It’s no secret that Silicon Valley, the land of my birth and livelihood, is a man’s world. According to a 2011 report from the National Science Foundation, 74 percent of U.S. engineers are men. According to a 2007 survey by National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), 94 percent of technology companies are run by men. That doesn’t mean the industry has to perpetuate offensive, misogynist phrases.
Silicon Valley, like many other industries, is also a world of partnerships, where two companies come together because each has something the other wants. Frequently in the creation of these partnerships there is an exchange of intellectual property, something proprietary that neither one would like to share with the rest of the world.
Too often, negotiations about this proprietary intellectual property are referred to as opening the kimono. This must stop. So when I actually heard a woman use it last week, it became clear to me that most people don’t know the phrase’s derivation and it was time to be a little noisier about it.
Though some people dare liken it to the casualness of “loosening one’s necktie,” that’s a ridiculous comparison. The phrase is derived from the practice of prostitutes lining up in front of prospective customers in a whorehouse and opening their kimonos so that the men could make their choice based on what they saw. Pardon the soapbox, but it represents a demeaning process that should be offensive to all feminists – no matter what their gender – anywhere, in any industry. Using it in a business context is no more appropriate than using a racial or homophobic epithet.
What’s worse, even though I’ve been hearing it in Silicon Valley for years, it’s apparently becoming more popular, not less. Late last year, AOL’s Daily Finance page named it the buzzword of the week while offering explanations of its derivation in the business world. As the author, Bruce Watson, wisely concluded: “Still, as the slightly racy phrase catches on, users should be careful: Open kimonos work both ways, and dropping them into casual conversation may reveal some things that should probably remain under wraps.”
Help me eradicate this archaic relic of an idiom (a word that, appropriately in this context, comes from the same root as idiot). I realize it’s hard to stop a conversation or a presentation, especially at the risk of correcting someone with whom you want to do business, but try it anyway. If you can’t, send the speaker this column. And if you use this insidious phrase yourself, just stop it.