Ashton Kutcher Rethought His Comments On Workplace Gender Equality

Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images/Airbnb.

Last Wednesday, Ashton Kutcher started more of a conversation than he might have intended when he wrote a LinkedIn post about his foray into improving gender equality in the workplace.

"Planning on hosting an live [sic] open dialog about gender equality in the work place [sic] and in tech in general with my fellow Partner from Sound Ventures Effie Epstein, on my facebook page on Monday or Tues of next week," Kutcher wrote.

The first several topics he proposed? "What are the Rules for dating in the work place? Flirting? What are the clear red lines? Where does the line between work life and social life stop and start?"

Many women understandably took umbrage at the idea that dating should be the priority of any dialogue about women in the workplace. Particularly in tech, where story after story report the sexual harassment women face in the industry. Disappointingly, the reason these issues are making headlines is because the women involved have been brave enough to put their professional futures at risk — and not because the men who continue to behave inappropriately have seen the error of their ways.

To his credit, Kutcher addressed his foot-in-mouth post in his and Epstein's Facebook Live event this afternoon. "The first thing I posted was about dating and flirting in the workplace," Kutcher said. "Wrong place to start. Got it."

"Even though there were some right questions in there, it was tough to get to because, I agree — I cringed when I read that first question," Epstein said, adding that "learning and collective learning is the most important thing."

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In talking about the goals for his VC firm, Sound Ventures, Kutcher explained that he and Epstein wanted to approach these problems with a "bifurcated" approach, implementing a no-tolerance policy toward abusers, but exploring deeper solutions for institutional challenges.

"The assholes that are sexually harassing people, no more hall passes," Kutcher said, later adding that he wanted to dive in deeper to unconscious bias. "On the blind bias thing, it's so deep that I would love to hear and understand from this audience how to unearth it."

But it's worth asking whether the focus on implicit bias is all talk. For example, Kutcher and Epstein mentioned their interest in Project Implicit, a nonprofit research organization created by scientists from University of Washington, University of Virginia, and Harvard University. This test, and versions of it, have been administered at corporations and organizations across the country in the hopes of getting employees at all levels to recognize, unpack, and manage their biases towards others in the workplace. However, the results are limited.

"Critics of such training contend that it doesn’t visibly move the needle on diversity numbers, and can even backfire," Joelle Emerson reported in Harvard Business Review in April, citing a number of resources and studies that have questioned its efficacy. Plus, even aside from whether "unconscious" or "implicit" bias training works or not, the fact is that many of these issues are institutional.

Fortunately, Kutcher and Epstein do propose more concrete solutions that don't rely on white heterosexual men who dominate these professional spaces.

"Selfishly, it is our hope that if there are female founders that are building companies in the space of software and technology, that we want a strong pipeline of female founders and we want to see your companies," Kutcher said. "We want to increase our pipeline, so, selfishly, we're asking to see those companies. Also, for women who want to become VCs over time, at some point, we'll be adding more general partners to our team and we'll be hiring, and when we are, we would like to see you as candidates."

That's a much better call-to-action than Kutcher's LinkedIn one, which suggested that momentum is being hindered by "existing educated talent pool in STEM," rather than institutional opposition to change. As Black and Latinx entrepreneurs have shown, the talent is there, but the financial support isn’t. (As R29 previously reported, research from tech incubator DigitalUndivided found that Black women received 0.2% of all venture deals from 2012 to 2014 and had raised an average of only $36,000 in funding overall.)

Epstein also added that VCs who have already carved out a space for themselves can also do work to support up-and-comers, particularly at coaching people on the story. "Don't just show what you think you can achieve in the next 12 months," she said. "Sell us on the five-year vision."

Epstein explained that female entrepreneurs she meets often try to sell her on their companies by emphasizing "what they know they can achieve" — which is typically within a smaller market size. By contrast, male entrepreneurs tend to "sell based on the vision" — not lying per sé, but certainly adding a lot of zeroes to their estimates, as well as...creative projections they can't support with initial numbers.

Finally, Kutcher rightly noted that it's crucial for startups to do the work of being inclusive in their earliest stages, as trying to plug a female techie in a hostile culture developed without women will likely have the reliably terrible results we see so often.

"They're not thinking about diversity with employee one [...] so it's not surprising that companies 20, 30 employees deep are going, whoa, we've got a diversity issue here. Now you're trying to hire your way out of a problem that is a mess," Kutcher said.

He and Epstein took on the responsibility to "find ways to create a better pipeline for ourselves that is diverse." Here's to hoping they make good on that promise.