Shevinsky's 'Lean Out' builds upon Sheryl Sandberg's message
By Lou Fancher
Upward mobility for women in tech appears to require leaning.
Writer, editor and serial entrepreneur Elissa Shevinsky's "Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-up Culture" (OR Books, $24, 248 pages), collects 25 essays written by people working in the industry to illustrate the point that a massive correction in approach is the next best way to blast through tech's male-centric ceiling.
The anthology's title is an obvious riff on Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 "Lean In," a manifesto that galvanized women and girls to "lean in and sit at the table" with men instead of "leaning back." What might be misread as Shevinsky's counterargument is not a diatribe. The book's content and purpose are fully in line with Sandberg's goals. —'Lean In' was a really good start," the 36-year-old entrepreneur says. "A major corporate exec being a feminist and bringing tech issues into the mainstream -- it was a milestone. But we don't want to have to be men to be women in tech."
Shevinsky grew up the child of a single mom in Queens, New York. An eclectic and precocious reader who favored E.B. White's "Trumpet of the Swan," Richard Scarry books and Scientific American publications explaining Einstein's special theory of relativity, she says reading newspapers was an after-school indulgence. While majoring in political theory at Williams College, she learned to code. Currently living a nomadic existence that has her giving tech talks or seeking angel investors from New York to Boston to San Francisco and other destinations, the cybersecurity software designer and startup expert worked at Geekcorps and Everyday Health before co-founding the dating site MakeOut Labs, "Snapchat-like" Glimpse and JeKuDo Privacy Company.
Shevinsky admits to being "a compulsive writer" who scribbles notes continuously, but the fully formed essays she contributes to "Lean Out" required drastic measures. "I had to lock myself away. I booked a hotel room. I slept, wrote, didn't talk to anyone. It's a solitary thing."
But her debut book is exactly the opposite of solitary. "I did a big people search. The world needed this book. It isn't 'the Elissa book.' We really want to hear unheard stories. I felt even well-intentioned journalists were putting their story in my story. We needed women's stories to be unedited. I respect their voices."
The voices are as varied as the visible light's color spectrum. Twilio software engineer Dom DeGuzman's perspective and can-do "rock climbing" steps to success are calm and encouraging; Google engineer Erica Joy writes poignantly and vulnerably of "losing herself" as a woman of color for the sake of being included with co-workers whose behavior ranged from covert discrimination (pay inequities) to blatant sexist and racist behavior; Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford boldly reflects a recurring theme that instead of building complaint lists or deepening their voices at the corporate board table, women (and men) in tech must be architects of actual infrastructures that support diversity.
'Lean Out' aims to describe the problem," Shevinsky says. "Instead of 'women aren't smart enough' or 'there aren't enough women in the system,' I want to debunk myths. It's laziness to say there aren't women interested. Women are here, and we're already awesome."
Plugging the pipeline with more girls is an ineffective solution, because it would feed more women into a system that's too broken to support them, she insists. "My concern is with the idea that girls and women need special education to participate in STEM. We've fetishized coding, but startups fail because they aren't getting traction with users, the customer service angle isn't adequate or who's wrangling the coding isn't right or isn't getting it done on time."
Improved hiring and recruiting practices, especially at large companies such as Google and Facebook, can set an important standard but won't transform the industry.
"There are champions for diversity at almost every big company," Shevinsky says, "but when we see more women investors and founders, then we'll start to see change."
An uptick in the number of corporate boards run by women is a goal that has her of two minds. "In five years, I want to be the baddest woman CEO sitting on a board," she says, then adds, "I'm interested in the least painful, less dramatic way (of enacting change) that doesn't rely on permission from institutions that aren't welcoming women."
Shevinsky in person projects a cheerful, positive energy and says the book is darker and edgier than she expected, but pleasingly raw. Determined that the book not be the only thing she "gives back to the industry," she says, —'Lean Out' describes the shape of the problem. The next book will be about how we fix it."