Update, Sept. 29, 2016, 4:55 p.m.:
On Thursday afternoon, John Greathouse issued an apology for his piece on Twitter, calling it “dreadful” and acknowledging that it did not help “to fix the problem” of gender bias.
Of the thousands of pieces of advice for wannabe entrepreneurs, one of the most consistent is that it’s crucial to develop a personal brand. “Customers buy from people, not from a company,” after all. “We are in the digital age and there is little room to be silent about who we are and the businesses we are involved in.”
That is, unless you’re a woman. In that case, John Greathouse, a former “serial entrepreneur” and partner at the venture capital firm Rincon Venture Partners, has some advice for you in the Wall Street Journal: Scrub the internet of any indication that your personal brand includes a vagina. He writes:
Women in today’s tech world should create an online presence that obscures their gender. A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them. Once they make an initial connection with a potential employer or investor, such women then have an opportunity to submit their work and experiences for an impartial review.
For a guy who is supposedly attuned to how a person’s identity affects the way his or her message is received, it’s peculiar that he thought this particular message would be best delivered by a rich white guy in the Wall Street Journal. Greathouse gestures half-heartedly toward the daunting obstacles that face women in tech: In studies where a certain, say, financing pitch is presented under a woman’s name, the woman is perceived as less competent than a man presenting the same pitch. In another study Greathouse cites, people were likelier to respond to surveys sent by people with similar names to their own, and “a man will not feel such inherent ‘liking’ from a female name.”
So there’s bias, you see, but it’s “at least somewhat unconscious.” What can you do? Well, if happen to be a partner at a venture capital firm, *cough cough*, you could hire more women. But in the meantime, wouldn’t it be easier and less conscience-ruffling to just have women completely erase their identities online? “I would suggest that if you are a woman raising capital, you might consider not including photos of your team in your pitch deck,” Greathouse writes. “If you identify your team via their initials (men and women), you effectively strip out all preconceptions related to race, ethnicity and gender. In your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials (or a unisex name) and eliminate photos.”
This advice shows a delusional ignorance of—well, a lot of things, but one of them is how people conduct their lives online. Greathouse points out that blind auditions helped to diversify professional orchestras starting in the late 1970s. But an online presence is not a 20-minute violin solo. It is an expression of identity that’s built over the course of years and used daily to communicate with both professional contacts and friends. Yes, everyone should be aware of how his or her conduct online will look to outsiders, including bosses and investors. But Greathouse isn’t advising women to act with professional decorum. He’s advising them to act like faceless, nameless cyphers, thereby tricking people into assuming they’re men. Sorry, not tricking: “mitigating potentially negative misconceptions.”
Greathouse’s column reminded me of a family story. My mom was a successful soccer referee in Illinois in the 1970s. In 1978, a publisher approached her to write a guidebook for referees of amateur soccer. When she received the cover proofs, however, the author was listed as “R. Graham.” She calmly called the publisher and asked them to print her full name but was told that buyers wouldn’t purchase a book on this topic written by a woman. Leaving off her first name, in other words, would allow her “to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed.”
She pushed, and eventually the publisher allowed “Rosemarie Graham” to be printed on the inside pages—but not on the cover. The next year, she became the first woman ever selected to officiate the high school boys state-championship game. There’s nothing wrong with being “R.” in certain spaces if you so choose. But there is something distinctly insulting about being told you should hide your very name just to avoid frightening off men.