Monday, February 2, 2015

Silicon Valley: The postgender meritocratic paradise that isn't

Silicon Valley once represented an exciting opportunity for freethinkers and entrepreneurs to break down the old gender and racial barriers that appeared immovable in traditional business and finance. Up until the 1960’s, the field of computer programming had been predominately female. In fact, the earliest “computers” were not machines at all, but rather women whose research and calculations were indispensable to many of the most significant scientific discoveries of the eighteenth century. Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord and Lady Byron, holds the distinction of being the world’s first computer programmer, and her writings influenced the creation of the first electronic computer decades later.

However, if anything, the tech boom has created new gender gaps. Today, men have largely appropriated the modern tech industry and, to that extent, the future.  Last December, New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor traced the careers of the men and women of the 1994 Stanford class. Stanford University is generally considered to be the most powerful and influential Silicon Valley incubator, and the class of 1994 graduated at the birth of the Internet age.

Interviewee Gina Bianchini, former-CEO of Ning (an online social network platform), spoke to Kantor about how her generation perceived the Internet as “the great equalizer.” Nevertheless, as Kamy Wicoff, another Stanford alum and founder of, notes:
We were sitting on an oil boom, and the fact is that the women played a support role instead of walking away with billion-dollar businesses.
The lack of diversity in Silicon Valley isn’t limited to its upper echelon, or even to just its technical positions. In June 2014, Facebook disclosed the ethnic and gender makeup of its employees: Women occupy only 15 percent of Facebook’s technical positions, 23 percent of senior management, and 47 percent of the non-technical positions. Similarly, only 6 percent of Facebook’s technical employees, and 13 percent of their non-technical employees, are both non-white and non-Asian. These numbers are generally consistent with similar disclosures by Yahoo!, Google, and LinkedIn.

So what happened? One factor may be that the self-perpetuating association between modern technology and the male “nerd” has given rise to discrimination. UC Hastings released a report in January 2015 that found that 100 percent of women of color in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) have experienced gender bias. Details about the report were summarized on the blog last week.

Men were – and continue to be – hired over women, and whites over non-whites, in the amorphous name of “culture fit.” Often, these hiring biases were simply shrugged off. In 2012, a co-founder and former-CTO of PayPal provided some insight into this mentality to the 2012 Stanford Startup class. He said:
The truth is that PayPal had trouble hiring women because PayPal was just a bunch of nerds! They never talked to women. So how were they supposed to interact with and hire them?
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent National Student Clearinghouse report reveals that the proportion of women pursuing degrees in STEM fields has actually declined in the past ten years (Discussed recently here). And this is despite the increased lip service paid to encouraging young women into STEM fields, as well as the uptick in women studying biology or medicine. Whereas women received 23 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in 2004, they received only 18 percent in 2014. In addition, women with STEM jobs are dropping out earlier in their careers, despite earning 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, and “enjoying” a smaller income gap relative to their male colleagues. This is attributed to the pressures of traditional gender roles and stigmas, as was as the lack of adequate family initiatives in many Silicon Valley companies. They perceive an opportunity to gain a place in their company’s leadership, but don’t want to sacrifice everything to get it.

So what can we do about this? Following Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s demoralizing “good karma”-comments at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration,’s Sarah Gray noted that:
A lot of advice is thrown at women to be considered equals in the workplace — lean in, speak up, be confident, demand raises and promotions, don’t dress “slutty” — which in itself is problematic because it places the onus on women to correct the culturally entrenched male dominance in workplaces.
It’s clear that more needs to be done on the part of tech companies to bridge the gender gap in Silicon Valley. But -- without letting institutions off the hook -- it is also clear that companies often need to be compelled to make significant changes to their organizational cultures. With the declining number of women studying STEM fields, and the “exodus” of female thirty-somethings from STEM careers, it’s uncertain where this pressure is going to come from in the future.

Increasingly, exasperated female entrepreneurs and startup-founders in Silicon Valley have turned to women-only venture funds, or have started so-called “gender-gated funds.” This type of self-segregation has helped many women raise seed money outside of the older capital venture fund community, but has done less to facilitate larger, structural changes in the industry that challenge institutionalized discrimination.


Sara said...

When discussing women entering STEM professions, the discourse generally involves the belief that women never had a significant presence in these fields (and therefore women and girls need to be encouraged to pursue such professions). I appreciate that your post exposed the inaccuracy in this belief. It seems that increased discouragement and discrimination has pushed women out of the central roles and into supporting roles.

Jessica S. said...

It is very depressing (but unsurprising) that Silicon Valley operates this way. Yet again, it is clear that money is not being circulated to women. They are kept out of the loop; out of the world of business. Without female-owned businesses, and women's presence in computing, the economic power balance is skewed.

Ahva said...

In addition to the lack of diversity and gender biases in Silicon Valley's hiring practices and salary structures, a sobering Newsweek article recently highlighted the "savagely misogynistic" culture that pervades Silicon Valley's tech community. The article cited several instances of sexual harassment and sexism by male executive officers in the workplace, at conferences, and on social media. The article also discussed instances of domestic violence on the part of male executives of Silicon Valley companies. The author compared Silicon Valley's current misogynistic culture to the "Wolf of Wall Street" culture of the 1980s and 1990s, but noted that, while sexist practices on Wall Street have been tamed by the many lawsuits that have erupted in recent years, "in Silicon Valley the misogyny continues unabated." You can access the article here:

Juliana said...

The comment by Sarah Gray reminds me of some of the reasons I really don't like Sheryl Sandburg's book, "Lean In." Sandburg's book, which basically encourages women to take a more active role in their corporate workplace by being more assertive and "leaning in" in the boardroom, does nothing to address the much deeper-rooted, structural barriers that cause women's inequality in the first place. Applying Gray's statement to Sandberg's approach, this is not only "problematic because it places the onus on women to correct the culturally entrenched male dominance" in the workplace, but it seems to assume (unrealistically) that by having more female leadership in boardrooms, there will be some sort of trickle down effect that leads to greater gender equality overall.

Damon Alimouri said...

The level of insecurity amongst the men that populate that industry, and others like it, is laughable--an insecurity prompted by premature baldness and ejaculation, impotence, and financial inadequacy, which often materializes in brute sexism.

Simon de Beauvoir's thoughts are germane: "No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility."