Alphabet X leader Astro Teller says sexism is humanity’s biggest, most fixable problem

Alphabet X leader Astro Teller says sexism is humanity’s biggest, most fixable problem
Image: Astro Teller
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Astro Teller is quite literally in the business of making dreams into reality.

As captain of moonshots for X (formerly Google X) in Mountain View, California, which has brought to life Waymo self-driving cars, Verily Life Sciences, which is working on glucose-monitoring contact lenses, Loon wifi-delivering balloons, Wing delivery drones, and Google Brain.

With a background in finance, a PhD in artificial intelligence, and a novel under his belt, Teller, 48, embodies the eclectic nature of the lab, which is tasked by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, with inventing breakthrough technologies designed to make the world a dramatically better place—while creating successful businesses along the way.

No stranger to solving the impossible, Teller is bullish on workplace gender equality, telling Quartz, “It’s the single biggest fixable problem humanity has.”

As a manager and a feminist, Teller is notably humble: His lab has a very healthy relationship with failure and holds meetings to spitball “bad ideas.” When I asked him to talk with Quartz about his role in the fight for gender equality at work, Teller requested an extra two weeks; before speaking with me, he wanted to interview the women he works with, so as to understand the pitfalls and strengths of his leadership style.

Then he circled back to answer our questions.

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?

Workplace gender inequality is an issue that has upset me for many years, both because it’s unfair to women and because systematically discouraging and discounting 51% of the human race is incredibly wasteful. It’s the single biggest fixable problem humanity has. It wasn’t until Me Too, however, that I realized just how relentlessly exhausting it is for women to fight, or brush off each moment of bias as it comes her way many, many times each day. I would say that I’m now more aware of these headwinds and so even more committed to supporting the women I work with.

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

Yes, I’m a feminist. I think it’s deeply unfair that women are still treated as less than equal in our society in so many ways, and I’m incredibly impatient for this to change.

One way I define my feminism is through my work. X is trying to find radical new technological solutions to huge problems in the world—things like deaths from car crashes—that seem unfixable, but society has accepted them as part of life. We don’t accept that view. Instead, we know it’s possible to make a dent in huge, complex problems when you have cognitively diverse, inclusive teams who can bring unique ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds to the table. That’s how you maximize creativity and your chances of actually making progress. Women, obviously, are an essential part of this cognitive diversity, so I prioritize finding and hiring talented women, and investing in them and their careers.

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

A big part of my job at X is to invest in the people around me, particularly people who may have been under-invested in before they got to X. This group isn’t just women, but it’s disproportionately women, so I end up spending a good bit of my time mentoring women at X. I also try and lead by example, from speaking at our annual HERStory event, a celebration of the influential women in our lives, to visibly supporting our investments in programs to advance gender equality.

One of the programs we developed at X that I’m most excited about is called THRIVE. We noticed a few years ago that many women who were just below the leadership level, or just starting to take on leadership roles, were leaving. We realized that if we couldn’t keep the women we already had, recruiting more wasn’t going to solve the problem. So our “cultural alchemist,” Gina Rudan, developed an intensive, year-long development program that offers women a range of professional skills trainings, one-on-one coaching sessions, and peer-group support and mentoring.

The good news is that it’s working; our retention numbers are up and we’re getting more women into senior leadership roles. I’m working closely with Gina to explore ways we can expand the program and I hope that my support for programs like THRIVE sends a strong signal across X that we should all be working toward gender equality.

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

That we don’t change. That we don’t listen to the loud and long-overdue clamor for men to behave better and to treat women fairly and with respect. Discrimination of all kinds, whether it’s racism, sexism, or xenophobia, not only hurts people and erodes our society morally, it has real practical and economic consequences. If the most powerful among us don’t change, we won’t escape the reckoning that being petty and selfish and short-sighted will bring to us all.

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?

I talk with my peers at X about how sexism could be holding women back. With the help of all my peers, including my male peers, I want to build an organization that’s collaborative, thoughtful, and accommodating to all kinds of working styles. In my experience—and there’s lots of research that backs this up—women often don’t highlight their own successes because they’re worried about looking self-promotional. I don’t want their contributions to go unrecognized, nor do any of the other leads at X, so I make a point of celebrating their achievements publicly, from giving shoutouts at important meetings to making time to speak to their managers about their contributions.

For the same reason, I pushed for us to start an “Unsung Heroes” program, to recognize and celebrate all the people in the building whose role or work may not be highly visible so there is a formal channel to recognize and reward them. This program is not explicitly about women, but it turns out that 80% of the unsung heroes we surface and celebrate at X are women. While this stuff may seem small, these are the kinds of cultural habits I and the other leaders at X are working to instill across the organization as part of our overall efforts to create a more inclusive workplace.

6. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

At X, I’m trying to create a culture where being willing to try and struggle is valued more than getting it right, or being perfect. The idea that “failure is learning” is almost a cliche and so I worry that Xers, especially women who face more cultural pressure to be “perfect,” don’t think I’m serious, but this is actually one of those hills I’m willing to die on. I want people to show up in an open-hearted way and try things that haven’t been done before. It’s not just that they don’t have to be perfect, it’s that I want to create a culture where people put forward audacious ideas and that others go and help them. Not because the idea is perfect or right or anywhere close to done, but because the effort itself is so worthwhile.

I wish Xers knew how hard I’m working to create an environment where it’s safe for them to do this. Where fear isn’t necessary. And I wish they knew how willing I am to go to the mat to fight so that they can do this again and again. Otherwise, what’s the point of being at a moonshot factory?

7. 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?

Be authentic. When you see injustice or bias and you know in your heart that this isn’t how the world should be—speak up! If you don’t, who will? If you don’t speak up now, when will you? If people around you are frustrated by you standing up for what you believe in, maybe they aren’t the right friends and colleagues for you anyway. By the same token, don’t fake it either. The world needs more feminists, but it doesn’t need fake feminists trying to avoid censure or looking to pick up a few extra “woke-points.”

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

There’s so much valid anger about how women have been treated. Men who behave badly must be held accountable, and despicable behavior must stop.My biggest anxiety is that this anger stymies us from moving on to new, better ways of being together. As just a small example, I was really anxious about writing answers to these questions. I want to be honest and vulnerable because I care so much about this issue, but I know that by being honest and vulnerable I run the risk of being misinterpreted or offending people. I hope that my care comes through, and I hope that we don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing get in the way of genuine, well-intentioned efforts to connect and understand each other.

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?

In 2013, a very senior woman who was a particularly strong advocate for gender equality joined my team. She added a lot of value to X, I was proud to have her with us and I respected her strong gender-equality advocacy. She was often, however, relentless and undiplomatic in how she pushed for gender equality. I confess that for at least the first year she was at X, her level of militancy on the subject actually muted my support for what she was pushing for. I regret that now. I can see more clearly now that women have been asking nicely for men to pay attention for a long time, and the fact that she often made it sound more like a demand than a request showed not a lack of diplomacy on her part but a level of naiveté on mine. I see more clearly now why demanding for change is often not only the better way but the only way. I just wish I had seen it faster and been that one extra notch more supportive of her work on gender equality in the first year she was at X.

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

If Me Too has taught us anything, it’s that we should spend more time listening to women. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about how to treat the people around me came from a woman, my thesis advisor in graduate school, Manuela Veloso. She told me, “You must believe that every single person who works for you is a superstar or a superstar in training. Otherwise, why keep them on your team?”

I think that this is good advice for men and women of any age, so I try and behave this way with my teams at X everyday. Leadership is really about getting the most out of your people by understanding them and helping them understand themselves. And taking the time to get to know your team, to coach them and invest in their growth, pays huge dividends regardless of their gender.