Features & Columns

'Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture'

The best way to hire more women is to hire them
Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture

The success of men like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg created the perception that ideal founders of companies look just like they did—young, white, male, and socially awkward. This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favorable.

Paul Graham, one of Silicon Valley's most influential investors, said in an interview in 2014, "God knows what you would do to get 13-year-old girls interested in computers . . . We can't make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven't been hacking for the past 10 years."

The idea that tech has a pipeline problem—one that can be solved by teaching five-year-old girls to code—infuriates me. It's awkward to say so. I need to tread carefully here, lest I be accused of bad feminism. I can see the headline now: "#LADYBOSS Against STEM Education for Girls. Also Secretly Hates Puppies."

I am, of course, in favor of teaching girls to code. And it is true that there are more men than women applying for jobs and programs in Silicon Valley. But the reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

John Doerr, a partner at the Kleiner Perkins venture capital firm, sang the praises of the legendary young white male nerd at the National Venture Capital Association's annual meeting in 2008: "In the early days when you went back in the Amazon shipping area, the books were lined up so you could see what people were buying. Invariably there was a book about programming language like Java, and in the same sales order there was a book like The Joy of Sex. These [customers] were probably very clearly male, nerds who had no social or sex lives trying to get help by using an online service.

"That correlates more with any other success factor that I've seen in the world's greatest entrepreneurs. If you look at Bezos, or [Netscape Communications Corp. founder] Marc Andreessen, [Yahoo Inc. co-founder] David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who've dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in—which was true of Google—it was very easy to decide to invest."

The mistake that we have made is taking the narratives at face value. We all know that there is a "Woman in Tech" problem. But the nature of that problem looks very different, depending on your vantage point. It's worth noting that sexism is not evenly distributed in Silicon Valley. Some companies have healthy work environments and others do not. Companies like Google are quite large, and some departments are more dysfunctional than others. Moreover, things are far better for women in tech than they were even two or three years ago. It's not my aim to say that sexism is everywhere, or that we are all at fault. The work that I aim to do here is clarifying the nature of the "Women in Tech" problem, to the extent that we agree that something is wrong.

Note that the "pipeline problem" storyline is used not only about women but also about people of color, LGBTQ people and pretty much any minority or group that doesn't have cultural fit. The women who work in tech agree that the problem is harassment, discrimination and a generally hostile work environment. Many cite difficulties being hired, promoted or getting funding. An overwhelming number of the highest profile technology companies have had a sexual harassment scandal that has made headlines—many within the last year. Whether it's public companies like Google or Twitter or fast growing startups like Github, Uber, Snapchat and Tinder, a job applicant would have good reasons to believe that she is about to join a fraternity.

I've been in tech since 2001. I didn't see the problems clearly because I'd been part of the industry for too long. I also wanted to focus on getting things done rather than on feminist-inspired activism. So I made the bros-only atmosphere work for me. I overcompensated by picking a frat boy to cofound a company with me (he was MIT & YC). I had the greatest time drinking scotch at Google I/O with some of the best CTOs in the media industry. They treated me like a bro. I didn't want to lose those moments. And I thought that there was room for other women to have a similarly good experience.

I experienced sexism all the time, but I overlooked it because I was too busy working. My year living and working with younger Silicon Valley startup guys in the SoMA district of San Francisco was an onslaught of misogyny, penis jokes, porn references and general lack of common courtesy. The oddest part was the inability to switch gears. What made these guys think that I'd want to hear their masturbation humor? Those guys weren't able to switch gears out of brogrammer mode. One wonders if they ever switch gears.

CULTURE CLASH: Trans Latina sociologist Katherine Cross writes about the defensive misogyny and male entitlement of nerd culture.

Let's be clear—sexism isn't owned by startup bros from frats out of MIT. I've been hit on by VCs (one messaged me on Gchat to ask if my OKCupid profile was for research) and another introduced himself at the TechCrunch August Capital party by stating that he'd like to make out with me (to be fair, my badge read "CEO of MakeOut Labs," but that introduction was brazen). I've been sympathetic to these bad actors. With so few women around, it's almost reasonable that they can't get past seeing me as one of their only romantic prospects. And yet, we find ourselves wondering why more women don't choose to be part of this world.

Companies, and individual actors within companies, could do more to create professional and hospitable work environments. We should not look is to executives at big companies to describe problems of sexism and inequality in Silicon Valley. Executives at companies like Google or Yahoo have a different set of issues. These issues include hiring the most talented people, while using the least amount of resources to do so. These problems include how best to create shareholder value, and how to do damage control around negative PR. Putting the blame on the pipeline problem is good for PR and shareholder value because it shifts blame away from a tech company's leadership and HR departments, and onto women. This is a way for big tech companies to avoid hard conversations about fixing broken recruiting practices and fixing work environments that are hostile to women and people of color.

I understand this. As a CEO myself. I also optimize for shareholder valuation and reputation. However, I take their descriptions of tech problems with a grain of salt. When I see YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki describing the pipeline problem, I see a representative of YouTube (which is owned by Google). Her problems are not the problems of most women in technology. Her problems are those of shareholders and board directors charged with optimizing quarterly revenues.

The "pipeline problem" narrative is a double win for big tech companies. It absolves them of responsibility for their faulty hiring practices and problematic work environments. The "pipeline problem" story also encourages the flow of resources towards training women and minorities to be knowledge workers. Increasing the pool of potential applicants is valuable for these companies. It is a way to hire more people without making any internal changes for recruitment. Efforts to improve the pipeline don't necessarily come with any obligations by these companies to hire or fairly treat these workers, once they are trained.

I worry about training and encouraging women to join an industry that is failing so many of the women who are already here. Maximizing shareholder value is fine (hey, making money is the American way) but it's not what's at stake when we talk about Silicon Valley's sexism problem. On reflection, turning to Google and Twitter executives to suggest solutions for sexism in tech is absurd. In the best cases they are describing someone else's problem. In some cases they are themselves the bad actors.

Equally troubling are the comments used to support the pipeline narrative. The subtext is that women aren't qualified to be hired or funded by Google, Twitter or Y Combinator. This paints women as damsels in distress who need extra help to be part of Silicon Valley.

When I hear companies say that they cannot find women, I am confused. I'm here. My friends are here. We are even knocking on their doors. We are applying to their conferences and for jobs and internships and funding. We are signing into their headquarters as guests and using their APIs. We are easy to find on LinkedIn and through our social networks. So let's stop saying that women aren't here, or that they aren't skilled. Let's instead look at why we're not seeing/hiring/promoting/funding/respecting the women who are.

As Aliya Rahman tweeted at the Lesbians Who Tech conference, "I believe the best way to hire women and people of colors is to hire them." Sometimes I think it really is that simple. The best way to hire more women is to hire them. We are already here, and we are already awesome.

Things were different when I got started in tech. When I got into programming as a teenager, I felt very welcome in Computer Science. It was 1997, and I was taking "CSCI 105: "The Web: Technologies and Techniques," the Computer Science department's most introductory class. It seemed like a lightweight way for a humanities major like me to fulfill the college's science requirement. I had just graduated from a science high school and wanted to take a break from challenging STEM classes.

Led by Professor Tom Murtagh, the class covered the architecture of the Internet, along with html and Java programming. My teaching assistants were nerdy white guys (who I totally admired) but the class was mostly gender balanced. In 1997 we didn't know that programming was for boys.

The industry was so new. We didn't have role models like Zuck or Jobs to create "pattern recognition" for hiring managers or Venture Capitalists. Zuck hadn't even begun high school in 1997. Jobs had not yet turned Apple into the iconic company it would eventually become. In 1997, before the iPod and iPhone and Macbook Pro, Apple was described as a "damaged brand." We didn't have 10 years of white male heroes. We had each other. Nerds against the world!

In 1997, this was a battle that us nerds had not yet won. Nerds were so uncool at Williams College that the section of campus where we lived was known as "The Odd Quad." There were no hackathons or multi-million dollar acquisitions by Facebook. It was just a bunch of us in the "Sun Lab" talking about TCP protocol and making websites that no one saw. The programmer-nerds became my friends. We would get together on Wednesday nights for hot cocoa spiked with liquor, and play "Magic: The Gathering."

It was a gender balanced group ... of wonderful nerdy gamer coders. My boyfriend taught me to write Perl code and pick locks. My college memories are mostly of hanging out with this group of wonderful nerdy gamer coders. I have the fondest early memories of tech culture. I got internship and job offers everywhere that I applied, ultimately working for Ethan Zuckerman's startup "Geekcorps," which sent tech geeks to Ghana. I had friends in the industry, I had job offers, I fit into that world. That's a powerful thing, to feel wanted. Like you belong. Like you know what to do. Like you're among friends. Safe. Respected.

Fast forward to now. Put yourself in the shoes of a young woman considering career choices, and doing initial research. If she were to research working at a large tech company, what would she find? And if she were to apply, what would she experience? It's time that we stopped saying that women aren't interested in tech or in programming or in STEM, and that special education for women is the solution. Women were interested in tech when I was coming of age, and it was a decent place to be. Smart applicants do research before they enter a new field. And it doesn't take much research to realize that technology has a gender problem. Smart women are making a well-educated decision when they choose a non-STEM field. Upon close examination, a woman researching tech might realize that there are amazing opportunities for those who are willing to navigate the landscape. But not every applicant will get past the initial hesitation, and many do not have mentors or role models to help them find that awesome first job or angel investor.

It's with this in mind that I encourage women to get involved in tech, but to do so by working closely with a trusted mentor. Startups like Glassbreakers offer peer-to-peer mentoring for women in tech. There are definitely paths for women to have awesome experiences developing their skills and becoming successful in technology.

The issue is not that women need better or different education. The issue is what women find when they research our industry and what their opportunities and experiences look like once they are here. If we want top candidates to join us in technology, then we need to earn them.

Let's stop blaming women for the failure of big tech companies and VCs to appreciate, respect, hire, fund and promote them. And let's stop trying to solve an urgent, time-sensitive HR problem—the need for big companies to create genuinely hospitable environments for a diverse set of employees—with unrelated measures like teaching kindergarteners how to code or feel-good conferences that don't change how women are hired, promoted, funded or respected. Women are not the problem. Let's fix the thing that is.

Elissa Shevinsky will speak at C2SV, which takes place at the California Theatre in San Jose on October 8 and 9. This piece was adapted from Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, Or Books, 2015.