Why Disruptors Are Always White Guys

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Sorkin, Sullivan, and Silver all have names that start with an S. Notice any other similarities? Photo: Getty Images

It’s happening again. There’s a list of “media disruptors.” It’s predominantly white dudes. It need not be. And people are fed up.

For, in the new-media renaissance of the past few years, there are women and minority “disruptors” everywhere if you only take the time to look. There’s Jane Pratt of xoJane; Ben Huh of Circa; Sharon Waxman of the Wrap; Sommer Mathis of CityLab; Mary Borkowski, Rachel Rosenfelt, Jennifer Bernstein, and Ayesha Siddiqi of the New Inquiry; Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily; Nitasha Tiku of Valleywag; Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe of the Toast; and Susan Glasser of Politico Magazine. That’s only off the top of my head.

There are three pernicious and interrelated phenomena at work here. First, founders are disproportionately white dudes. Second, white dudes are disproportionately encouraged to become founders. Third, white dudes are disproportionately recognized as founders.

Let’s take that last problem first. There’s a tendency for the media – indeed, for people in general — to see white dudes as “founders” or “entrepreneurs” or “bosses” or “disruptors” and to see women and people of color as anything else. The impulse is deep-seated. When you think of a leader, Jack Donaghy pops into your head rather than Oprah. When you’re to think of management characteristics, you tend to think of characteristics ascribed to men, not women.  

Ultimately, this phenomenon can lead to the erasure of women and minorities in leadership roles from the picture — as in Vanity Fair’s list making the rounds today. My husband, Ezra Klein, is a founder of Vox, along with his partners Melissa Bell and Matthew Yglesias. Ezra ended up on the list, but Matt and Melissa did not. It is not the first time it has happened, either.

Then, there’s the problem of white dudes disproportionately being encouraged to and supported in founding businesses, a phenomenon that feeds into the first problem — of there simply being more white-dude founders, full stop.

The research is broad and deep on the “glass walls” that keep women from becoming entrepreneurs, or the profound discrimination that many people of color face when starting their own businesses. Investors like a pitch coming from a man better than coming from a woman — even when the pitch is the same. Minority-owned firms get rejected for loans at twice the rate of white-owned firms, and often pay higher interest rates when they get them, too. 

There’s a single discriminatory phenomenon underpinning all three of these issues, sometimes called “think manager, think male.”

Researchers have known about it for a very long time. “Probably the single most important hurdle for women in management in all industrialized countries is the persistent stereotype that associates management with being male,” one study reads. Other studies find distinctly similar stereotypes related to people of color and leadership. Ask students to hit one key when you flash stereotypically white names or high-status jobs, and another key when you flash stereotypically ethnic names or low-status jobs. They’ll do that a lot faster than if you pair stereotypically ethnic names with high-status jobs, and stereotypically white names with low-status jobs.

So let’s go ahead and modernize the phrase. In today’s media economy, we’re facing the “think entrepreneur, think white dude” problem.

But it need not be so. As a very preliminary step, if publications insisted on putting women and minorities on their stupid, arbitrary lists, it would elevate those entrepreneurs and founders. It might help break down the deep stereotypes that help to discourage women and minorities from becoming entrepreneurs in the first place.

My preference is to implement such quotas from top to bottom, too, to stamp out any pipeline issues in the future. Hiring an intern? Make sure you interview a woman and a person of color. Hosting a panel? Get some women and minorities on there. Holding a conference? Building a board? Interviewing potential start-ups for investment? Finding a new manager? The advice is the same, and if you’re having trouble finding women or people of color, try harder.

In a granular sense, the only people who have anything to lose are the white dudes, hence the basis of the quota plan’s appeal. And the truth is, there’s plenty of evidence that we’d all be far better off in the long run with a more equal business and media climate, white dudes included.