Innovating Women_coverI started advocating for women in engineering in 2006 when my dean at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Kristina Johnson, made me aware of the declining numbers of women entering the field. As a former tech entrepreneur, I found the situation alarming. I had spent the last few years researching how education, immigration, and entrepreneurship drive innovation. The fact that half of our population was being left out of the fields most important to our future seemed deeply wrong to me.

When I moved to Silicon Valley in 2009, I realized that what I had thought was a well-functioning meritocracy actually was nothing of the sort. It was a boys’ club that regarded women as less capable than men and subjected them to negative stereotypes and abuse. I wrote about this and took intense fire for my public views from some of the Valley’s power brokers. I was advised by male friends to stay away from this topic, because it would hurt my credentials and career. My universities also received complaints from powerful alumni and other potential donors, but they stood firmly behind me.

It used to be that when the media wrote about Silicon Valley, they repeated the myth of meritocracy. These days, it’s understood that sexism exists in the technology industry. Thanks to years of work by brave, vocal women who have consistently and eloquently raised the issue, we have made progress. Along the way, some men, such as I, have tried to contribute by speaking out alongside them and proposing ways in which to make the industry a safer, more welcoming place for women. Now, Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, and Twitter have disclosed their dismal diversity data, and, where there used to be silence and ignorance, we hear their CEOs pledging to create the necessary opportunities. The National Venture Capital Association has established a taskforce to look into why there are so few female venture capitalists and how to improve the ratio.

I have little doubt that we will see a significant shift in the culture of the technology industry towards greater acceptance and inclusion of diversity. But achieving this will only be possible if moderate and constructive voices lead the debate. My worry is that personal agendas, fringe groups, and the mainstream media will make the discussion toxic.

This issue has always been controversial, but the intensity of mistrust and vitriol on all sides has gone to another level. I have experienced this first hand. Over the past few weeks, I have been accused of financial impropriety, arrogance and insensitivity, and sexual harassment. You expect these types of insults from bloggers, but I was quite surprised to find them coming from a National Public Radio affiliate, WNYC.

On February 6th, WNYC published a podcast titled “Quiet, Wadhwa”. It criticized me for “taking the oxygen out of the room” by “speaking for women.” There were more than 11 minutes of inaccuracies and innuendo made against me without even an attempt at fact-checking—despite the serious nature of the charges. The vast majority of allegations would not have passed a simple Google search. Yet I was not even asked to comment. WNYC completely disregarded the fact that I routinely share my media platform with women and regularly refer journalists to women in tech.

The podcast was removed six days after it was posted, without any proper explanation or acknowledgment of factual errors. I didn’t ask for it to be removed and repeatedly asked for it to be reinstated, first because it would have taken on a life of its own anyway, and second in order to let readers make sense of refutation of its allegations.

Indeed, gossip website Gawker began to speculate that WNYC had been spooked that the broadcast “could be read as accusing Wadwha of sexual harassment”. The podcast had referred to my attempt to have a conversation with one of my critics through a Twitter direct message (DM) as “the hand on the knee of social media”. A software engineer had tweeted accusations of my misappropriating money, among other things, and after a prolonged public exchange with me, she followed me. I started off by apologizing for any offense I may have caused, asking to learn more about what I had done wrong, and offering to discuss to these concerns during my office hours at Stanford or by phone.

Based on this, the podcast claimed that I had a “tendency to send a DM” and said it is “creepy when someone goes into your DM, it is this non-consensual let’s go over here where people can’t see you criticizing me and maybe I can talk to you there”. They alleged that I done this to several women and said it was like the “hand on the knee” or an invitation to young women to “come sit on my lap”. Many people interpreted these words to imply that I am some sort sexual predator.  For the record, I DM people—male and female—in situations like this because I have found that conversations out of the limelight are often far more civil and that usually we find common ground quickly.

For a follow up segment, WNYC had the same journalist interview me. This caught me completely off guard. I had expected that just as they had assigned a new producer to the segment, they would also have assigned an impartial journalist. After the first segment was aired, the host had tweeted a link to it and asked her followers to “relax, indulge, treat yourself: laugh at a man”.

In the podcast that was aired on Feb 19, WNYC editors interviewed each other and made light of their own journalistic breaches. They hurled new accusations at me, and cut and pasted the worst parts of my interview—in which I couldn’t hide my anger and anguish. They very skillfully edited out instances in the interview where the host acted improperly. They aired about half of our 28 minute discussion. I realize I came across as angry and condescending. Yes, I know I should have done better and stayed calm.

National Public Radio takes great pride in their “objective journalism”, but this was somehow not reflected in the podcast. It was the most contentious and unprofessional interview I have ever been a part of.

The problem is, however, greater than one group or one person. The diversity discussion has itself become incendiary. Moderate voices are drowned out by shouting and vile invective. Women and men who might otherwise want to voice their intelligent opinion have been silenced by fears that they too will be maligned.

Rumors now move at Internet speed. Once false information is out there, it is nearly impossible to correct. For example, I was accused of profiting from the pain and suffering of women. My attempts to clarify this publicly were impeded by the sheer volume of angry messages on Twitter. Each time I tried to address the points of my critics, I found others piling on or taking my words out of context. I got frustrated, and it showed, and the quality of the discourse suffered. Social media are powerful means of spreading information, but also for fostering misunderstandings.

I am very glad to have spent time and energy advocating for women in technology. I have written more than 75 articles on this subject in global publications. I completed two research projects at Duke and Stanford Universities on women in technology. And I have worked with many talented women to create a book, Innovating Women, which gave voice to hundreds of great women from all over the world. I am hopeful that my efforts have had a positive impact and have helped elevate the issue.

But I may have made the mistake of fighting the battles of women in technology for too long. And I may have taken the accusations too personally. Today there is a chorus of very powerful, intelligent, voices who are speaking from personal experience. The women who I have written about, who have lived the discrimination and abuse, as well as others, deserve the air time. So I am going to bow out of this debate.

I am still going to be an advocate for disenfranchised minorities; I will continue to mentor women and men entrepreneurs; I will surely coach my friends who are in positions of power in corporations; and I will echo the words of great women. It gives me great hope to see women taking their rightful place alongside men in building the innovation economy and working to make Silicon Valley a true meritocracy.

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  • Alexandra Carmichael

    Just wanted to say very well done, sir. I’m a female in Silicon Valley, co-founded and sold two companies, now leading product and growth at a third. I do see the gender gap around me, although less so in health and science startups. I’m very sorry you were hurt in trying to help. If I can ever be of service to your future projects, I’m happy to help in return. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Alexandra. I wish you lots of success.

  • Don Saxton

    Vivek, You have a way of presuming your worldview is so absolutely true that you don’t question yourself when someone brings forward new information. So it is not hard to see how that leads to people poking fun. But, hey, that’s probably what you want to do now…

  • p

    Just keep in mind that the more you speak out for women in the US, the more american owned channels in india will speak out for women in india. And they wont talk only about genuine issues facing women (which is not a problem even if they do), the problem is they will whip up non-issues into issues too. A tit for tat.

    Think about it….

  • Shruti Rawat

    Hello Vivek, I just viewed a FutureCast event on YouTube where you spoke about a number of issues couple years ago. Few that struck me deeply were your concern about the low percent of women in technology, plus the value of education and that we don’t need to try to compete with kids out of college. I wanted to reach out to you as I share your view that we have the ability to change the world in this age. My passion being education- preparing our youth for the Digital Age and getting more girls in Technology. I have started a campaign called GIFT- Girls in Future Technologies in my ERG. It started with 1 event in Charlotte, NC and is now growing to 5 this year.. And I also have an idea for up-skilling our youth- by democratizing digital education. Hoping to be a BOLD entrepreneur that can bring change to solve problems in the world. I would be honored to get your feedback on this.
    Best Regards.

  • Sara Piali

    Mr. Wadhwa, I have only read a few quotes by you. But hearing a professional man comment on the positive attributes women tend to bring to the table, has greatly encouraged me in championing myself. I have analyzed introspectively and come to many of the same conclusions, but hearing them from you was quite liberating. Sometimes it’s helpful to hear it from a man in order to believe that it is possible that our future (likely male) boss will recognize these “Animae” differences as valuable. Thanks.

  • Lisa Faiss

    I’m so sorry that this happened to you. I use DM in the same way. I hope after a respite, you’ll continue with the message. I as a woman software engineer really appreciate what you have done.

    • Thank you, Lisa. My best wishes to you…Vivek

  • Emily A

    Nice to see comments outside of Twitter, which as noted elsewhere has become a totally toxic landscape these days. (I have a headache still from staring at a screen shot of DMs — presented as “proof” of “nonconsensual” intimidation — in which Vivek and Easy llis do nothing but exchange email addresses and office visit invitations.)

    • Emily A

      Please correct typo of “Ellis” above, tnx

  • Amy Millman

    Hard to stand up and be a truth teller. Thanks Vivek for all you’ve done to spark an important conversation. Now let the rest of us take it from here.

  • I have no doubt that your personal integrity here will be the lasting message and conclusion of all this.

  • Dr Wadhwa it’s no surprise that they did this to you. They always do in the end. I am truly sorry to hear it.

    • Thank you…

      • RedDevil9999

        I wish you could have said that you now understand that when women ask you not to speak for them, that you should stop. I’m glad you’ve stopped, but I’m sad to see no awareness reflected that you’ve ignored women to your detriment. It’s unfortunate that women had to shout and still you didn’t listen. Maybe now that it will be more quiet you can take some time to reflect.

        • MPNavrozjee

          A graceless comment, piling on needlessly. Probably exactly the mentality that caused this good person to withdraw from the fray.

          • RedDevil9999

            Perhaps you missed all of the negative comments from VW to women anytime they disagreed with his assessment? Hardly graceful, often condescending.

        • julia_disqus

          This is bs. No woman can speak for other women, such as “women ask you not to speak”. Only “a woman” can ask, and only for herself. I myself would prefer that influential people like Vivek help the cause. But then some women claim they represent the entire gender and silence everybody else, including other women. That’s exactly the problem. It’s the same arrogant, cliquish and toxic anti-diversity culture that exists in high tech, even though it’s masking itself as “fighting for diversity”. If it quacks like a duck… Diversity is based on inclusion, not exclusion.

          • RedDevil9999

            Many women were speaking out, and being dismissed. When you are speaking for a group and many ask you not to, you should perhaps listen and respond in a more positive manner.

          • LindaE

            RedDevil, it’s women like you who have hijacked the debate for your own selfish interests. Shame on you!

          • RedDevil9999

            “Our own selfish interests?”
            You mean the ones that Vivek was using to promote himself?

            Yes, how dare we ask to speak for ourselves and tell our own stories. Even the women in the Innovating book were tired of hearing Vivek.

          • LindaE

            RedDevil, you don’t speak for us. You are messed up and are ruining feminism for all women. I am featured in Innovating Women and am not tired of having someone else tell my story. Have you actually read Innovating Women? I very much doubt it.

          • RedDevil9999

            You would be wrong, I have read it. Also, I’m not trying to speak for all women, or even all feminists, yet you seem to be.

            I have a right, as a female engineer, as a woman, to speak my point of view which happens to be shared by some other women. Please stop trying to silence women that have an opinion that differs from your own.

          • You are just another shrill feminista.

        • You people are fanatics.