Alex Blumberg, reporter and producer for shows such as This American Life and Planet Money, already knew how hard it was to make money in the audio business. But in 2014, he decided to take an even bigger risk—he co-founded a podcasting company that would eventually be called Gimlet Media, built on the idea that vulnerable, human-based storytelling sells.
Four years later, few media companies attract the cult-like following that Gimlet does, and Blumberg’s life has been turned into a TV show, Alex Inc that lasted one season.
Blumberg’s appeal, as Sarah Larson explains in the New Yorker, is that throughout his Startup (a podcast that follows the founding Gimlet Media) journey, “he sounds smart and capable but bumblingly human like the rest of us.” In the first episode, he can’t decide what shoes to wear to an investor pitch meeting and “then sounds like a ‘douchebag,’ as he puts it, when he gets there.”
Listeners love it. Today, Gimlet has gone on to create seven seasons of Startup, with the last season profiling Arlan Hamilton’s development of Backstage Capital, a venture capital fund investing in companies that cater to minority populations. Gimlet also has produced 24 other podcast series covering everything from crime and artificial intelligence to investor pitches and women’s culture. According to Gimlet, its podcasts are downloaded more than 12 million times per month by listeners in nearly 190 countries.
In a conversation with Quartz, Blumberg explains how he monitors Gimlet’s hiring and compensation to guard against unconscious gender bias, why he views daily self-interrogation as the key to feminism, and how to deal with men who are afraid of losing their own power.
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?
Yes, I actively thought about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too Movement. Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work in companies and organizations with women in leadership positions. Seeing the quality of that leadership in action, and then reading the horror stories about the toxic, ridiculous culture that can take root in organizations where women aren’t in leadership roles, it was essentially a no-brainer that we’d make Gimlet a place with women at the helm in all levels throughout the organization. Obviously. It’s stupid and sad that we even have to have this conversation as a culture.
As Me Too coverage unfolded, I found it astonishing how badly men needed to behave historically for it to even register as news. There was so much low-level, everyday, fucked-up behavior that women were enduring because it just felt so common that it wasn’t worth bringing up.
I’m horrified by the number of women I know who have been subject to this sort of behavior. Like, the number of unwanted back rubs from male superiors it turns out the women in my life were enduring was shocking. I’m glad the Me Too movement is empowering women to speak up about all kinds of sexual harassment.
I am a feminist. I define it as the extremely non-controversial notion that women and men are equally human. And also, the extremely non-controversial notion that there are structural and societal forces that disadvantage women. Being a feminist in my day-to-day life means recognizing those social forces around me—as well as my own biases—and working to change them.
I constantly try to monitor myself, to make sure that I’m not doing the unconscious stuff that men in power tend to do—things like recognizing men in meetings more than women; talking over women; and making assumptions about who would be right for certain tasks based on gender. I try to empower the women around me to hold me accountable if they see me, or any man in leadership, doing that stuff.
And at Gimlet, we intentionally monitor our hiring, compensation, leadership, and promotion numbers to make sure unconscious bias isn’t creeping into our organization.
Oh man. The biggest threat to men in America is men, the social and cultural forces that have shaped our role as well as the role of women. I think the world is increasingly moving toward prioritizing strengths and skills that have traditionally been associated with women—collaboration, empathy, understanding social complexity. And a lot of men are very threatened by that. Men have been raised unconsciously to think the world is ours. Unlearning that feels threatening, and many men will do anything, including acts of denial, anger, or violence, not to change.
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 had a conversation with a young employee who was mansplaining a lot to his women bosses. And the thing is, I have been that guy! (I might be that guy right now!) And so I sat down with him and told him, “Listen, this is a thing that we men can sometimes do. We have to be aware of it. We have to recognize it, and stop it, because it’s offensive to the women you’re working with who know way more about what’s happening than you do.”
My blind spots. What am I not seeing or understanding because I’m a man?
I’m a pretty open book. I don’t think there’s anything about me that’s not public.
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?
For men who feel like they “can’t win,” I’d say take a look at what’s going on in the world.
Are more men harassed at work by women or are more women harassed at work by men? Are women paid more on average for the same jobs than men or are men paid more on average for the same jobs than women? Are there more women running companies, serving in elected office, in positions of power, or are there more men? When you look at it objectively, it shouldn’t be a question.
Men are scared. Sometimes our feelings get hurt. Occasionally, occasionally, we do in fact get blamed unfairly. But come on! The massive injustice is against women. And the more men get on board with recognizing that, the better it’ll be for all of us.
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?
The moments I wish I could take back are those where I was displaying some unconscious bias. I’m a straight, white dude, and I’m guilty of committing micro-aggressions. I’ve made assumptions about people based on race or gender or ethnicity. Sometimes, I accidentally voice them, realize I’ve voiced them, realize the person I’ve voiced them to realizes it, and pretended, along with that person, that it didn’t happen. It’s awful, and I’ve handled those moments badly.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
Listen more, talk less. And try to examine the feelings behind your actions. I can’t speak for all men, obviously, but something I bet I have in common with other men: Even when I think I’m taking an action based purely on logic, there’s usually an emotional component to it, which I’m not aware of. I’m doing it out of fear, or hubris, or greed, or obligation, or whatever. And the more I recognize the emotional component behind my actions, the better my actions are. Men are not taught to interrogate our feelings. But we have to get better at it because our unexamined feelings are causing a lot of damage in the world right now.