Tim Armstrong Doesn’t Say The Wrong Thing About Women In The Workplace

Editor’s note: Fara Warner is editorial director of Aol Tech and This Built America.

In the past few weeks and months, conversations about women in our industry have run the gamut from companies such as Apple and Facebook willing to pay to freeze women’s eggs so they can put off having children and Satya Nadella’s karmic misstep to the data-rich, but solution-poor disclosure of just how few women are at the top of tech.

But Tim Armstrong showed other tech CEOs how to speak with respect and admiration about women in the workplace during his comments onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt London. The comments came after Josh asked him about his own missteps when he talked about women and how “distressed babies” had been at the heart of a reason to make changes in Aol’s employee benefits. Not a proud moment for any CEO.

This time around, he spoke about women and diversity in a way that didn’t condescend (no karmic wheels of life to come back and kick you as they did Satya) or put us on a gendered pedestal with talk of our eggs and biology. Nor did he ask us to lean in, lean back or lean anywhere to solve these issues on our own.

Instead, what I heard as a woman working at Aol is that I have an open invitation to excel and take risks, and that my success will be measured by my accomplishments, not my gender. Moreover, my gender isn’t going to hold me back from being rewarded for excelling and — to put a sharp pay-parity point on this — if my risk-taking pays off, I’ll get rewarded for it.

That’s a big contribution to this never-ending conversation about women and work and, importantly, pay parity. As my boss put it so simply, everyone wants to get paid for the talents and skills we bring to a workplace, which is at the heart of pay parity whether you’re me or you’re a black man, transgendered or somebody over 60 — basically anyone who doesn’t fit the norm in tech of the white 30-year-old male.

We should succeed or fail on the merits of our work, the sharpness of our minds and our ability to add value to the world, not the shapes of our bodies or the color of our skin or who we know.

(Full disclosure. As I mentioned above, I work at Aol albeit farther down the org chart than the women Tim mentioned in the last few minutes of his 20-minute conversation. I am the editorial director for Aol Tech, which means that the editorial teams for TechCrunch and Engadget, Joystiq and TUAW report to me. I know right! Big surprise, the co-editors have a boss. One thing I’m hugely proud of is that women and all kinds of other people who aren’t white and male are well-represented throughout Aol Tech, and we’re better for that diversity and viewpoint.)

This conversation, as Alexia noted when we discussed this via text and email, brings us to a reasoned point of inflection in the conversation. And I hope that the inflection is strong enough to push us toward smart, insightful conversations and solutions instead of what we’ve heard recently.

I know it’s never that simple. Discrimination happens no matter what a leader says or does. But Armstrong planted a flag and said why women are important to Aol and overall to the workplace. Whatever happens after this, I believe an open conversation can flow about career advancement, pay parity or discrimination at Aol and perhaps beyond.

The other big contribution Armstrong brought to this conversation was this: Work should be a place where you have the opportunity to learn and grow. Okay I’m pretty sure Aol isn’t that place completely — or that any corporation will ever be able to achieve that. But I’d be happy to help it get closer to that place because I don’t want to work somewhere where the conversation is always about my gender when it comes to getting what I need or want from work — or not getting what I want and need as the case may be.

Beyond discrimination and fighting corporate cultures that don’t support diversity, I think this very lack of learning and growing may be at the heart of why we leave the corporate world and start our own things.

Work becomes too much about getting ahead or keeping our head down, getting the next raise (not that we don’t want or deserve that) and climbing our way up the ladder. Instead, shouldn’t work — for everyone — be a place where you’re learning and growing? And yes getting paid fairly. It’s what I once loved about journalism–and most days still do. No matter what story I was working on, no matter how tough my editor, I was learning something new every day.

So now that this discussion is on the table — it’s up to all of us — and me personally now that we’ve opened up this conversation at Aol — to figure out how I make work a place that’s less about what gender I am and more about what I can accomplish.