If you live in Silicon Valley, or just on planet Earth, and you are surprised by the story that broke out of Google in the last few weeks, wherein an insane number of executives were found to have sexually harassed and violated female employees, the company engaged in massive payouts and cover-ups, and is now doing the shameless but familiar public display of hand-wringing over what to do about the “problem of women in high tech,” you either think way too highly of moderately smart people who make a ridiculous amount of money or you literally live under a rock. That particular story had been circulating in the media for at least a year—the pay-offs weren’t widely known, but the horrifying “bro culture” at the company certainly was, as it is ubiquitous in Silicon Valley. Similarly, disgusting accounts of sexist and misogynistic cultures at companies like Tesla, Uber, Facebook, Amazon and countless other smaller firms have been uncovered over the last few years involving everything from sexual harassment, racial tension, worker exploitation, toxic culture, and just plain old corruption. I’m a recent transplant to Silicon Valley, and after living here less than six months, I have just GOT to say: WOW, people who work in high tech, what the ever-lasting FUCK is going on in your industry?
Earlier this year, I left a career as an academic advisor and professor of politics and gender studies at University of North Carolina to move to the Bay Area with my family. Although excited to move out west, it was not without some trepidation that I made the leap. My husband, an executive in high tech, took a big job with a small cybersecurity firm, and the deal was that I would stay home with the kids for a while and focus on writing, while he worked outside the home in a very intense capacity, as is customary in a start-up. In return, I got a one-way ticket out of North Carolina, the freedom to pursue other creative and intellectual interests that I have neglected for some time, the chance to live in a beautiful and culturally rich place, and, oh yeah, precious time with my kids. Although this is a common arrangement here in Silicon Valley, it was totally unexpected in our lives and uncharted territory for us. It was also something about which I was deeply ambivalent. Needless to say, this move out here was a big risk for me, professionally and personally. I’m still unsure if it was the right decision.
I managed to survive the summer at home with my kids, but only barely. By early Fall, I had begun to put out feelers in the consulting and high tech world, and had started looking into teaching again part-time. This seemed like a good fit for me, given my background and the obvious need for this sort of work in this region of the country and in the industry. Much of my academic work focused on feminism, gender equality, and queer political thought, and it would be fair to say that I have extensive knowledge of the challenges women and other minorities face in the corporate world, and in high tech in particular. I also have plenty of anecdotal knowledge, as my husband’s previous company, once a darling in the world of high-tech with some seriously impressive funding, was a deeply sexist place, with precisely the sort of misogynistic and toxic culture that is, sadly, quite common in Silicon Valley. My very first experience visiting their headquarters sounded major alarms for me personally, and it struck me as a massively unprofessional, if somewhat anodyne, workplace.
Still, nothing quite prepared me for the tapestry of complete and utter bullshit that I have witnessed since taking up residence here, and having been baptized by the fire of high-tech culture in Palo Alto. Truly, it is astonishing. And maybe it’s precisely because I am a total outsider—geographically, culturally, and intellectually—that I am totally baffled by what passes for normal out here in Silicon Valley with respect to gender relations, but from where I sit it looks to me like high tech has issues that it has not even begun to seriously face. Worse, my conversations and interviews with industry leaders and insiders—VC’s, executives, recruiters, founders, consultants, and developers—suggest that very little beyond basic cosmetic work in the area of equality, inclusivity, and diversity is taking place. How this could be true, even as we are daily learning more and more about what an awful place this is for women, is truly mind-boggling? Indeed, it is hard to imagine the press getting worse, though I’m not holding my breath, since I know that things can always worsen where sexism and inequality are concerned. After six months in the Valley, this much is clear: high tech has a serious man problem and it is way past time that we figure out what to do about it.
Reframing the Problem
Going back at least a decade now, researchers and academics, industry elites and insiders, and the media have been sounding alarms about the “woman problem in high tech.” Countless articles and books have been written on the subject, non-profits have sprung up to encourage more girls and women to enter into STEM fields, funds are now allocated for female founders, special positions created to manage and promote diversity and inclusivity in companies, and outreach programs have surfaced as a way to entice women into the field. Tomes have been written on this subject of why there are so few women in high tech, and often the reasons proffered are no different than in any other industry. There are not enough women in high-visibility, c-level positions; women tend to be more “non-technical” and most positions require relatively high degrees of technological expertise; persistence of a significant pay gap (both a cause and effect of few women in high-tech); lack of networking initiatives for women; workplace expectations that are incompatible with child-rearing and family life, for which women are still overwhelmingly responsible, even in dual-earner households; not enough women in STEM; enough women going into STEM majors but not enough staying in STEM fields long-term; poor fit culturally for women; women need to lean in more, etc. You’ll notice that almost all of the reasons tend to focus on women’s behavior, choices, or “preferences.” This is convenient, of course, because it makes the problem appear to be outside the boundaries of high-tech itself, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Things are improving for women in other fields and industries, but still lag incredibly far behind in high tech, both in terms of female representation and a less sexist culture. For all its talk of progressivism and forward-thinking, high tech has a culture that is a shockingly regressive and displays an overt hostility to the presence of women. It is riddled with overt and implicit bias, is expressly misogynistic and sexist, and tends to reward women who either conform to traditional gender stereotypes or who participate in and recapitulate the chauvinist culture that defines so much of the industry, thus each, in their own way, perpetuating the cycle of gender inequality in high tech.
Despite a real readiness on the part of women to make major contributions to this field and despite powerful incentives, financial and otherwise, for investors, founders, and executives—that is, those with real power—to focus their energies on solving the “woman problem in high tech,” not much progress has been made in recent years, and much of what has been done feels more cosmetic than substantive. One would think that the horrible press alone would be a catalyst for the kind of change that is needed, but there seems to be both a troubling collective sigh of relief every time some other company is exposed for wrongdoing and a diffusion of responsibility where the general problem is concerned. But one thing is clear. So long as we continue to think of the problem as one having primarily to do with women instead of the men who shape the culture, act as gatekeepers, and wield enormous power from the very highest levels all the way down, very little is likely to change.
Here’s the problem: Most men in the industry, like men everywhere, don’t want to give up or even share the power they currently enjoy and to which they believe they are absolutely entitled. And though many tech bros do not explicitly think about gender relations or their own privilege, they are, it turns out, smart enough to know that, though there may be many returns—even monetary ones—on the investment of gender equality, though it may even be the right thing to do (which many seem to have some dim awareness of), though they may be facing external pressures to create more inclusive, equal, and diverse workplaces, one thing that is going to disappear once equality, diversity, and inclusivity become the norm (instead of just empty buzz words), is the enormous power and status they currently and, for the most part, unjustly enjoy in this industry. Further, the frat house vibe to which they have grown so accustomed, the brotopia that author Emily Chang recently wrote about in her book by the same title, is also likely to vanish. In other words, taking women and gender equality seriously in Silicon Valley will just be no fun for a lot of dudes. They will lose some of their board seats, executive positions, stock, and decision-making power to women; they will have to tone it down in and out of the office; and they will have to stop behaving like oversexed juveniles in a pissing contest all the time. It will be a total fucking downer.
Progress, But Not Really
Both the geographical region of the Valley and the profession is, in general, very liberal and progressive, so there is a somewhat surprising disconnect between that political progressivism and the totally regressive professional culture that constitutes so much of high tech. And the former, in a totally bizarre way, seems to cover all manner of sin for the latter. Whenever I am in conversation with folks in the industry about “the woman problem” it is often as if they cannot accept that there is a problem in the first place, at least not one that is systemic and rooted in a disturbing culture that they are a part of, because it does not comport with their own self-understandings and the otherwise socially progressive culture in which the live and work. Most people who work in SV are accustomed to seeing themselves as super cutting-edge and probably even count themselves among those who literally create and define “the real world,” and that is not an entirely inaccurate picture. At the same time, very few of them realize how massively out of step Silicon Valley is with the actual real world and how totally bass-ackwards things are in their work places and in much of the entire culture here in the Valley. I am regularly taken aback by the considerable gap in how progressive and hip everyone appears to be and how totally unhip things really are when it comes to gender relations and a toxic masculinity that permeates nearly every space, conversation, and transaction.
Progressive values are touted heavily, and the language of “good culture,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” adopted broadly across the industry, which gives off the effect of everyone being sufficiently enlightened. But this is bullshit. Sexism is rampant, and the progressive brand of misogyny found in the world of high tech has the unexpected effect of making it even easier to dismiss women. The right values may be formally in place, but corresponding actions are not. Most men are married to highly educated women; most support women’s rights in theory and do not ascribe to a conservative view of gender relations; most are used to working with at least a few very competent women, and some even report to women. Yet, many, if not most, of the men I meet have wives who, though highly educated, stay home (usually with kids, but sometimes not) full or part-time and have put their own professional and often personal goals on hold for them. And so they live in a very traditional arrangement day-to-day, despite more progressive views on women and gender; and, because there are so few women in high tech, especially in a niche area like cybersecurity and AI, most see the women with whom they work as exceptions to the rule. And when a woman is pushed out of a company, either directly or indirectly, without any clear reason as to why, the response given is usually something vague: “She was okay, I can’t quite put my finger on what it was about her…she just seemed unhappy all the time…hard to say exactly what it was about her…I honestly don’t know…she just wasn’t a good fit with our culture.” Uh, yeah, no shit.
There are likely several things contributing to the disconnect between progressive values and sexism in Silicon Valley. The first is that a lot of people the field of high tech companies when they are very young, fresh out of college or business school, and so sort of oblivious to best practices when it comes to inclusivity and equality, and what women (and men) should expect in terms of an environment that is comfortable for and welcoming to all. In other words, although they may have a highly valuable skill set (or just willing to take big risks and work an enormous amount in the hopes of making a ton of money one day), many entering this profession are often hugely lacking in life and work experience. Indeed, my husband, who is an executive at a cybersecurity startup, notes that it is often people in the mid- to later-stages of their career—in their forties and fifties, say—who demonstrate a far better understanding of what constitutes a healthy and just workplace environment than younger women and men. One female developer in cybersecurity that I interviewed began her career in high tech later in life, and she enjoys a considerable degree of respect and success in her field, which she attributes to the kind of no-bullshit attitude that an older woman with other work and life experience might be more likely to adopt. Although she has been subjected to overt sexism in the workplace, she knew how to recognize, name, and navigate it, and perhaps because she is so well-respected by her male peers, several stepped in to shut the behavior down, as well. This particular woman’s story is unique, as she neither conforms to feminine gender norms in the workplace nor participates in the chauvinist culture to succeed; she does not have to do either, and she recognizes this is unusual for women in her field. This does seem to be changing a bit, in the wake of the #metoo movement and a collective consciousness about sexual harassment and violence, younger women too often grin and bear it in high tech, even becoming co-opted by the culture, and, sadly, some believe this is what it means to pay one’s dues, while the bros are all too happy to carry on as they did in college for as long as they possibly can, but with the trappings of adulthood—a wife who stays home with the kids, stock options, an expensive sports car, disposable income that most Americans can only dream of.
Another important factor in the progressive/sexist dichotomy in high tech (and the Bay Area, in general) has to do with the way in which technology is worshiped out here and there exists a false belief that technology itself has no gender, and so is, by its very nature, progressive and inherently post-gender. Like science, we tend to think of it as totally void of gender, race, age, and values in general. This myth has long been debunked in science and philosophy. We know, for example, that the kind of research that gets funded, the sorts of questions that are asked, the way in which variables are operationalized, etc., are all a product of human preferences, biases, and motives (not to mention, quite obviously, funding). Science is not value-free at all, nor should it necessarily be. Although ongoing corruption and even criminal activity at places like Facebook, Uber, Tesla, and Google have shed new light on just how badly many of these companies are lacking in any values at all, we still tend to think of the technology itself—that is, coding, software, and even most basic concepts—as gender free. But this is so totally false as to be laughable and one need look no further than AI for the proof of this lie. The ontology of AI machines—from sexbots, to autonomous weapons systems, to virtual voice and care assistants—is overwhelmingly male and, many have argued, deeply patriarchal. As a good friend of mine and one of the smartest political thinkers I know, Lisa Fox, recently said, “What we want: a more just, sustainable and equal society. What we’ll get: SEX ROBOTS!!!” Neat. On a more positive note, aps developed by women, like bsafe and Buy Up Index, demonstrate the gendered nature of technology and the power that women software developers and women founders really do have to help create a more just, equitable world. And just earlier this year, Forbes Magazine highlighted some truly phenomenal women founders and researchers making major advancements in the world of AI. They are doing truly incredible work, often having to overcome challenges their male peers do not. So, all is not lost.
It would be a mistake to not also take into account the role that the #metoo movement and the backlash against it plays in all of this. The #metoo movement, which was started by American activist and community organizer, Tarana Burke, and popularized by Hollywood actresses in the Fall of 2017 in the wake of stories breaking about sex crimes committed by Harvey Weinstein, has permeated nearly every industry and facet of our lives. Much of what we have learned—and when I say “we,” I mostly mean men, since women already knew how we are treated day in and day out—was already laid out in a systemic and scientific way in the “Elephant in the Valley” study, a study released by Stanford and partners in the industry in 2016. It says basically what you would expect: the vast majority of women surveyed report lacking a seat at the table; most report they have a problem with being seen as either “too meek” or “too harsh”; 75% of women report being asked about family and children while on interviews; an overwhelming majority report sexual harassment and, of those, 60% report dissatisfaction with the course of action that was taken. As is typical of all feminist movement, and cultural turning points like #metoo, there is now serious backlash, most of which is wholly unwarranted and knee-jerk reaction by men (and some women, too) who are being asked to do better. Just recently, NPR released survey data showing that, although 69% of people surveyed think that the movement has helped to create a climate in which offenders will be held accountable, more than 40% feel that movement has gone too far. It is unclear what “too far” means, but, generally speaking, it is suggestive of a fear that men will suffer overmuch as a result of the movement.
Indeed, my own conversations bear this out to an astonishing degree. In the last month, I have met with a number of high-level men in the industry to discuss the possibility of consulting for start-ups in the early stages and more established companies who want and need to do better on the score of gender equality. They have all been fine enough people (some very lovely, sincere, and thoughtful people) and, on paper at least, committed to improving the climate out here for women; and, yet, within the first few minutes of our conversations, several brought up the #metoo movement in conjunction with concerns they had around “playing the blame game,” “pointing fingers,” and taking a line that was “overly harsh” when it comes to the role that men play in creating and perpetuating “the woman problem” in Silicon Valley. Indeed, they all said, in their best B-school mansplaining voices (to me! to fucking me!): Pointing the finger at men doesn’t help anyone. To which I say: Yeah, it fucking does, dude, and you well know that, don’t you? It helps women. Naming bad behavior, and the men who engage in it, turns out to be hugely helpful for individual women (for starters, many find it empowering and, more obviously, an offender can’t be removed if they aren’t named). Further, as the #metoo movement has clearly demonstrated, when women name their offenders and speak out loud about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment it is very helpful to women as a group. Because, although we are vastly different in countless other ways, we face shared obstacles and disadvantages across a range of industries and workplaces and knowing that makes us feel less alone, both as victims and people who want to make things better. I think what these men meant to say is that pointing the finger at men doesn’t help them, and so it makes them uncomfortable and they don’t wish to endorse ideas or strategies that implicate them, don’t directly benefit them or, best of all, applaud them. Got it.
On the one hand, it seems totally imbecilic to worry about a concerted effort to improve things for women in high tech amounting to “blaming all men.” The vilification of men by women in this field is not really a thing. Literally no woman I know, in the corporate world anyway, thinks it’s a good or strategically viable idea to go around blaming all men—not for sexism or anything else. It is totally offensive to women working on this stuff to suggest as much, actually. In fact, quite the opposite, most women are still naive enough (or generous, depending on how you look at it) to give individual men the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of strong evidence to suggest that perhaps they should not. And literally no strategic plan, development training, or even conversation around gender in the Valley to which I have been privy goes something like this: Blame all the men and give us their jobs! The end! It’s usually more like this: Hold men as a group accountable? Meh, maybe a tiny bit. Hold men who are offenders accountable? Sure, okay, get rid of the few bad apples. Have women do most of the heavy lifting and make sure they are doing things like “leaning in” and constantly reporting shitty behavior despite the risks to them personally and professionally: Definitely! Further, many women, especially in sales, marketing, and HR positions, which is where the overwhelming majority of women are in this industry, are much more likely to either be co-opted or experience strong pressure to “go along to get along,” than they are to buck the establishment. When I hear a man fret about “villainizing white men” in the first few minutes of a conversation about how to make the Valley a more equal, less hostile place for women and minorities, I know immediately that this person is not worth my time and walk right the fuck out. It isn’t that there aren’t really compelling critiques to be made concerning the inefficacy and even immorality of blaming all white men, it’s just that no one is really doing that in the first place and that it is actually totally fine, even important, for those who are culpable, either directly or as bystanders of sexual harassment or gendered discrimination, be held accountable (i.e. BLAMED).
New Solutions to an Old AF Problem
It is hard to know exactly what will shake the dudes of Brotopia out of the Mad Men episode in which they currently live. Despite all that I have just said about accountability and acknowledging when specific men are the problem, I do think a great place to begin thinking differently about what I have called the “man problem in high tech” is to move away from the “all women are the problem/all men are the problem” dichotomous explanations and solutions when working in the field to improve gender relations and the situation for women in high tech. Yes, it is important that we hold individuals accountable and that we work to train and prepare women as a group differently so that they are better equipped to navigate a biased and broken system. However, we know that just telling women to “lean in,” although sometimes effective, doesn’t actually change broader patterns and systemic problems for companies and the culture of high tech, and it often doesn’t even alter the situation of individual women that much. It can be an incredibly stressful approach that places overmuch responsibility on individual women to solve a problem that is well beyond their individual control, no matter how powerful or empowered they may be. And, unsurprisingly, men (and women leaders), especially high achievers in the world of high tech, are not going to be especially receptive to making the problem about their own poor values and bad behavior (even if, in some ways, that is precisely what it is about, hence the title of this piece). The fact is that there are plenty of feminist men in high tech, men who are willing to call out bad behavior when they see it and to be allies for their female colleagues; men who want to work for companies that treat everyone with respect and that take the concerns of women and minorities seriously. What we need is a multi-pronged approach that focuses on implicit biases that affect everyone, misogynistic and sexist cultural norms in a company that may be hard to see and which are often upheld and reinforced by both genders in different ways, a strong emphasis on aligning the business goals of companies with a broader social commitment to inclusivity and gender equality, and, finally, widespread support for women who are victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination and serious accountability for perpetrators. That accountability should not just be formal in nature; when educatory and rehabilitative efforts by peers and superiors prove unsuccessful, sanctioning should come in the form of social ostracism and marginalization by co-workers. There will always be an in and an out-group. Okay, fine. The in-group ought to consist of those who are not down with shitty sexist behavior, and the out-group ought to consist of the lame dudes who can’t seem to grow up. I concede that this seems like a gross oversimplification. It is also the case that people are fired every day out here for a lot less than, say, inappropriate and unwelcome touching or harassment while intoxicated at a work event. Those sorts of things happen all the time and the degree of either protection or hand-wringing over what to do in cases where problematic sexist and predatory behavior has occurred is nothing short of shameful. That is the kind of bullshit that needs to come to halt today. And all the women’s groups and networking orgs in the world aren’t going to change that. The men who are in power right now, however, can.
Given all that we are learning about our psychological and emotional resistance to facts that suggest change, though maybe uncomfortable or difficult, is better for us in the long run or even life-saving, I have to say, I am not hopeful. We know that companies with more women and a culture friendlier to women do better than those that don’t. They do better in terms of growth and profit, of course, but also in terms of less volatility and more stability over time. Not to mention that such companies enjoy better press, avoiding scandals and negative coverage about culture, hiring and firing practices, sexual harassment suits, etc. Even companies with just one board member outperform companies with all male boards by 26%. That’s significant. The state of California understands this quite well, even if many CEO’s and decision makers in the Valley don’t yet. Governor Jerry Brown recently passed a law that requires all publicly traded companies in the state to have at least one woman on their board of directors by 2019 or face a penalty. The numbers increase substantially when we look at women in leadership positions. It further requires companies with five directors to add two women by the end of 2021, and companies with six or more directors to add at least three more women by the end of the same year. This particular piece of legislation was, it seems, concerned with equality in the first instance, with Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson telling the Wall Street Journal that “one-fourth of California’s publicly traded companies still do not have a single woman on their board, despite numerous independent studies that show companies with women on their board are more profitable and productive. With women comprising over half the population and making over 70% of purchasing decisions, their insight is critical to discussions and decisions that affect corporate culture, actions and profitability.” The language, tone, and press associated with this bill was associated with women’s equality and their protection, both as employees and consumers.
Legislation like this is an important step in the right direction. But arguments for gender equality justified on grounds of fairness will only go so far, and they likely have support among people who are already primed to the problem to begin with and who are more inclined to accept a redistribution of power and resources such that those who are disadvantaged by the current system are no longer disadvantaged. I think it’s safe to say that most people who work in SV are not sympathetic to quota systems and other similar practices that seek to create more opportunities for women from the top down, at least not on the grounds that it is the fair and just thing to do, and those who prize free markets and wide latitude for industry are likely to be resentful of precisely this sort of legislation. This is not to say that they don’t want to see more women in the industry; rather, they are just more likely to see the problem as totally unrelated to the current structure, systemic sexism, and a larger culture of gender inequality. High tech companies should reconsider the power of promoting gender equality, even if just from a PR standpoint. The current political climate and the #metoo movement signals that a new day is on the horizon, and other industries are certainly picking up on this. Gender equality quite obviously has intrinsic value in our liberal democratic society—that is, it is an ethic that many customers, decision makers, and people in the industry are committed to because it is the right thing to do. After the financial collapse of 2008, brought on by not just economic factors and a lack of oversight but also by the immoral actions taken by individual people in finance, we have seen a concerted effort in business to comport with certain moral and ethical standards. Still, it is doubtful that this will be enough to persuade many investors, founders, and executives, or to even get their attention.
In my short time here, I can say with a high degree of confidence that the moral rightness of gender equality is pretty much a nonstarter in Silicon Valley when it comes to moving the ball forward. However, the instrumental and economic value of doing better where women are concerned just might cut ice, since, as far as I can tell, most people out here are driven primarily by the desire to—wait for it, wait for it—increase profits! Hard as it may be to not continue to beat the drum of fairness, justice, and the intrinsic value of equality, it is absolutely critical that we refocus our energies on the ways in which women improve technology, profits, and market growth—i.e., how women improve the financial bottom line.
Good news! Gender and ethnic diversity actually DO strongly correlate with profitability. In a study released just this year by McKinsey and Company it was shown that companies in the top 25th percentile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profits. Further, those companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits. At the board of directors level, more ethnically and cultural diverse companies were 43% more likely to see above-average profits, showing a significant correlation between diversity and performance. The Peterson Institute for International Economics released a study in 2016 showing similar but even more powerful results, as it pulled from survey data from nearly 22,000 firms across 91 countries. The report notes that “a profitable firm at which 30 percent of leaders are women could expect to add more than 1 percentage point to its net margin compared with an otherwise similar firm with no female leaders.” It goes on to say that, “by way of comparison, the typical profitable firm in our sample had a net profit margin of 6.4 percent, so a 1 percentage point increase represents a 15 percent boost to profitability.” Although it did not find any positive impact of board gender quotas on firm performance, it did find that the payoffs of policies that facilitate women rising through the corporate ranks more broadly could be significant. And with more women in the company, specifically in leadership positions, we are likely to see less gender discrimination in recruitment, promotion and retention. That gives a company a better chance of hiring and keeping the most qualified people, thus also contributing positive to a company’s profitability. Gender diversity provides different perspectives and insights. The combination of these offers a wider range of ideas and, thus, greater creativity. By excluding women from the innovation economy, we risk missing key solutions to problems, better decision-making processes, and designing products that are compatible with female physiology and psychology, not just male.
The facts are there, and have been for some time, regarding the economic, political, and, yes, moral, incentives to promote gender and racial/ethnic equality and diversity. And there are certainly more female founders now than ever, despite a still significant gender gap in investment awards for founders. A small handful of firms, such as Y Combinator, have made efforts to close that gap, but thus far they have been minimal. Each year, there are more and more conferences for women leaders and founders in high tech, and more media and press attention on the great work women are already doing. Companies are increasingly creating positions specifically tasked with managing and creating more diversity and equality. RSA Conference, a major international conference and exposition leader in information security, has just announced a huge initiative to bring more women into security and create more diversity at the conference and beyond. These are all perfectly fine initiatives, and one hopes they will, in fact, lead to an increase of women in the industry. But what is desperately needed is cultural change now, from the top down. Despite all of these new efforts, the troubling culture and massive inequity in this sector continues apace. I continue to be pulled back to the obstacle with which I began at the start of this piece, which is that not enough men are willing to step back, so that others can step forward.
I recently met with leader in the industry—let’s call him Jason—and he was surprisingly honest about his own concerns regarding what men might have to give up in order for gender equality to begin to be realized in high tech. Jason has a son who is a leader in his own small way in the industry. And Jason tells me that, although he is generally supportive of gender equality, he doesn’t want women’s advancement in the industry to take anything—“not even one little thing”—away from his son, who, as we can all probably guess, “has worked very hard, is incredibly smart and talented, and has to fight for everything has,” blah, blah, blah. Maybe that’s all true, I don’t really know. Despite what we do know about white male privilege and how it benefits those who have it educationally and professionally, I am willing to give Jason the benefit of the doubt here and assume his son is super stellar. (Sidenote: I also have a son. Two, in fact. I’m totally cool with them not getting ALL THE TOYS on the playground so that the equally deserving girls can play with them, too. For many mothers of sons, this is a no-brainer.) If that’s true, he’s surely an outlier, because what I can say with certainty is that most of the tech guys I meet out here are pretty average—I mean, astoundingly so. I am often left scratching my head as to how these people have amassed sizeable fortunes when they seem to lack general intelligence, social and political awareness, emotional maturity, sexiness or finesse, and even the tiniest bit of charm. Even after I remind Jason that we know that companies who have a more diverse workforce tend to yield greater profits and I cite a ton of data to him, which he already knows because he is a well-informed guy who knows his industry, he is unwavering. He does not contest the data and fully accepts that it is in everyone’s interest to get on board with gender equality and improving the situation for women in high tech. Still, he does want his own son’s wealth, status, or power to be diminished in any way, neither in the short nor the long-term.
Here’s the problem: although gender equality in high tech really does benefit everyone, financially and otherwise, it also quite obviously requires that men give up some of their power and status. Both are true. There are two obvious problems here. First, in a lot of ways, gender equality is a long game, and the pay-offs, certainly for men, may not be immediately felt, nor will the financial pay-offs be felt instantaneously by CEO’s and the companies they steer. So, it doesn’t play very well in a world where everyone wants to get theirs now and literally nothing has legs if it doesn’t make a lot of people really rich fast. This could be overcome, though, as some of the data I just cited does suggest that there are some relatively easy things we can do with respect to equality and diversity that can lead to greater profitability in the short term. The second issue, however, is much more serious, and makes the “woman problem in high tech” seem so intransigent: most men are totally irrational when it comes to gender equality. We know that it benefits them in countless ways, and that fact is thrown into sharp relief the enormous data available on gender and racial diversity improving profitability in business and high-tech. Yet, it may turn out that most care more about their power and elevated status relative to women (which is a more polite way of saying “the patriarchy”) than they do all of the other benefits that might accrue to them and to the women they love. In other words, if the choice is between their company doing better overall because it does better on gender (and so enriches them personally in real tangible ways) or keeping their Brotopia in which they are gods and women little more than paeans, they just might be dumb enough to keep on choosing the latter. And because high tech currently lacks enough women in positions of power, we desperately need these dudes to make a different choice.
Of course, there are some things that can be done right now to stop the bleeding and make things a little less awful for women, not to mention bring Silicon Valley into the 21st century. One that is sort of obvious to someone like me, except that when you say it out loud, people look at you like you are a crazy person: VC’s and investors should stop backing people who do not display a considerable degree of integrity, maturity, and an ability to grow their corporate culture in a way that, at a minimum, does not harm women, and ideally strives to create an equitable and just workplace. In a world in which the focus is almost entirely on the ideas and technology, this seems like blasphemy. Indeed, one thing that makes this industry and this place so appealing is the fact that anyone with an interesting idea can come here and make it. It doesn’t so much matter, in a way, who you know, what you look like, whether you have style of charm, or even how much money you have. What matters are two things: the technology and the vision. And so, as has been noted by others, this place has a way of calling home all the nerds who never did fit in anywhere else. They can come here and find a groove, and that’s not a bad thing at all. A more just world is certainly one in which we care less about status and appearances and value more of what is on the inside. But VC’s really are investing in more than technology. They’re backing people, people who they are entrusting to grow their money and to protect their interests, interests which extend beyond finances. So if the person sitting across the table from you doesn’t seem like someone you would trust to a run a household, why would you give them a ton of money to one day run a Fortune 500 company?
But VC’s should go a step further: they should seek out women founders and clients and do whatever they can to make themselves a more attractive option. Just as women in the great wide world do now, women founders have a choice, and VC firms who want to attract the best talent need to look and to be as progressive, diverse, and forward-thinking as possible. They need to do more than just seek out female founders, they need to demonstrate an understanding of the unique challenges women face in this industry and be able to offer guidance on that particular score, resources and support, and to provide a useful network. This is a no-brainer, with shared positive outcomes for VC’s and founders. VC’s get better talent that is increasingly hard to capture as more options are emerging and founders get a broader set of resources and support.
Another relatively easy step in the right direction on both of these fronts is for VC’s to take the step of bringing on consultants to do the following: (1) Advise founders in early to middle stages around how to create a culture that is friendlier to women and intolerant of misogynistic behavior, one that comports with basic best practices and standards, (2) Focus specifically on attracting female talent and making their firm more attractive as they compete for female talent, and (3) Offer a full menu of services for women and men founders and executives in later stages that includes leadership and development, networking, workshops on implicit biases and how they can affect relationships and culture, deep analyses and reviews that pay attention to cultural norms that are in play but may not be fully in view to those inside the company, and guidance on how to align business goals with a wider social commitment to inclusivity and better gender relations. HR departments are supposed to do some of this work, of course, but they very often do an inadequate job, as they are oriented towards protecting the company’s interest and focusing on what is working, as opposed to what is not. Often, these organizations are skilled at avoiding litigation and can address issues of representation and hiring/firing practices, but they don’t necessarily know how to get at deeper cultural issues in a company that may be contributing to an environment that is hostile to women or is setting them up to fail. This is true, despite the fact that women tend to be over-represented in HR departments; they are frequently co-opted by the higher-ups at a company and are not able to effectively do the job they were, in theory, higher to do. In any case, Silicon Valley could, in general, benefit from the perspective of outsiders where gender relations are concerned. Outsiders frequently see problems that insiders either don’t see or have just become so habituated to that they now conceive of practices that are actually not okay as normal and harmless.
Today, I am sitting, as I often do, at a lovely international café in downtown Palo Alto, where the movers and shakers of the high-tech industry regularly take meetings and shoot the shit over an Americano and a croissant. A group of otherwise incredibly polished, well-spoken men who, based on their conversation I am shamelessly eavesdropping on, are in high-tech, have loudly and abruptly taken up all the space they can at the table next to mine. Legs spread wide, voices booming (and always raised a few decibels when the topic of money comes up), and f-bombs dropped every minute or so. They are decked out in their fancy Italian shoes and well-tailored suits. Their self-importance is telegraphed at every turn, from the way they talk to the young, attractive female baristas behind the bar, to the way they seem to view conversation as a sport, constantly trying to one-up each other where work and personal life are concerned. Today, their topic of conversation is of considerably lower quality than their fine ivy-league degrees and fresh threads, as they are presently cracking jokes about the ridiculousness of sexual harassment claims in their office and how so many of “these girls don’t even know if they aren’t being harassed in the first place. What do they expect to happen?” Hah. Hah. Hah. For a moment, I think I am sitting outside of my old café in Chapel Hill, listening to some truly tragic male undergrads complaining about the girls outperforming them in their B-school classes. Sadly, it is not at all unusual for me to overhear a conversation like this, in which men either expressly denigrate women or speak in less direct but no less misogynistic ways about those in their industry, companies, and, yes, personal lives. This particular gaggle of bros, though, is truly the lamest, and all of the women within earshot seem to agree, based on their own hushed conversations, eye-rolls, and deserved dirty looks. The men in the café seem to be oblivious to their nonsense. Here these hapless dudes are, just carrying on, completely unaware of how out of step they are with much of the world around them, a world in which they, shockingly, remain largely in control, at least for now. The mind reels.
As I listen in and continue to contemplate high-tech’s man problem, the question I am left with is not whether, if given the chance, women can improve upon this vitally important industry and, at the same time, make significant substantive contributions to a range of areas across high-tech, thus making all of our lives better. About that, I have no doubts. Against all odds, they are already making the industry and our lives better. No, the question I am left with is whether enough decent and smart men in high tech will do all they can to eradicate a culture in which dudes like this still thrive while so many women who outpace them on every level continue to struggle for the respect and regard they deserve. Women are working so hard to make changes in this industry. It’s time for men to do the same.