Reid Hoffman explains why privileged Silicon Valley men must stand up against sexism

Reid Hoffman explains why privileged Silicon Valley men must stand up against sexism
Image: Reid Hoffman
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In June 2017, as allegations of sexual harassment spiraled around several prominent venture capitalists, Greylock partner and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman wrote a post on LinkedIn, titled “The Human Rights of Women Entrepreneurs.” This post would become the foundation for Hoffman’s “Decency Pledge,” in which he urges venture capitalists to rectify their unchecked assumptions and sexist behaviors.

Hoffman’s activism didn’t fall on deaf ears, especially as the Me Too Movement picked steam a few months later. Silicon Valley VCs at big-name firms like Sequoia Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, First Round Capital, and General Catalyst, rallied around Hoffman’s vision. Even Lightspeed Venture Partners, the firm that employed Justin Caldbeck—the VC whose alleged sexual misconduct catalyzed Hoffman’s activism—tweeted its support for the pledge

Speaking with Quartz, Hoffman explains why Silicon Valley needed the Me Too movement and how he challenges the irrational reactions he says many men in tech have to discussing sexism.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I was actively thinking about gender inequality before the Me Too movement, but I am happy these issues are coming to light in a mainstream way now. Silicon Valley prides itself on being a meritocracy, but the data shows it’s not. Take a look at the number of women or persons of color on executive boards and leadership positions. Now, take a look at the number of white men. People who believe that success in life and business can just be earned by anyone willing to put in the hard work needs to understand that the system was built to benefit certain groups of people, not all.

The most important lesson that I learned from the Me Too movement is dispelling the myth that “male predators are rare.” The movement has brought to light that sexual harassment, coercion, discrimination, and assault are way too common of an occurrence for women across all industries.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I do. We are all significantly better off when we have shared power. To me, feminism is believing that women and men are equals. It’s a movement that aims to change the institutional bias that affects disenfranchised groups, especially women, in society. It’s clear that there is a structural imbalance between men and women—the evidence is in the abuse of power, lack of diversity in management positions for women, etc.—and it’s going to take everyone to proactively build a society where opportunities are equal for all, regardless of gender.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

I have the privilege of having some influence, so I use it to speak up when I think I can make a positive impact on behalf of those who don’t have the same platform.

I am making a concerted effort to discuss and prioritize diversity and inclusion when it comes to recruiting and investing, as I believe it is important to changing the system over time. At Greylock, we have frameworks for vetting potential investors in an effort to minimize unconscious bias in the process. At our events, we ensure that speakers and participants are diverse. We host investor office hours for underrepresented founders, and track our own investing data to make sure we are continuing to improve.

The Masters of Scale podcast I host is in its third season; we launched with and maintained our commitment to a 50/50 gender balance of guests on each season. It’s important to not just talk about this topic, but to take action and change policies that can set an example of a company or organization that is serious about the values we preach.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

One word: Trump. He is a sexual predator (we’ve all heard the Access Hollywood tape) and to set a precedent that it’s okay among men to act inappropriately or in a certain way to women is the biggest threat to all Americans today. When someone is in a position of power, it’s part of their responsibility to lead by example and be a positive influence on society. Unfortunately, this is not the case with our current president, who is a severe threat to the progress of both women and men.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

We do talk about sexism and the effects it can have on the women who are trying to succeed in tech. I encourage everyone to do the same because the more we talk about these issues openly, the more we can find ways to fix the problem.

Some men feel uncomfortable about having conversations about sexism, no matter how they feel about the issue. This is why we’re seeing intense and irrational reactions. For example, I’ve heard men say that they only meet with women when there is another person at the meeting, and never for drinks or dinner, or that they are nervous to hire women on their staff. They don’t want to put themselves in a situation where they could get accused of bad behavior. This is dangerous thinking.

Men who are concerned about being accused unjustly and therefore avoid mentoring or developing professional relationships with women are not helping, and are actually contributing to the problem. As men who are in positions of privilege, we need to help improve the situation by addressing these issues head on without reservation.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I’m always wondering if I’m doing enough. I’m a straight, white man, which means I won the proverbial lottery ticket—the system was created to benefit me. I often ask myself: What more can I do to support women other underrepresented groups and how can I encourage everyone to do their part?

7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?

Throughout childhood, I had firsthand view of the impact that relentless sexism can have on an ambitious, talented woman. My mother was one of the first women admitted into her law school, and one of the first women attorneys at her firm. Unsurprisingly, my mom worked in an environment that was overtly sexist and she’d come home with emotional distress. She not only had to do her job, but also had to prove herself over and over to her male colleagues. She often heard snide comments like, “Now they let secretaries become lawyers.” She had to deal with it, and it took a toll on her confidence and made her question her ability to be there.

I think empathy is important—being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Watching my mother be a working mom in an industry that was not empathetic helped me become a more empathetic person and understand how privileged I am compared to others.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

There will always be people who are going to criticize you no matter what you do. What is important is that you keep an open mind and continue to work toward your goal. Help people understand the ways you are trying to improve the situation, and don’t give up, because if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

If I could, I would go back in time to my undergrad experience and make a proactive effort to be closer friends with more women at Stanford. I met several of my co-founders and close male friends in college and have done business with them since then. Those early friendships had an outsized impact on the trajectory of my career. By building a more diverse network at the earliest stages of your professional life, you are bringing in new perspectives and experience, which will benefit everybody.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

If you are uncertain about what a woman thinks, ask her. When she tells you, believe her.