This week, The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed from entrepreneur John Greathouse entitled "Why Women in Tech Might Consider Just Using Their Initials Online" which argued that women in tech should use their initials instead of their full names when first reaching out to investors, contacting employers, or generally promoting themselves and their work. The effect may have been inadvertent, but it came across to many as arguing that instead of fighting gender bias in tech, we should just expect women to work around it. Greathouse has since apologized, calling his own article "dreadful" and writing in a tweet sent on Sept. 29, "I hurt women and I utterly failed to help, which I wholly regret and I apologize for having done." But it's still worth looking deeper at why women shouldn't have to use their initials in their professional lives — and why, in fact, women in tech should use their real names.
In his op-ed, Greathouse started with an explanation of how first impressions work, before glossing over the many ways that sexism baked into the tech industry in favor of explaining how professional orchestras eliminated their gender employment gap — by holding blind auditions. In the 1970s, he tells us, orchestras started having musicians audition behind a screen so employers could only judge them for their music — and women quickly became half of all orchestra musicians. Thus, the conclusion is that women in tech should start disguising their identity online.
In theory, it might sound like a good idea; the trouble is that there is a big difference between an industry taking steps to correct its own biases in order to eliminate discrimination and telling those disadvantaged by bias to adjust their behavior in a desperate attempt to avoid being discriminated against.
Overall, the op-ed fails to account for any of the systemic problems in tech, and instead assumes that women bear the responsibility of ensuring that they aren't disadvantaged by sexism. Greathouse apologized for the piece on Thursday via Twitter:
Greathouse is not the first person to make this sort of argument, however. Whether it's people who say we should fight sexual assault by telling women not to drink or those that think that women just need to "lean in" more at work, there are plenty of folks who apparently think sexist oppression can be ended with a few handy behavior modifications on the part of the oppressed.
Individual women, in all situations, often do modify our behavior as a way of trying to get by, get ahead, or get home safe in this patriarchal society. But to suggest we ought to is absolutely the wrong message to send, and it's particularly damaging when it comes from someone who's in a position of power in the field.
So to counteract that message, I'd like to argue that women in tech actually should use their real names.
First and foremost, women have nothing to be ashamed of. Telling women that we should conceal our identities implies that being a woman is something to be concealed, something shameful or unsightly that should be hidden. But nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the fact that gender is never something to be ashamed of, the world of tech is full of amazing women pioneers, from Grace Hopper to Margaret Hamilton and going all the way back to the first computer programmer — Ada Lovelace.
And this isn't just idealistic posturing on my part. Telling women that they need to hide aspects of our identity has a very measurable impact, one known as "imposter syndrome." Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon wherein a person feels like they aren't really good enough for whatever job they have or image people have of them, and thus feels like a impostor — even though they are actually completely qualified. It's a feeling I've never heard a man describe feeling, but that every woman I know has struggled with at some point. (This isn't to say that men don't experience imposter syndrome, but anectdotally, it disproportionately affects women.) And it can absolutely hold you back, from keeping women from applying to jobs and asking for promotions to making women feel too hesitant to launch a startup despite their great ideas.
Why do women feel this way so frequently? Maybe because we're constantly being undercut because of our gender and are told, in ways both subtle and overt, that there's something wrong with us. Namely, the fact that we aren't men.
And if you don't think that impostor syndrome is increased by having women literally hide our identities then I refer you to the definition of "impostor."
Women in tech shouldn't need to change their behavior or concede to the sexist idea that women are less competent or worthy than men. The tech industry itself is where the problem lies when it comes to systemic sexism, and it is the industry's responsibility to take steps to fix it — whether that means instituting their own mechanisms to keep things gender neutral for everybody, or spending a lot of time meditating on their own sexist assumptions.
But if women are simply told to cater to those assumptions in the hopes they will be the lucky few to escape their constricting effects, then nothing will ever truly change. Every time you tell women something they should be doing in order to prevent bad things from happening, from assault to discriminatory pay, what you're really saying is, "Make sure you're the exception" — in order words, "Make sure it happens to someone else."
And that is not a solution.
Women in tech are capable of making their own decisions about their professional lives, and those that want to use their initials should feel free to do so. But asking women to disguise their gender is not the solution; it's a symptom of the problem. The solution would be making sure no one ever feels like they have to disguise who they are in the first place.