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A sexist Mass TLC attempts to recover

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (Mass TLC), a Boston-area trade group, annually presents awards to local leaders for Best CEO, Best CMO, and the like.

All of this year’s nominees were men. After some local tech luminaries called them out on it, they re-opened the process and asks for women nominees.

Now they have to deal with the effects of their pirouette, including emailing the previous nominees to tell them it’s not over yet. I got ahold of one of those emails, which I’ll be analyzing in this post.

Mass TLC’s first announcement — and the blowback

On July 18, MassTLC announced the finalists for its awards, including five male CEOs, five male CMOs, and five male CTOs. They also announced five nominees for “Emerging Executive,” of which three were women.

One week later, six prominent local technology leaders published an op-ed in the Boston Globe on July 25 calling them out on the sexism. Here’s some of what they said:

Mass TLC supports a half-baked awards process, once again

Last week, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, the largest and most powerful technology association in New England, announced the finalists for its annual awards, to be given at a gala this fall. On Oct. 3, in a room of 700 people, an accomplished person will win CEO of the Year, another will win Chief Technology Officer of the Year, and a third will win Chief Marketing Officer of the year. If you go to the Mass TLC website, you’ll see the list of five finalists for each of those awards — none of whom are women.

There are at least three problems with this.

First, 2018 is not the first year when Mass TLC’s judging process produced 15 male finalists for those three prestigious awards. They did the same in 2016 and 2017 for the awards for best CEO and best chief technology officer, and with another flawed process, the outcome is the same this year. . . .

. . . [T]his is not a pipeline problem. There are phenomenal women leading tech companies in our region, . . . [goes on to list a whole bunch].

Mass TLC responds

Mass TLC had two possible responses here: defend their process, or admit they were wrong. They did the latter. Mass TLC CEO Tom Hopcroft’s Globe op-ed responding to the criticism and reopening the process appeared the next day.

MassTLC reopens nominations for prestigious awards

Over the past week, MassTLC has, rightfully, been called out in the press and on social media for a lack of diversity in the individual leadership categories of our annual awards program. While MassTLC works diligently throughout the year on advancing women and other underrepresented populations in tech, we failed to spotlight and recognize that advancement. For this, I apologize. . .

We are taking immediate actions to remedy this failure.

We have reopened nominations in all of our individual categories — CEO of the YearCTO of the YearCMO of the Year, and Emerging Executive — for two additional weeks (until Aug. 10). In addition to meeting with many leaders who have offered their help, we invite the community to help us ensure we have included the best of the best. . . .

So what do you say to people who were nominated and now face more competition?

Mass TLC is attempting to fix what it screwed up, but reopening the awards process creates additional issues. Will the women nominated in response to this action feel they are present as tokens rather than worthy recipients? How will the original male nominees feel about this “affirmative action” for tech leaders? If a woman wins, will people feel she is a legitimate leader? If men win all the categories, will that reinforce the idea that tech in Boston is sexist?

This is not Mass TLC’s finest hour. To get a peek into how they are communicating, here’s a look at an email they sent to one of the original finalists:

Subject line: IMPORTANT: MassTLC Finalist Update

[Recipient’s name],

As you may have seen, MassTLC’s awards program has been, appropriately, called out in the press and on social media for having no women finalists in our CEO, CTO and CMO of the year categories. While we diligently work throughout the year on advancing women and other underrepresented populations in tech, we failed to ensure that our process resulted in a diverse candidate pool.

I am writing to let you know about this situation and that, while you ([candidate’s name]) will remain a finalist, we are reopening the submission period and increasing the finalist pools for each of our individual awards in the hopes that we are able to spotlight a more inclusive group of tech leaders. There is no action required from you, and you are welcome to help nominate additional candidates.

Nominations will be open for an additional two weeks (until August 10th) in these categories:

Again, existing finalists will remain in each category and we will add five additional finalist slots per category, for a total of ten. We will also add additional female tech leaders to our current judging panels to review and select the expanded finalist pools for each category.

Furthermore, we commit to engaging our tech leadership community in a complete review and overhaul of the Awards program for 2019 and beyond, including a reexamination of nominations process, categories, criteria, selection process, format and more, to ensure we are meeting the inclusion standards we have set for ourselves.

Thank you for understanding.


Mass TLC’s response was late, but appropriate

For several years in a row, the leadership at Mass TLC made a mistake in not being more inclusive. They also made a mistake by not acting sooner. Local NPR station WBUR called out the problem one day after the awards were announced, but it took the Globe op-ed to get them to acknowledge their error and fix it.

Once they decided to fix the problem, though, they did it as well as it could be done:

  • They reopened the awards process and added diversity to the panel of judges.
  • They issued public statements one day after the Globe op-ed criticizing them was published.
  • The public statements included an apology, but did not wallow in it.
  • They described their solution in detail.
  • They reached out to affected parties (like the original nominees) and, in a straightforward way, explained what would happen next.

The matter-of-fact response to an emotional issue is the right approach. Extended mea culpas are pathetic, as are self-aggrandizing justifications.

If you make a mistake, admit it, apologize to those you harmed, and act to fix it.

And next time, don’t imagine that “technology leader” is a subcategory of “male.”

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  1. How good will it make those women feel to know that they are a mercy add? Why weren’t women nominated to begin with? That is the process that needs to change. Slapping it on at the end is demeaning.

  2. This is a lose-lose-lose situation.

    The nominated folks lose (and all ought to withdrawal).
    The token females lose (and all ought to decline).
    The TLC loses as they did not and still do not understand how diversity ought to be incorporated into award process.
    (They doubled down on sexist by wanting to artificially add females to the mix.)

    Other than a nice rubber chicken fundraising dinner, I question the need for such trivial awards. It’s like the dreaded Employee of the Whatever award. It makes everyone uncomfortable and means so little.

  3. Josh,
    from a writing / messaging perspective, I don’t disagree with your commentary. When I make a mistake in communications, I will reference the heck out of the insights you’ve provided to help recover in the most meaningful way.

    However, this TLC situation doesn’t sound like a writing / messaging F*#k up.

    This is an extreme example, but how would you apply your recommendations to the Grand Dragon of the local KKK organization who failed to include a black in their nominations for Zealot of the Year?

    Sure, you could tell them to first, matter of factly, admit they made a mistake. Then, re-open the nomination process so that people of color could be nominated…. Ugh.

    OK, I’ll stop there. See the lunacy of this approach? Everything beyond this point in your efforts to spin is patronizing.

    Echoing the comments of both Patricia and Norman above, the current approach is demeaning and it means so little.

    I think this feels like the time to say something like…
    “We f’d up so badly on this that we have decided to cancel this year’s awards….after all, they are just rubber chicken awards.
    We will come back in 2019 with a more meaningful and inclusive process from the git-go.
    Thank you to all who have contributed to the 2018 awards process. We will be applying the funds that were planned for the gala to the following initiatives that will be helping to promote women and minorities in technology:

    Each of our members should also take this time to ensure that they are doing everything in their power, everyday, to ensure a diverse representation of customers, employees and investors.

  4. The bullshit here is the assumption that positive discrimination remedies negative discrimination. You don’t get a gender-blind world by insisting there be equal numbers of men and women candidates for everything.

    The Apology reeks of PR bullshit from start to finish. They are not trying to correct an injustice, only a bad look. If the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council had identified sexist assumptions in the process that produced their original all-male shortlist, they would be telling us how they proposed to remove those assumptions in future. Instead they are telling us everything will be fine so long as five new candidates chosen for their lack of a Y-chromosome are added to each list.

    They are also telling the original judging panel that their judgement was incapacitated by their testes and that they need to be joined by judges with ovaries in order to reach the correct result.

    No prizes for guessing the gender of the eventual winners.