The mission statement for AOL's invite-only Makers Conference sounded suspect from the start. How can a random assortment of high-profile women (and a handful of male executives) possibly presume to "reset the agenda for women in the workplace" during a private excursion at an oceanside resort?
If that's the goal, attendees are at least obligated to grill a repeat oppressor of working women for lunch, no? But instead of answering the hard questions, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong answered no questions. At all.
— Lea Goldman (@lea) February 11, 2014
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) February 11, 2014
[Makers] shuffled around the schedule a little bit (Armstrong was supposed to talk in one of the morning sessions) so that he could interview Sam Gordon, a now 10-year-old football player who made headlines in 2012 when she made 65 tackles and 25 touchdowns while playing against male teams. Her dad posted a highlight reel on YouTube, which went viral.
One conference attendee told Valleywag:
Thought you guys might like to know: he did a SOFTBALL interview with 10 year old Sam Gordon, a football player (a girl) and her dad, and didn't take ANY questions tho every Q&A has had a question period for audience members. It was the softest interview here (besides the Swisher Q&A with a HBS "manbassador".)
When Tim was introduced, about a dozen AOL staffers gave him a standing ovation. Kara Swisher didn't introduce him, though she's moderating, perhaps because she called him out on the comments yesterday when she kicked off the conference. "Distressed babies? I don't think so."
I do have to say that adorable Sam Gordon interview by Tim Armstrong was fantastic. Note to self: if I have a bad week, call in Sam.
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) February 12, 2014
If Armstrong doesn't want to discuss how corporations approach healthcare and pregnant employees in front of a (pre-approved) guest list at his own conference (about empowering women), it seems unlikely he'll ever engage in a frank debate.
That's a pity because, as The New Yorker's Amy Davidson carefully delineated, there are some widespread assumptions obscured by Armstrong's use of the term "distressed babies":
AOL and other tech companies—really, any firm that makes use of educated workers—relies on women who put off having children while they or their partners get graduate degrees or work. Maybe it doesn't make sense to have a baby yet when you are working around the clock for a software company; maybe you can't imagine paying for child care while you still have so many student loans, and want to be responsible. It often is possible to have children later, for some women easily so, but the numbers do undeniably get worse. (This message is the subject of a number of recent books, including one by my old friend Tanya Selvaratnam, "The Big Lie.") We have an economy, culture, and workplace that push women and families in a certain direction, and then treat the higher risks they take on as theirs alone. Contempt replaces community. If Armstrong illustrates anything, it is the quickness with which a modern company can abandon those who reshaped their lives on its behalf, and made it rich.
Since last week, conference organizers have scaled back their ambitious plan . . . a bit. Now, rather than "reset the agenda for women in the workplace in the 21st century," the Makers website says it wants to devise "an action plan to help defined [sic] the agenda for women in the 21st century." Judging by yesterday's free pass for the patriarchy, that definition could use some work.
Update: I heard that Armstrong was scheduled with Gordon (the 10-year-old) all along, the question was whether he would show up at his own women's conference in the wake of his statements. Makers has yet to respond to any questions from Valleywag.
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[Image via Instagram/jfranki57]