Recently, I was a little surprised to see that Meredith Perry, the founder of uBeam, gave a TEDxNashville talk entitled, “How To Be A Technology Innovator – Without An Engineering Degree Or Asperger’s.” I guess the title was supposed to be funny. Or maybe it was meant to prove that the speaker was “edgy.” Whatever the intention, all it did was prove that some people still think it’s okay to make fun of mental illness. Oh, and it reinforced the stereotype that most people in the tech industry are socially awkward freaks. How kind.
Maybe I should give a talk titled, “How To Be A Woman In Business – Without Being An Emotional Basketcase Or A Total Bitch.”
That would be offensive though, because women have worked extremely hard to prove that we defy stereotypes, that we can’t be generalized. Women have shown that we’re able to be more than the caricatures that you see in movies or on television. As a writer for a website about women in business, it would be pretty horrible to play into those stereotypes to grab attention.
And yet, apparently that’s still acceptable for the tech industry. It’s alright to paint every start-up as a group of geeky outcasts looking to change the world. It’s okay to assume that college kids creating internet-based companies are all just like the kids from The Social Network, even though we are furious that people assume every female CEO is like Miranda Priestly.
I went to a gifted and talented high school. I studied with a lot of students who most people would refer to as socially awkward but enormously intelligent. I also attended classes with more than one student who actually suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. I would first like to point out that their disorder doesn’t really need to be used as a cheap punchline. But also important in the conversation about stereotypes, I want to say that the assumption that every student who was extremely intelligent would also be a socially unaware outcast weighed very heavily on some students.
One of the smartest men I know, who isn’t in tech but is getting his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Stanford at the end of the month, talked to me about being “gifted” at a young age. He said, “Kids who are identified as G&T tend to be categorized as socially awkward as well; however, being identified as “special” early on may lead to a stigma. It may be that other children not picked out as G&T may subconsciously or consciously socially exclude the G&T children in some cases, leading to stunted social skills and the perceived correlation we see in adults between intelligence and lack of common sense/social skills.”
This stereotype of smart people who can’t interact socially can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We assume intelligent children won’t get along with their peers, we separate them out and therein create the situation ourselves.
Generalizing and stereotyping the majority of the tech industry can have the same effect. We say that the majority of these people can’t interact with other humans, and by insulting or ostracizing them, create a situation where they don’t want to talk to you. I can’t imagine Meredith Perry’s peers were overjoyed to hear themselves referred to in such terms.
The fact is that as women, we should be painfully aware of how dangerous it is to stereotype and make assumptions about vast groups of people. We should know the dangers of this. And that’s why we should speak out for any group that suffers from biased generalizations. That goes for the “geeky” tech industry references, the “lazy” Millennial stories and as always, the “Ice Queen” female executive.