Paul Graham is the co-founder of Y-Combinator, one of the most prolific generators of funding for startups in Silicon Valley.
But if you read the tech press this week, you could be forgiven for thinking that he’s also a sexist jerk who doesn’t care that the tech world — coders in particular — is dominated by men.
He has been crucified in The Wire (“Paul Graham Proves Sexism in Tech Is Still a Problem“), Valleywag (“Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham is the clearest picture of Silicon Valley’s unacknowledged sexism to ever find its way in print”), Forbes (“Why Is It So Hard For Paul Graham To Imagine Getting 13-Year-Old Girls Interested In Computers?”), and of course by Sam Biddle.
The bizarre thing about all this, however, is that what he actually said — you can read transcripts here and here — is completely reasonable. There are fewer women in tech. To fix the problem, we need to get girls into computers and coding early. It will probably mean changing middle school. It is not good enough to just hope that women who discover computer science at college in their 20s will be able to compete with obsessive male geeks who have been coding since they were 10 years old.
Yet somehow, Graham’s comments have been turned completely on their head. Here is what he actually said. I’ve emphasised the most allegedly controversial bits:
If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it on their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.
It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.
… No, the problem is these women are not by the time get to 23…Like Mark Zuckerberg starts programming, starts messing about with computers when he’s like 10 or whatever. By the time he’s starting Facebook he’s a hacker, and so he looks at the world through hacker eyes. That’s what causes him to start Facebook. We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.
Note that the first statement is only controversial — it implies women don’t want to find programming on their own — if you ignore the context: Fixing this will require 10 years of effort. We have to start with kids when they’re 13.
Is anyone really against the idea that if you want to fix sexism in tech it would be a good idea to start with kids when they’re 13 rather than trying to reverse-engineer liberal arts grads into coders?
The second statement, “God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers,” is only controversial if you deliberately misread it. Why should a middle-aged man know what 13-year-old girls are into? It would be kind of weird if he did know. Besides, it is literally not his job to be an expert on 13-year-old girls. He’s just a funder. He’s at the end of the pipeline, not the beginning, where the 13-year-olds need to be.
And the last statement is simply a restatement of the foregoing — this is something that will take 10 years to fix.
You can only conclude that Graham is an vicious patriarch if you ignore the most crucial quote in the interview:
“What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum.”
Is anybody really against fixing middle school so that girls get a better shot at learning to code?
The proof here is that none of Graham’s critics quote the line about middle school to condemn him.
They all ignore that.
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