The Information just proved that it's worth the $400 price of admission. On display in an interview with Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham is the clearest picture of Silicon Valley's unacknowledged sexism to ever find its way in print.
Updates below with comment from Paul Graham and The Information founder Jessica Lessin.
Let me preface this by saying that before Graham's comments about founders with "strong foreign accents," he always struck me as affable enough, if a little cranky on occasion. When I worked at Inc. magazine, I fact-checked a profile of him and he came across every bit as smart and supportive of his portfolio companies as the article advertised. Even after digging in his heels about that foreign founder bias, I still felt my stomach drop reading the statements about discrimination in this interview with Eric P. Newcomer.
Given a chance to defend himself and Y Combinator—an accelerator often credited alongside Stanford as a gravitational force in the startup ecosystem—Graham instead exposed hidden assumptions about women and technology shared by Silicon Valley's priesthood. Emphasis mine:
Does YC discriminate against female founders?
I'm almost certain that we don't discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed. [...]
The problem with that is I think, at least with technology companies, the people who are really good technology founders have a genuine deep interest in technology. In fact, I've heard startups say that they did not like to hire people who had only started programming when they became CS majors in college.
If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it on their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.
It's already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.
Okay. Deep breaths. Still with me? Graham makes clear in this interview that people who do not fit into the archetype of the precocious programmer are routinely dismissed as unworthy. That archetype, of course, is usually attached to a penis. No wonder Graham once said he can be "tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg." If you're a female engineer who found her interest in STEM education squashed early in life by gender norms, but had the guts to try again later, your cred as a coder is questionable. If you've been programming for the past 10 years, rip off your invisibility cloak because Graham has never seen the likes of you. That must be why Graham's wife Jessica Livingston, who cofounded Y Combinator and has been instrumental from the beginning, is the institution's "secret weapon."
Then comes the real twist of the knife. Here is a hacker hero—the figurehead behind Hacker News!—and he has no clue how to get girls to care about tech. Because using and building and enjoying and obsessing over technology is just that anathema to their biological nature—even as apps become the new teenage pastime. No, interest in technology must be a special trait attached to the Y chromosome.
Those beliefs inform the observations he shared when The Information pressed for more details:
How can you tell whether you are discriminating against women?
You can tell what the pool of potential startup founders looks like. There's a bunch of ways you can do it. You can go on Google and search for audience photos of PyCon, for example, which is this big Python conference.
That's a self-selected group of people. Anybody who wants to apply can go to that thing. They're not discriminating for or against anyone. If you want to see what a cross section of programmers looks like, just go look at that or any other conference, doesn't have to be PyCon specifically. [...]
We can't make women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven't been hacking for the past 10 years. [...] [Update below]
It used to be that all startups were mostly technology companies. Now you have things like the Gilt Groupe where they're really retailers, and that's what they have to be good at because the technology is more commoditized. [...]
It's a combination of startups moving into different domains, that whole software eating the world thing, and infrastructure being more available so you don't have to be such a hardcore nerd even to start a startup, like you used to have to be.
Let's find a picture of PyCon, shall we? What can we glean from an image like this? Pretty much only gender and race—those are the only things an investor can tell just by looking at you. The irony of characterizing any tech conference, and in particular PyCon, as all-inclusive is lost on Mr. Meritocracy. This goes beyond some un-P.C. attempt to tell-it-like-it-is. It sounds more like justifying the status quo.
Once again, the line of questioning doesn't end with a single troubling generalization. No, Graham then goes on to imply that women can now be startup founders because there are shopping startups. Women just feel more comfortable in retail. Bitches be spending.
Do you detect a hint of nostalgia about the good ole days when you had to be a
"hardcore nerd" to get the keys to the startup kingdom? Well, that comes with its own price.
UPDATE: Paul Graham emailed me today to say that he was misquoted by The Information. He made the same claim on Twitter. According to Graham, one word was omitted from the sentence and a prior contextualizing passage was cut. I reached out to the reporter Eric Newcomer and The Information founder Jessica Lessin earlier today and will update again when I hear back.
What I actually said was "make *these* women look..." I was simply explaining why CS major != hacker. All that got cut.
— Paul Graham (@paulg) December 28, 2013
In the intro to their article, The Information describes the Q&A as "lightly edited excerpts." When I asked Graham whether there were any other quotes he wanted to dispute, he claimed that the comments he gave to The Information were not supposed to be for a stand-alone interview, but for a profile of his wife. That does not change the fact that these comments were on-the-record. The sentence he disputed was also one of many disappointing statements made about women in the startup sector.
This is not the first time that Graham has disputed on-the-record comments to a member of the press about an underrepresented group in the industry. In both cases, the publication was permitted access to his time. Graham similarly went to Twitter and then to his own blog to defend and try to explain away comments made to Inc. magazine about the failure rate of founders with strong foreign accents in August.
Here is Graham's initial email to me:
Your title is missing a word that changes its meaning a lot. What
I actually said (they gave me a the raw transcript of that bit) is
"We can't make these women look at the world through hacker eyes..."
Notice that "these," which was cut by the editor. It was a reference
to the preceding discussion, which was also cut.
Without the "these" it sounds like I'm making some kind of statement
about women in general. Actually I was explaining the difference
between hackers and CS majors. Majoring in CS is neither a necessary
nor sufficient condition for being a hacker. I.e. I was saying
something as true of men as women.
Possibly you don't care. The misquotation works better for page
views. But just so you know, the quotation you used is not what I
said, and your interpretation of it is thus also false.
Here is Graham's response after I asked if he was going to dispute anything else:
There are probably other misquotations, or at least passages that
have had the surrounding conversation edited away in a way that
changes their meaning. I'm still waiting for more of the raw
transcript. All they've given me was a few sentences around the
misquotation you used as the title.
Even calling it an interview is somewhat misleading. The guy was
just talking to me to get material for a profile of Jessica that
he was writing. But he had a tape recorder and he later published
chunks of the conversation as if it had been meant to be an interview.
That's why I didn't propose any ways to get girls interested in
programming, which offended you so much. If it had been an interview
I would have gone into more detail, but since we were supposed to
be talking about Jessica, we were already pretty far afield.
Between this and the Inc interview, I think I'm going to start bringing
my own tape recorder when I talk to reporters.
UPDATE II: Jessica Lessin just emailed me the following statement saying that Paul Graham was aware that his comments would be published as a stand-alone story. She also said that The Information will post most the interview with Graham later today:
We emailed Paul and a YC communications person days before publishing saying that we planned to publish some excerpts from the on-the-record interview as a standalone story. We also gave them some context on the topics. In addition, our reporter exchanged emails with a YC PR person about a possible photo we might run with the interview. So, they were fully informed.
UPDATE III: Jessica Lessin sent the following email to Valleywag this evening in references to Paul Graham's claim that he was misquoted:
We reviewed the transcript again and shared it with Paul. We stand behind our excerpting and editing for clarity. We continue to believe that the quote is in its proper context. Thanks for checking in.
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[Image via Getty]