Vivek Wadhwa, a former Indian American entrepreneur who as a researcher and columnist in BusinessWeek and other publications has primarily focused on U.S. immigration, technology firms founded by immigrants and biases against women in business, has decided to retreat from activism on the third cause, after about a half-dozen feminist critics blasted him in Twitter comments, interviews and media programs.
Wadhwa wrote about bias against women in technology first in BusinessWeek in 2006, but he became front and center in the debate after knocking CEO Dick Costolo about the lack of women executives and board members at Twitter and coming out last year with a book, co-authored with Farai Chideya, “Innovating Women,” which interviewed about 500 women, 100 of them quoted in the book (I-W, Aug. 8, 2014). His wife had urged him to do the study.
Media appearances and interviews followed, but some feminist activists became increasingly angered when they felt the Indian American was usurping women’s voice in the debate.
“I started receiving criticism on Twitter about a year ago from five-to-six vocal feminists for being featured in articles about women in tech,” the 57-year-old Wadhwa told India-West.
“I responded politely and explained that I was speaking up just like all men should. They argued that my being quoted in these articles took an opportunity away from a woman to be quoted. I didn’t agree but did start asking journalists not to quote me in the articles,” he said.
After being interviewed by Newsweek reporter Nina Burleigh for a February cover story, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” criticism from women intensified.
They accused him of inappropriate language, adopting a defensive tone on Twitter and overstating his role in the fight for women’s equality.
They took particular umbrage to Wadhwa’s assertion that women are not only reluctant to overstate their accomplishments and goals, but that they habitually understate them.
“When Newsweek quoted me in a cover story in February…some of these people became very vocal on Twitter. They hurled profanities at me and started barraging me with angry messages. I tried responding and discussing, but found that this was futile. My words would often get taken out of context, my intentions would be distorted, and my attempts at productive discussion would be used against me,” he told India-West.
He admitted he may have overreacted to some allegations that, he said, were false, including that he was profiting financially from the book.
“Yes, I probably did show too much anger at the false allegations that were being hurled at me. I have never been accused of such wrongdoing before and took it too personally.”
“I made the mistake of responding to some of the people who were trying to provoke me. You can’t have nuanced discussions in 140 characters, as I learned the hard way,” said the researcher, who is affiliated with Stanford, Duke and Singularity University.
“A few weeks ago one of my critics wrote a sensational blog post filled with lies and distortions, I was saddened to see how quickly the misinformation spread on social media,” said Wadhwa, who is, however, a frequent commentator about social media.
One critic, he said, “accused me of financial improprieties and suggested I was creepy and insinuated that I sexually harassed women. This was really over the top and inaccurate, as New York Times also later reported.”
“What was more shocking was that a public radio station, WNYC, aired a podcast in which the interviewer and the same person who wrote this blog hurled these and other accusations at me. I responded in detail to every one of these falsehoods in an article on VentureBeat, but the damage had been done.”
Regarding the issue of women understating their qualifications and goals, he will not retreat.
“I stand behind this because it is based on research, not only my own, but several other studies as well. But by and large, my interviews with women have showed that they typically don’t brag about their accomplishments the way men do; they don’t exaggerate their credentials; or come up with completely unrealistic financial projections.”
“The allegation that was made was that I was saying that women should be like men. I never said that. I have suggested that we provide greater mentorship and support to women and recognize that they understate their accomplishments.”
Wadhwa said he worries that the diversity discussion “has itself become incendiary. Moderate voices are drowned out by shouting and vile invective. Women and men who might otherwise want to voice their intelligent opinion are staying silent due to fears that they too will be maligned.”
“I am still going to be an advocate for disenfranchised minorities, he added. “I will continue to mentor women and men entrepreneurs. I will surely coach my friends who are in positions of power in corporations, and I will echo the words of great women. Stepping out of a debate does not mean that I will be shirking my responsibility in fighting for what is right. I will just do it behind the scenes.”