How Silicon Valley Could Confront Gender Discrimination

Women and VCs

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Silicon Valley VC Jillian Manus discusses ways of confronting gender discrimination.

Fast Company magazine recently published an article about two women entrepreneurs who invented a fake male cofounder to avoid sexist discrimination at Witchsy, an alternative, curated marketplace for bizarre, culturally-aware, and dark-humored art. Jillian Manus, managing partner at Structure Capital, a Silicon Valley early-stage venture capital (VC) firm, spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about discrimination, ways that firms can promote greater diversity and the importance of women in leadership roles.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is inventing a fake male cofounder an extreme solution? How common is the problem of discrimination? Is it more acute in tech companies than in other fields?

Jillian Manus: Well, any type of duplicity in the workplace is never a good solution. So although I understand their thought around this, I think that the execution was probably not a good idea. Every business is built on trust, and this is not the way to earn it. Creating any fake anything — whether it be fake news, fake information on any level — is not the right solution.

Do we have a solution? Not yet. We have all taken steps in the community to create transparency and accountability around bad behavior. I would like to see more VCs tying good behavior and this awareness and inclusiveness into their investment requirements.

So are we going to get to systemic change from the top down in terms of larger corporations? I don’t really believe we are going to get that 100%, or perhaps even 50%. But what I would like to do, and what I hope that VCs and others will do, is to make this part of the term sheet, where we ask companies that they create an inclusive environment, a diverse environment.

“I definitely am a tough cookie, and I know people say that about me.”

We put together what that model looks like, and then we start asking and looking at the culture that is being created from the very early stage. I’m an early stage investor; our fund is seed and Series A. We have conversations. These days I have conversations with our founders around how they are creating an inclusive, diverse culture, so that these companies will actually be larger companies for generations to come. That is the way I believe we are going to create this systemic change. Can we do it overnight? No. Can we do it by creating fake [identities], generating fake information? No.

The problem is acute in other fields. I have been in publishing, I have been in banking, I have been in media, and I have received [discrimination] all my life. The fact now is that there are higher levels of communication — social media, obviously — which have been able to push out or create more transparency. Now all eyes are on everyone under a microscope and we’re able to unite to create more transparency.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you look at it from the perspective of being in Silicon Valley, or the Bay area, do you think things are getting better or worse for women in leadership, and why?

Manus: As most women in Silicon Valley and even on the East Coast know, I have a mechanism for women to reach out to me. It is an SOS, called SOS Tech. So any woman, no matter if I know her or not, can text me SOS followed by a need for information or for action and their problem.

I have been watching this for the past year and earlier. These are women in leadership positions, as well as young female founders. These are people in management, in corporations, women VCs. This is at every level, both horizontally and vertically, different dissections of women in Silicon Valley.

What I’m finding is, unfortunately, that on the one hand this is getting better in terms of more accountability for bad behavior. And, by the way, it’s not only bad behavior by men; it’s bad behavior by women as well, in terms of not providing mentoring, and actually trying to undermine other women. It’s not just women — it’s obviously minorities, it is bad behavior across the horizon.

I believe in many cases the situation is getting worse, and I’ll tell you why. On the one hand, we’ve created more accountability and more transparency. But I think that the pendulum has now swung so far the other way that I hear many women [say] that the men are saying we comrades (people who were comrades before) feel uncomfortable having you now in meetings and conferring with you. We feel that we might say something wrong, do something wrong, and then be accused, and lose our jobs.

I’m hearing from female founders that VCs are now taking fewer meetings with women, because they’re afraid they’re going to do or say something badly. Now you could say this is adding a layer of justification for exclusion.

On the other hand, I have talked to men I respect who are saying to me, “Jillian, I do want to work with women. We’ve always had a collaborative community in our company. But there is a tremendous amount of fear from guys who are saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to say something wrong. I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t know how it’s going to be taken. I don’t know if I’m going to be accused of harassment.’” So it has now created another layer of fear.

“We now deal with false news … the best way to get your message out is by writing a book, where nobody can edit and rewrite and nothing gets lost in translation.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you respond to the SOS? What advice do you give people who have such fears?

Manus: I actually have had more concrete advice for women in terms of sexual harassment. I have five very specific tools. I created a toolbox in terms of harassment, from just basically being marginalized to actually being bullied and harassed.

When I get SOS messages, even from men I’m working with, I say to them, “Don’t say anything to a woman that you would not say to a man.” That’s sort of a broad stroke. But that seems to encompass maybe 80% [of the queries]. So start there. And then with the women, I say, “Sit down and have a conversation.”

That is something I brought up with Bruce Aust, vice chairman of Nasdaq. I said, “Bruce, one of the objectives now is to create collaborative communities within workplaces, whether they’re small or large. We now need to bring this pendulum back to the middle and teach men and women how to better communicate with each other.” Being fearful of each other is not going to help us. And so that’s part of the roadmap forward.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s a lot of research that shows that women tend to drop out of corporate life at various stages for different reasons, when they’re in their twenties, or in their mid-thirties to forties. They also drop out when they are in senior roles in their forties and fifties. Do you have a sense of what companies should do to support a strong pipeline of women leaders at each of these different stages?

Manus: Yes, there are several. The most obvious is flexible hours, enabling women to work from home, maybe a day a week. We still have a lack of equity around pay. So women feel that they are always being marginalized. They’re doing equal and sometimes even more work than men but they’re not getting the same type of compensation.

Just creating respect around that would help, in terms of retaining [women]. I know many men who won’t hire women because they’re going to drop out to have children. I think that’s a cop out. There are ways [to make it work]: enabling them to stay home a certain part of the week in order to be there when their children come home from school; enabling them to have teleconferencing capabilities and really utilizing the workforce so it has that type of flexibility.

I believe that women contribute much more to a company in many respects than men, because they come with the IQ as well as the EQ. That is critical in terms of assessing and getting the most out of a workforce, out of a company. That to me is just as valuable.

There’s a wonderful book called The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine. I give this to many CEOs and many founders, and all of the men I know, because women’s brains are anatomically wired differently. One thing that we could work with women to optimize is understanding that they listen differently. Women process information differently, they listen differently. To educate each gender on how better to optimize the processing will help us retain and teach better female leaders and male leaders.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some research shows that men often don’t even see these problems. There was a study that and McKinsey did some time ago that showed that just 12% of men think women have fewer opportunities to advance their careers. What can men do to support more women in becoming leaders?

Manus: This is a double-sided barrel, this question. If you ask women who their mentors are, most of them will say men. I think we have a real deficit of women leaders reaching out to elevate other women. So in this case, it is not just a male issue. I am not going to just accuse the men of marginalizing women; I think women do a very good job of marginalizing women. And I always tell women that once you reach the top, send the elevator back down for another woman.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why is that? I’ve heard this from a number of women. They feel that they are not supported by other women, there’s a kind of competitive dynamic that seems to develop. Do you have any insights on that?

Manus: Yes, I think that it takes women that much more effort to make it to the top. Once they get there, they see everyone as a threat. With a man, they know that they are bringing different skillsets in order to get to that leadership position. So although they feel that they might be knocked out by a man, or undermined by a man, in order to get to that position they’ve had to actually climb up over more men than women.

When women get to senior positions they feel that their biggest threat is someone who is more like them rather than a man, and it would obviously be another woman with similar skillsets. So they are more threatened. If there were more women being elevated by corporations, or in any field across the board, you would not have this constant fear of replacement. They would feel that they had a community of women to equally support each other’s views, and they would not be seeing each other as a threat. They would be seeing each other as a united force.

Knowledge@Wharton: How have you tried to support women leaders in companies in which Structure Capital invests? You mentioned the toolbox, for example.

Manus: Yes. I work a lot with our male founders, and female founders. First of all, I believe that there needs to be equal representation on boards for our companies. That’s one way. Those board members — and I sit on many of these boards — can be in a mentoring position for women in the companies we invest. Because I am old — in the sense of north of 50 — and most of our founders are south, I have experience.

“I believe that women contribute much more to a company in many respects than men, because they come with the IQ as well as the EQ.”

I truly believe that I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I’ve navigated a lot of borders. They feel they trust me and they can come to me. I will give them honest views, but with a historical perspective that I feel is invaluable. When I reach out to a team member, I will always say: What’s your biggest challenge and how can I help you?

I don’t believe that VCs or anyone should just strip someone down; I believe that if we dismantle a person or a problem, we need to be able to build it back up even better. And so a lot of the seasoned people in this community see me as being nurturing, but I’m not quite sure nurturing is the right word.

I think that I definitely am a tough cookie, and I know people say that about me. When I have a problem and I present it and I take on the challenges of a person, I might be harsh with them. But then I come in and support them. This is the problem; I don’t think you’re handling this the right way. Let us work together to handle it better. I’m here to help you do that as well.

So breaking down someone is never a solution; it’s breaking down and then building people back up that’s the solution. That’s what I try to teach. That’s how I support a lot of these women — I try to help them to get to a more self-aware position and then one with more confidence around it.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned the toolbox of the five things that you do to help, and I am curious to learn what they are.

Manus: I have a video — I had no idea it went viral — around sexual harassment. In that video, I listed three or four specific ways that women can navigate through a harassing situation. And I’m happy to tick off the top.

Any time a man tries to take you down, you need to see that man not as being strong. Men who pick on women are actually weak men. I think they’re insecure. So the minute that you change your perception of the person that is bullying you, and you see them as weaker than you, you can gain some strength and standing before them.

The second is if you have someone who is saying something incredibly inappropriate, you stay on your own message, try to deflect what they’ve said, just ignore it, wrap up the meeting. I always tell women to stay tenacious but gracious. I say this all the time. Stay strong, put out your hand, thank them for the meeting, and then leave.

The one thing I tell women in the workplace never to do in any situation is get emotional. Never show an emotional reaction, because the moment you do that you lose your power. So, if you need to, sound strong and then go to the loo afterwards, and you can break down there. But the minute you react emotionally, you let a man rob your power.

Men think that women are emotional, that’s how they deal with everything. Well, that’s expected. But, I’m sorry, that’s not how women are. If we can limit the way we react emotionally in the workplace, I think that’s important. Once again if you let men see that they’ve got to you, they’ve robbed you of your power and your confidence. It’s very hard to get that back.

Knowledge@Wharton: In addition to your role in venture capital you have also had an active role in publishing. I wonder if your approach to women in leadership has shaped some of the publishing choices that you made.

Manus: Yes. One of my companies was a media investment company that also had a literary agency. One of the reasons I did that was because I love words. There was a lot that needed to be communicated. Interestingly enough, we now deal with false news. And the best way to get your message out is by writing a book, where nobody can edit and rewrite and nothing gets lost in translation.

So I was absolutely honored to represent some wonderful female role models for me and for the country. In the publishing industry, many of the leaders are women. I did learn from them as well. It is definitely a female-dominated business, which was a good foundation for me. I’ve also been in banking, and that was difficult. I have also been in the movie industry as an executive at two major studios. And that was always difficult. There is no such thing as a woman in an easy position, because we were always marginalized to some degree, no matter what industry it is.

But years ago someone asked me what is the most important aspect of parenting? How do you apply that to business? And when I look at a founder and I look at my children, I would say the most important thing that we feel that we should instill in our children is unconditional love and wisdom and patience and generosity. Those are critical. But the No. 1 for me across the board is confidence. I have tremendous confidence from amassing many areas of expertise in different industries. That has placed me in a more confident space, because the more you know, the more confident you become.

If you can instill confidence, or you can identify confidence in a founder, or if you instill it in your children, they know that the decisions that they are making are the right decisions in some way. They start out feeling that they can depend on their own intuitiveness and decision processes. From there, they can build on that.

There’s cocky and there’s confident. You see cocky founders and you know that you will never be able to help them because they are not open to your insights. But if you see someone confident, you know it is a very strong foundation you can build on.

So I always look at women, and I say, please find your confidence. It’s not your courage, because you’ll never get the courage if you don’t have confidence. So that’s something that I look at.  I’m very self-aware, and I hope other women will be able to become more self-aware to get to their point of confidence, which will move them further along in business and in life.

“When women get to senior positions they feel that their biggest threat is someone who is more like them rather than a man….”

Knowledge@Wharton: As you reflect on your own journey across different industries what do you think has been the greatest leadership challenge that you have faced? How did you deal with it, and what did you learn from it?

Manus: I can’t think of a particular challenge. For me, my biggest leadership challenge is being misinformed, or not being prepared with enough information. I am critically worried about passing forward education and ideas that are not fully matured.

Many years ago I met Linus Pauling. I’m sure you know him; he was a well-known scientist. I asked him to please provide me with one pearl of wisdom for my life as a leader, as a mother, as a friend, as a better citizen. He said every person has many thoughts that come to our head every minute, every second actually. He said, “The biggest problem with people is that they do not finish the arc of thought.” He said that every thought has an arc, but we force ourselves to communicate our thoughts before they are fully matured. He said, “If, in fact, we were all to complete our arcs of thought, the ideas would be so much more impactful. It would actually create a shift in the world.”

As a leader, I wonder and I worry that my arcs of thought are not fully complete. I worry that I am forcing out immature ideas and solutions to problems. That actually is one of my biggest concerns.

We’re all working in a highly expedited environment, everything is instant gratification, instant solutions, instant problem solving … when, in fact, I think I need to say to someone, “I’ll get back to you.” I need to say to someone, give me five minutes to think about this. Or not even say anything and just pause for a moment.

Knowledge@Wharton: Now that you are aware of it, do you pause more often to complete your arcs of thought?

Manus: Actually I do, and I tell founders to do the same. I say to them, don’t answer me right this second. Give it a thought. Think a second. Or, think five minutes, or get back to me tomorrow. I really ask them to slow down, and I do the same.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you define success?

Manus: For me personally, success is anything I can be proud of. That’s how I define success. It’s not by a certain amount of money, it’s not about a certain amount of companies I invest in well. It’s about whether I can be proud of what I am doing. Am I proud of this company, to be a part of building this company? Am I proud of my children? Am I proud of my relationships in this world? To me, success is pride, a sense of pride.

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