‘The most powerful tech reporters happen to be women’

Kara Swisher, an influential journalist known for reporting of the tech industry and for creating, producing and hosting All Things Digital, the Wall Street Journal's technology conference. (Dan Harber/Flickr)

Kara Swisher is one of the most influential women in tech, without actually working for a tech company. She’s the executive editor and founder of Recode, a tech news outlet and events company, and has covered tech in Silicon Valley since 1997.

Over the years, Swisher has developed a reputation for high-profile scoops, a no-bullshit approach to questioning tech leaders, and cutting through the startup world’s jargon and euphemisms (this weekend at Tech Conference 22 at Harvard Business School, Oculus founder and CEO Brendan Iribe mentioned one of his previous companies “pivoted” and Swisher shot back, “That’s not a real word. It’s called failure.”)

She’s also long highlighted tech’s gender disparities, from pointing out the lack of women on tech company boards to uncovering stories of sexual harassment in the industry. Recently she announced she has ambitions beyond journalism: She plans to eventually run for mayor of San Francisco.

After moderating two keynote chats, Swisher sat down with GroundTruth’s Women in Tech fellows, Karis Hustad, Tori Bedford and Pooja Sivaraman to talk her political ambitions, covering tech and what the industry needs to kickstart real change for women in technology.

What was that moment in this election where you were you like, ‘OK, I need to run specifically for mayor of San Francisco”?

I’d been reading a lot, a lot of historical books. Megan [Smith, CTO of the United States] has been pushing me toward reading about citizens, the untold stories. It struck me that we have such important problems. When you live in San Francisco, which is a particular city, every city is different, you have an enormous wealth created by technology. It used to be finance, it used to be banking. Now you have these tech people and they’re hardly involved in society, in the civic life of San Francisco. We have an enormous homeless problem, a lot of which could be solved by technical solutions, data, information, everything can be.

So tech companies have this responsibility to be more than tech companies because they’re could such a big part of our civic life now. What kind of responsibility do you place on tech companies for taking ownership of their problems with diversity?

I think their ridiculous excuses are exhausting to listen to. I think their ideas around unconscious bias, that’s their excuse, it’s totally conscious. They know what they’re doing, they just don’t want to do anything about it. They give a lot of lip service to it, they sit around and they bemoan it. They’re like, “Oh I feel so bad,” and then they’re like, “It’s so hard,” I’m like, “I thought you were fucking geniuses. Like you can program a thing to the moon, but you can’t figure out an issue around diversity and how to educate people?” And then they start to say, “Oh the system, it goes back to here, it goes back to here,” but they don’t want to solve any part of it.

We have this problem too at the company I started. We used to have 50/50 gender diversity on my staff, and then it changed because two women moved, and we don’t have a big staff so it changes rather quickly. But when we were hiring for this new job, I said, “If you don’t bring me 10 candidates that are diverse, you need to get the fuck out of here.”

Right, because they’re not doing their job.

They’re not trying. They’re not looking hard enough. [They say] “Oh, it’s hard.” I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck if it’s hard. You need to bring me 10 great candidates and you have to be thinking hard about different kinds of candidates, different ages, different races — and we’re not always going to be successful, but I think from the very top you have to say, you’re being lazy about this. You’re being easy. You’re pattern matching. And we do the same thing when we have conferences. Look, most tech CEOs are white men. We have a conference of the top tech CEOs, what are we going to do? Are we going to have lower people because we’re trying to do something? No, we don’t want to do that. At the same time, we have to think harder as programmers.

Because I don’t think any of these people are malignant. There are malignant people in life. Believe me, sexism is rampant in Silicon Valley, sexual harassment is rampant in Silicon Valley in a lot of places you wouldn’t imagine it is. But for many people, they do want to do something about it and they do want to change. And they do want to change, but when they say it is unconscious. When I went to the head of Twitter, nice guy, Dick Costolo, there were 10 white men of the same, almost the same age, on the board of Twitter. How did that happen? It’s mathematically impossible. They did that, they created that.

What’s fascinating, is they feel like they’re absolutely without ability [to find diverse candidates]. You can find them. I could. But if I can find them, you can find them. You get that a lot from these guys. And again, they’re in the right place mentally, it’s just [it can’t be] number 20 priority, it needs to be number one priority. Because one, it’s the right thing to do, and that should be enough honestly, it should be fucking enough that it’s the right thing to do. And it’s good business.

We see studies that show diversity is good for business. We can also say that tech is about making money for the majority of people who get into the business. So why don’t they follow that?

Because they’re fucking lazy. I don’t know how else to put it. They literally could be making even more money or even if you’re making a lot of money, maybe you missed something. Years ago [a publication] did a story about all the people who died from AIDS. And they just had little pictures and what they had created, and I looked at that, and thought, what would they have made if they lived? What have we missed? Who died and was going to create something so beautiful, and now we’re never getting that? That’s how I think about it. You may be successful, but who did you miss who could have made something astonishing? Maybe they’re in Afghanistan, maybe they’re a woman in the poor part of Detroit. I don’t know where these people are but if you’re not trying to find them, you’re not doing your very best.

And it starts with the boards. These boards have to be diverse. And that’s an easy thing to fix. By the way, there’s tons and tons of women and people of color who are fully qualified for boards. So when you have 10 white guys on a board, that’s just bullshit. In recruiting, that’s harder. Then you have to go to these universities and try to push people, you have to create solutions so your pipeline does get better. They love to use the pipeline excuse.

I think the pipeline is a big deal, because at this point we have just 18 percent of students in computer science programs who are women and even less for minorities.

So if you’re Google, you do something about it. You create a program. They have tried a few things, but try even harder. Get together, we can solve all these problems. We do have this presidential election that brings out every — the one good thing about Donald Trump is we see it. Here it is. This is the problem, right here. And nobody in tech, no one I’ve seen is as egregious as what I’ve seen at a national level politically, but it’s just making it a priority. Brian Krzanich from Intel, has made it a priority. Now it might not work, but he’s made it a priority. Sheryl Sandberg shouldn’t be the only one pushing for women. Now she does it, but it should be Marc Benioff, it should be Bill Gates, it should be Mark Zuckerberg. But it shouldn’t have to be the women who do it. It should be my sons doing it.

When you look up at a board room and you look around and you see 10 white men and you don’t understand you have a problem, I want to know what happens to you. How you can’t see it? It’s a huge problem, and from a business point of view it is ridiculous. If half the women are using the Internet and half of people of color are using it, that’s how it should be represented. My god, how can you make a product for half the human race and not have half the human race be represented?

What do you think of profiles of women just for being [women in tech]?

I don’t mind calling attention to them. Do you know who [NASA mathematician] Katherine Johnson is? You need to know who she is. It’s hidden history. I think those are great. We’re having April Underwood on stage [at an upcoming conference], she’s the head of platform at Slack, which is a hot company in Silicon Valley right now. And you know what, she deserves the attention and great she’s a woman too. But she deserves the attention. Stuart gets all the attention.Why not focus on her because she’s a critically important manager of the site? At Google for years, it was always on the evil twins. Guess what? [YouTube CEO] Susan Wojcicki, they started [Google] in her garage, she was critical to the beginning. Why not note it? You need to know who [Apple Macintosh interface designer] Susan Kare is, she affected your life. Why wasn’t her story told? Largely because tech reporters were men and they love to pal around.

Is that part of tech journalism’s role? Not saying they have to say, you’re a woman in tech, therefore you’re perfect and infallible. But more like, making sure that you’re not going into a well-tread narrative of what an entrepreneur looks like?

Unfortunately for [tech companies] right now, the most powerful tech reporters happen to be women at this point. Years ago, I wrote a story about the men and no women at Facebook. All I did was put up their pictures. And it was like white guy, white guy, white guy, Asian guy, Indian guy, white guy. I just put it up and said here you go. I got a call from someone saying, this is unfair. And I’m like why? This is your management staff. I’m just pointing it out. I’m just visually showing people what you’re doing. You might want to change. You might want to think about it.

Also, the only time they drag the words standards out is when it comes to women and people of color. Always. Well we have standards. Oh you didn’t have standards for those 10 incompetent fucker men that fucked up the company? We don’t have as many women because we have standards. Same thing for Ellen Pao, which we covered. We wanted to show the problems and stumblings that these companies have to get to any type of equality. And that was critically important to us. It turned out to be enormous. It won awards, people followed it like crazy, I turned it into an interesting narrative because I wanted to bring alive.

Here’s the complexity of it, let’s show the difficulty of it. Let’s show everybody has problems. Let’s show how hard it is to get there. We made it a narrative, we made it about people, so people began to see it in their own world. And that’s a really powerful thing about being an editor. If I was a man I should do the same thing, because it is a great story.

This story was written as part of a Women in Tech fellowship sponsored by the GroundTruth Project and SiliconANGLE Media’s theCUBE. Other stories reported from the Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Houston can be found at the TechTruth Women in Tech site.