“He’s one of the richest people on earth. He’s an adult. He’s 30-some years old. He can answer questions if he’s the CEO. … Stop juvenilizing men here in Silicon Valley.”

That’s how Kara Swisher, co-founder and executive editor of the technology news website Recode, reacted to the treatment Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg received from lawmakers during his testimony on Capitol Hill last week. (Recode is owned by Vox’s parent company, Vox Media.)

Swisher was speaking on Politico’s Women Rule podcast. She’s a veteran tech journalist, hosts the Recode Decode podcast, and runs one of the most influential conference series in Silicon Valley. I reached out to her to find out more about why she thinks the media and lawmakers “juvenilize” men in Silicon Valley, and what it will take to stop it.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

When you say that we “juvenilize” male tech CEOs, what do you mean?

Kara Swisher

Well, what I mean is this: Mark Zuckerberg is an adult person, and we still call him “boy genius” and we’re still surprised that he wore a suit and we still wonder if it’s going to be hard for him to testify before Congress. I find that odd, given that he’s one of the richest and most powerful people on earth.

We tend to let people like Zuckerberg off the hook by treating them like boys. Zuckerberg didn’t make a little mess like a child at dinner. He badly mismanaged his company, and the country paid a price for that. He has to own that, and we have to make him. Treating him like a child won’t help.

Sean Illing

You’ve been covering tech for a long time. Why do you think these men are treated this way? Have we just bought into the silly mythologies around Silicon Valley?

Kara Swisher

Sure. They dress in their little hoodies and they wear casual clothes and they stay in this state of perpetual youth, and we buy into it because they don’t look like adults. And there are a lot of young people in tech, but the truth is that the most successful companies are run by older people, so it’s a lie that these are mostly young kids running the show. But we perpetuate this idea all the time.

Sean Illing

There’s this vaguely libertarian idea, which people in Silicon Valley love to promulgate, that innovators need to be left alone to work their magic.

Kara Swisher

Right, which is ridiculous. Bill Gates tried this routine in a more arrogant way with Microsoft years ago. He had this whole pose that said, “I don’t need you, I can’t deal with you, I’m over here innovating.” But it’s ridiculous. These people are obscenely wealthy, and they create these technologies and then they don’t want to take responsibility for their creations.

I saw this sort of attitude in Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill, and he’s mostly allowed to get away with it. There are exceptions, of course, but many of the questions were soft and indirect. That’s a problem. People like Zuckerberg and Gates have to take responsibility for the things they build, and people have to hold them accountable when they don’t.

Sean Illing

What price do we pay for not challenging these tech CEOs the way we should?

Kara Swisher

They’re so cavalier about what they’re doing. When Zuckerberg first become CEO, he had this business card that said, “I’m CEO, bitch,” which is so juvenile and ridiculous. I mean, really? Then his next motto was, “Move fast and break things.” But if you break things, you have to fix them.

I get the need to occasionally disrupt old ways so that you can build anew, but the idea that you can just break things — like, you know, a presidential election — and not take responsibility when it goes badly is insane, especially when you’re making billions in the process.

Sean Illing

Do you think lawmakers are just too shy, or do they simply not understand the people and technologies they’re overseeing?

Kara Swisher

I’d like to say that it’s too complicated for these lawmakers to understand, but it’s their damn job. They know how to regulate banks, so don’t tell me they can’t get their hands around social media. But listening to that Zuckerberg hearing last week, it was pretty clear that most senators were unprepared and had no idea what they were talking about. That can’t happen.

Sean Illing

Most of these tech CEOs are white men, and that has a lot to do with how they’re seen and treated. How different do you think it’d be if we had more women tech CEOs and more women on boards?

Kara Swisher

I don’t know. We tend to praise white men; it’s just the way it is in this country. But Sheryl Sandberg is a key executive at Facebook, so this particular problem is about more than gender. I recently asked the head of communications at Facebook if they had any irritants in their system. I wanted to know if there were people inside that building who don’t agree with everyone else. I didn’t get much of an answer.

Facebook constantly brags about how “cohesive” they are, but I think we need less cohesion at these companies. We need people who are asking, “What the hell are we doing?” We need people who think differently, who have different life experiences, and more diversity is certainly the best way to do that.

Sean Illing

I’m not counting on that to happen anytime soon, just as I’m not counting on tech companies to self-regulate. So where does that leave us? What will it take to push back?

Kara Swisher

I don’t know. Right now Congress can’t even decide on lunch, so I don’t expect them to do anything meaningful. And it’s not exactly easy to get voters excited about regulating Facebook, in part because it’s hard to explain and people don’t fully understand the impact.

But I’ll say this: Among the major tech companies — Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon — Facebook is the most vulnerable because it could unravel in much the way AOL did. It could be wildly popular one minute and then suddenly no one’s using it anymore. Companies like Amazon and Google are much better protected against a collapse or backlash because they’re involved in so many adjacent businesses. But that’s not the case with Facebook, so Zuckerberg, more than anyone else, better figure it out soon.



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