Features & Columns

Elephant in the Valley: Silicon Valley Study Exposes Tech Misogyny

Groundbreaking study of women in technology exposes the valley's misogyny
Hillary Mickell (left) and Michele Madansky have started a dialogue on sexism in tech thanks to their Elephant in the Valley study. Photo by Greg Ramar

By the time Hillary Mickell started the recipe sharing site Foodily, she'd been working in tech for quite some time. She'd held senior marketing positions at giants including Yahoo, where she climbed the ladder, balancing her career against having two kids. She received her share of offhand comments about how raising children would kill her career. She watched the man hired to fill in for her while she was on maternity leave cozy up to her boss, and wondered if, perhaps, her job was in jeopardy. Still, she thought the culture was fairly inclusive.

The chief marketing officer was a woman, and the environment supported female leadership. Mickell successfully split a senior director position in marketing with another woman, Andrea Cutright. They shared one email address and split the week, each working two days alone and overlapping on Wednesday; they were so successful that in 2007 Flexperience named them among the "Top 25 Women Redefining Success."

It wasn't until Mickell set out to be an entrepreneur that she felt the heat of being female in Silicon Valley. First, a trusted advisor told her and Cutright, who joined Foodily, that the kind of job-sharing they had so successfully done before would send the wrong message to venture capitalists, who might think they were simply two women looking for a better work-life balance.

Then there was the time after finishing a much-praised presentation that a potential investor told her on the way out, "It's a really good thing you ladies aren't fat pitching a food startup!"

Mickell laughs about it now, but it's a can-you-believe-that-shit laugh, and the sarcasm drips when she says, "He was being so complimentary! It was a compliment!"

Despite incidents where she felt the shadow her gender casts on her professional identity, it could have been worse for Mickell. She would learn that after fielding a survey about discrimination against women in tech in Silicon Valley.

Of course, this kind of harassment is not unique to one profession or region. In advertising, Kevin Roberts, the chairman of agency Saatchi & Saatchi, resigned in disgrace after saying women hold fewer executive positions than men because they lack the "vertical ambition." In journalism, during a conference at Boston University, revered journalist Gay Talese said no female journalists had ever inspired his work, because women aren't interested in "un-educated" or "anti-social" subjects.

Tech is unique, though. Its informal and sociable culture can erode the professional walls people put up. Lines between professional and personal lives are often blurred by in-office kegs, company off-sites, happy hours, ping-pong games, ski trips, Burning Man and yoga workshops. When the expectations for professional standards of behavior begin to crumble, subtler forms of discrimination emerge. By many accounts, it's even worse in the hacker community, where this year at Defcon, the largest underground sector conference, a category in "Hacker Jeopardy" was "Dicks." (The conference is no stranger to overt discrimination and harassment.)

While the problem is not contained to tech, it's uncomfortably ironic in Silicon Valley, where "we kind of hold ourselves to this higher standard," Mickell says on a balmy August afternoon at the trendy Hana Haus workspace cafe in Palo Alto's former Varsity Theatre. "We think we're the innovators, we're the disruptors, we're changing the world."

Yet when it comes to the treatment of women in the workplace, it's "the same behaviors that you see everywhere."

Mickell has been spared the worst of these behaviors, but has friends who haven't. She's known Trae Vassallo for a decade and watched in 2015 as Vassallo testified in Ellen Pao's case against Kleiner Perkins. In the suit, Pao, a former junior partner at the venture firm, alleged she'd been passed over for promotion in favor of equally qualified men, and that after she ended an affair with junior partner Ajit Nazre, he retaliated against her. Vassallo, who was a junior partner at Kleiner at the same time, testified that she, too, had been subjected to unwanted sexual advances from Nazre.

These cases are often settled out of court, so the trial was somewhat of a rarity and all eyes were on it in Silicon Valley. When the jury ruled against Pao, Mickell and Vassallo hoped people would remember more about the case than its salacious aspects.

"We wanted there to be something more thoughtful, where, you know, people understood that there was an issue much larger than these sort of easily identifiable areas where, you know, women were experiencing some form of harassment or discrimination," Mickell says.

She and Vassallo hoped to learn what female technology executives were talking about after meetings or during happy hour, so she called on another former colleague, Michele Madansky, to help design a survey. Madansky has a Ph.D. in business and worked as the vice president of Global Market Research at Yahoo when Mickell was there.

The survey focused on five areas: feedback and promotion, inclusion, unconscious biases, motherhood, and harassment and safety. Four other women came on board during the design phase, and when the survey was ready they sent it to more than 200 women who had worked in Silicon Valley for at least a decade. Three in four respondents were older than 40 and had children; one in four were C-level executives; and one in five were founders or in venture capital.

The results were startling. There were blatant things: 60 percent of women reported sexual harassment at work; 70 percent had been asked about family life, marital status or children in job interviews—a practice that is illegal. There were the decisions and sacrifices women made out of concern for their career, like the 50 percent of women surveyed who'd taken shorter maternity leaves. And then there were the stings and slights that added up over the course of a career to their feeling diminished and unappreciated: 80 percent of respondents had been told they were too aggressive, while nearly 90 percent had a client or colleague address questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them.

The women published the results online in a report called Elephant in the Valley, and shared them in an exclusive podcast with Recode in January. Dozens of outlets picked up the story, including TechCrunch, Vogue, Forbes and Fortune. Soon, women working in tech and other industries began asking them to conduct surveys of their companies. Even men reached out to say how astounded they were by the results.

"That's so much a part of it, you know, that these very sort of forward-thinking, intelligent men have no idea," Mickell says. "They don't necessarily participate or contribute [to discrimination], but they see this and they're like, 'I had no idea, truly, had no idea.'"

Shortly after the survey nabbed headlines, Vassallo got an email from the organizers of South by Southwest, Austin's annual music and tech festival, asking if she and Madansky would be interested in speaking at the conference. Madansky already had tickets, so she took a call with the organizers, thinking they might want them on a panel.

"They asked us to keynote," Madansky says with a huge smile. "I was on a marquee with my face next to Obama!"

Hillary Mickell (foreground) says men in tech have often told her they had no idea misogyny was an industry-wide problem. Photo by Greg Ramar

Mickell did not attend, but, in addition to Madansky and Vassallo, speakers included two women in tech who focus on solutions to the problem: Laura Weidman Powers, co-founder and CEO of Code2040, an organization dedicated to getting more people of color in tech; and Megan Smith, the federal government's chief technology officer under Obama and a former vice president of Google. The Elephant session will finally come to the valley as part of this year's C2SV conference on Thursday, Oct. 6.

During the hour-long SXSW keynote before an audience of approximately 6,000, by Madansky's count, they spoke about the challenges of getting girls and women into technology's pipeline and then keeping them. Madansky noted that when she took computer science as a freshman in college in 1984, women accounted for 35 percent of graduates in the field; now only 19 percent of computer science grads are female. The speakers attributed this drop-off, in part, to the lack of visible female role models in tech. Although women, including Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler of programming languages, and Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first recognized algorithm, have long helped to mold tech's history, few make it into tech's narrative.

"Why would I want to build my career in a place where I'm going to be the only, where I may be made to feel like a token?" Weidman Powers said of why few women and people of color pursue careers in tech.

As hard as it can be to get into tech, staying in the field is no cakewalk. The panelists discussed how at mid-career, women leave technical fields more than their male counterparts, due in part to the "death by a thousand cuts" of implicit and institutional biases.

While speaking on the keynote panel Smith argued, "We have made no progress in pretty much the last 30 years."

She noted how many people still judge women who refuse to do jobs historically seen as female, like taking meeting notes, but don't hold it against men who pass on the task.

During our conversation at Hana Haus, Madansky and Mickell talk about the buildup of those tiny cuts in their own careers. Although they still work in tech, as Madansky puts it they have "opted out" of working for large companies; both are currently self-employed consultants.

"I just feel like it's a disservice to those companies because the senior women are optioning out," she says.

"They're not opting out because of this sort of notion of work-life balance," Mickell chimes in. "They're opting out because they don't feel valued. They have been dealing with too much for too long and it's reached a point of diminished returns."

The issues raised by Elephant in the Valley and questions discussed on the SXSW panel do not have quick fixes or easy answers. During the keynote, Smith said there are 600,000 unfilled jobs in tech. She suggested coding bootcamps as a way to funnel more women into these vacancies. However, she noted filling them and fighting discrimination with deep societal roots will take an industry-wide effort. And the potential solutions are as varied as the problems.

Felicia Jadczak has worked in the tech industry for almost 15 years and spent the last six as a program manager at VMware in Boston. In 2013, she began building a grassroots group for the company's female engineers and, over time, the effort grew into an organization called She Geeks Out. The group's mission is to connect and support women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM), and running the organization will soon become her full-time gig.

Through her experiences with VMware and She Geeks Out, Jadczak has come to believe a solution lies in middle management.

"You also just can't have an executive saying, 'Make it so' and then a middle manager not actually doing anything," she says over the phone. Because middle managers do most of the hiring, they can make a concerted effort to recruit and retain more women.

Judy Wacker has been a programmer for a year and a half and hasn't experienced any discrimination. Nevertheless, she wants to get to a point where people are no longer surprised to hear a woman say she's the engineer, not the executive assistant. Wacker works at the Menlo Park startup Enjoy. She was their ninth engineer—and fourth female engineer.

"That ratio is sort of unheard of," she chuckles. "It's easier to do that with a small company because each woman you hire makes a larger difference. But I feel like because we have that, because we've set that sort of tone, the women that we interview feel more comfortable."

When it comes to setting the right tone, venture capitalist Anarghya Vardhana argues that people should be more careful with their words. A senior associate at Maveron, a venture capital firm that invests in consumer products, Vardhana is attentive to the way founders talk about C-level executives and engineers when she listens to pitches.

"'When I hire a VP of Engineering I want to make sure he knows these things and he does this," she says. "And I'm like: 'Why does it have to be a he?' Even changing the language around—that is really important."

Vardhana notices that people make the same assumptions about her. She's worked in tech since she graduated from Stanford University in 2010—first at Google, then at several startups before shifting to the venture world. Because her name is fairly gender neutral she's received emails addressed to "Dear Sirs" and "Hey Gentlemen." She gets a kick out of the visible surprise when the sender meets her in person. While she knows the ambiguity of her name leads to that, she also believes people assume she's a man because of the roles she's held in tech and venture capital.

Even these subtle shifts will take thoughtful effort, but, of course, some believe attempts at gender parity are actually doing more harm than good. Lea Verou, a front-end developer, research assistant at MIT and sought-after speaker, wrote a blog post in 2013 criticizing overt attempts at gender equality in tech. As she noted in the comments after the article, efforts need to be made to ensure sexism does not turn interested women away from a career in tech. However, Verou scoffed at the need for female-only spaces, or "'girl geek' bubbles."

"I believe they cultivate the notion that women are these weak beings who find their male colleagues too intimidating," she wrote. "As a woman, I find it insulting and patronizing."

Jadczak has run across this opinion many times with She Geeks Out. She's happy some women don't feel they need female-only spaces, but she's worked with plenty who do and who will continue to want them until the industry is "completely at parity."

Elissa Shevinksy took the idea of female-only spaces a step farther in her book Lean Out, which encourages women to disengage with male-dominated tech culture and create their own. She also labeled herself a #LadyBoss because it "embraces the idea of women being in charge," as she told the New York Times in 2014. While that makes her feel empowered, it makes Wacker wonder if it's "the best kind of publicity," because it drives people to see women in tech as a curiosity rather than a fact of life. However, Wacker stops short of saying #LadyBoss is a bad thing.

"If she feels like she needs to do that then I'm not gonna say she's wrong," she says.

That attitude, which acknowledges that the coding bootcamps and women-only happy hours that feel safe to one woman will feel patronizing to another, recognizes these initiatives as incremental steps—but not the end goal—on the way to greater equality.