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The Upside of Ashton Kutcher’s Sexist Attempt at Fighting Sexism in Tech

It was a clearly well-intentioned attempt at using his platform in a positive way: In a recent LinkedIn post, actor and investor Ashton Kutcher announced an upcoming discussion with his Sound Ventures partner Effie Epstein about “gender equality in the work place and tech in general.” He solicited public commentary from readers on a series of questions to be part this so-called open dialog. So good so far—until he got to the list of questions:

What are the Rules for dating in the work place? Flirting?

What are the clear red lines?

Where does the line between work life and social life stop and start?

Given that in the short term we are clearly bound by the existing educated talent pool in STEM, other than promoting STEM education parity going forward, how do we stop gap a solution?

Should investors invest in ideas that they believe to have less merit so as to create equality across a portfolio?

How do we create channels to promote female entrepreneurship?

What advice should we be giving to female entrepreneurs?

Are there known mentorship programs for female entrepreneurs?

Are there any aggregated or clear pieces of media or educational platforms to help men understand where their blindspots may be?

Are these the right questions?

Women in tech, the media and the internet in general banded together to point out that Kutcher’s questions didn’t quite make the grade. Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson — herself a woman in tech — had a response:

“Beginning a list like this with questions about office romance felt very Roger Sterling,” Refinery 29 wrote.

It’s not hard to see what made the questions so tone-deaf. There may have been a seed of correct in each one of them, but most were framed from a male perspective and seemed to often miss the point or outright perpetuate problematic ideas about women in tech.

It’s not dating that needs rules in Silicon Valley, for instance, but sexual harassment, which is “pervasive and ingrained” in tech culture, The New York Times reported in an investigation this year. Women in tech routinely report being propositioned for sex by men from whom they seek funding. They need protection, not wittier banter.

Elsewhere, it’s clear Kutcher has some sense of the problem at hand — men far outnumber women in STEM fields; it’s hard to get women to enter those industries in the first place — but misses that even women who manage to run the gantlet of STEM education and job-seeking still leave STEM fields in droves because of the hostility they find waiting for them on the job. This is a systemic cultural problem for which there is no “stop gap.”

Other questions are just bad form — guilty of the very sexism they attempt to address. As Emma Hinchliffe at Mashable notes:

The post noted that “in the short term we are clearly bound by the existing educated talent pool in STEM” and asked, “Should investors invest in ideas that they believe to have less merit so as to create equality across a portfolio?” The idea that people underrepresented in tech remain so in part because some of their ideas have “less merit” and that creating diversity would require lowering the bar is incredibly problematic.

If you’re a man and at this point are still even reading this post, you might be wincing on Kutcher’s behalf, or perhaps you’re wondering what the hell a good guy is supposed to do. Even a guy who is obviously trying to help gets shouted down immediately, as one of my male colleagues pointed out. And Kutcher is arguably one of the good ones—he has done his research to make impassioned, educated pleas on other subjects women around the world face, like human trafficking. So what happened here?

It’s not exactly clear. But Kutcher, a wealthy, shrewd investor who dropped early coin on Airbnb and Uber and is a well-regarded player in the industry, is certainly smart enough to ask a woman for some guidance — perhaps even his female partner (and he may very well have done so). He also could’ve just Googled around to see if women had ever written about the problems they face in tech or what they view as the solutions. Turns out they have.

June Sugiyama, director of Vodafone Americas Foundation and a 20-year veteran of the industry, recently outlined a number of such issues at Tech Crunch. Among them: providing maternity leave, getting more women in leadership roles to promote female-friendly environments, changing the “heavy male presence” in the venture capital cycle of funding that keeps women out (only 9.7 percent of partners at VC firms are women, she says), and changing the entire recruitment process. Sugiyama writes:

Look at what Kapor Capital is doing, for example. I recently went to an event where they showcased a group of early-stage ventures leveraging technology to mitigate bias at scale by reinventing part of the HR/People Ops/People Analytics process. Everything from recruiting, hiring, interviewing, assignment, performance evaluation, promotion, compensation, complaint-handling, training and other processes were discussed. With this thinking, companies are starting to make actual numbers commitments to get women involved — with that, we will be able to measure and see if it’s really happening.

Anyone who has seen a single episode of Shark Tank knows the investment world is cutthroat and not fond of sugar-coating, so Kutcher should be well positioned to take some heat for getting it wrong.

In his defense, he did. On Twitter, he immediately apologized and took the feedback and criticism of his mangled attempt:

So while no one needs to go easy on Kutcher—the space to be wrong is always much bigger than the space to be right, and the stakes are so much higher for women—no one went all that hard on him: They simply asked him to take a beat and really do the research on a subject he wanted to be a part of making better. He listened, and agreed. It’s a start.