and I don’t think the whole Silicon Valley cultural revolution could feel more foreign to me, despite the two years I have spent sort-of working with the north of England’s equivalence. It seemed the system back home had been fortified to ensure that despite all the Women in Tech tickets that had been given out and the tremendous efforts that had gone into making a welcoming and inclusive feel for everyone at Web Summit, it was just a candy coating to the reality of who holds the economic and political power.

This really hit home for me when I was watching a very famous entrepreneur give a keynote talk on Centre Stage on the last day of Web Summit. I don’t consider myself at all conservative and I am prone to a bit of swearing myself, especially given the fact that I am a curmudgeon, but this guy I’m sure had an equal number of f-words for every word that wasn’t. So much so that I found it hard to follow the meaning of what he was saying. The nouns and verbs were getting lost in a bunch of extraneous adjectives, all of which were jarring to some degree. He was a powerful, rich, white guy, and he delivered his talk with such defiance, hostility, and condescension, it felt totally alienating to me. His message, no matter how relevant or valuable, got lost as I had the feeling I was in an assault.

I wondered about the thousands of people around me from different cultures and ideologies, especially other women. How did they feel about this delivery? Were they offended or did they tune out or leave the talk? Did they feel the discomfort of being yelled at and sworn at by a privileged white man up on a stage with a loud microphone? Maybe not. Maybe it was just me still stinging from the outcome of the election that made me so critical of the style of his delivery. I felt like he was a successful, knowledgable person who was used to sharing this with rooms full of young white male techies in hoodies, or wealthy fellow investors and successful entrepreneurs, and he had no regard for how to ensure his diverse audience could best receive the valuable lessons he had to share. It was like he didn’t care that so many of us may have had this rare chance to be here, and learn as much as we can from people with the power and knowledge to share, and he had decided to make it as unpleasant and alienating as possible to receive it.

I learned a lot about white male privilege last week. And about power, and history, and about myself.

I learned that I believe the fortress of white male entitlement and supremacy is impenetrable in my lifetime. There is a fantastic TED talk by Jimmy Carter on the position of women in the world and men’s role in it. He bluntly says that if you had all that privilege, why would you change it, or give it up? You would fight tooth and nail, election by election, to protect it.

Even though they say, “I’m against discrimination against girls and women,” they enjoy a privileged position.[…]The average man that might say, I’m against the abuse of women and girls [but] quietly accepts the privileged position that we occupy,…I hope that all of you will join me in being a champion for women and girls around the world and protect their human rights. — Why I believe the mistreatment of women is the number one human rights abuse, Jimmy Carter, TED Talk, June 2015

So, having spent the week at Web Summit in the funk of a hangover of the election result, and ending it with the white male diatribe, a few home truths also came to me:

  • I don’t want to be the next Apple, I just want to pay the bills. I am not interested in showing I am the loudest, bolshiest, most ruthless entrepreneur in order to get ahead. I don’t need to appear clever, special, or unique. I want to be good at my job and create a product of value and inclusivity.
  • If I had spent the time and money I spent at Web Summit on getting more sales and improving my product, I would have been further on in my tech startup journey.
  • All those crappy situations over the years when I felt hard done by by men were not all in my head. When I was the most prepared, the smartest, most experienced, and still got shafted, that was not unique to me. It can happen to the most powerful woman in the most powerful country.
  • Some things are really hard to put behind you and move on. Those things are nearly impossible to forget, and will sneak out and wallop you over the head in quiet moments, the injustice leaving a sting that lingers.

I will continue my journey as an over-40 non-techie female solo entrepreneur with a tech startup. And I will try and get back my hope and optimism about how things are improving and changing for women and girls and we can seek to achieve anything and everything. But after last week, it will take some time to shake that feeling that it will always be about wearing the wrong pant suit, not being warm and fuzzy enough, or simply about the establishment protecting its own place in the world.

This is the eighth story in my series on how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the green heart.

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