Features & Columns

'Lean Out' Urges Women to Create Their Own Culture in Silicon Valley

Elissa Shevinsky thinks it's time for women to stop trying to be part
of sexist Silicon Valley and to create their own spaces

Elissa Shevinsky will speak at C2SV, which takes place
at the California Theatre in San Jose on October 8 and 9.

LEANING OUT: While Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In told women to speak up so men hear, Elissa Shevinsky's new book, Lean Out, urges women to create their own culture in Silicon Valley.

As a late-night comedy sketch, the Titstare demo would have come off as a scathing parody of Silicon Valley sexism. Unfortunately, Jethro Batts and David Boulton—hoodie-clad Aussies in their mid-to-late 20s—presented their ill-conceived app at the 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

"Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits," Boulton explained with the keyed-up enthusiasm of an infomercial host.

"Why, Dave, why?" Batts prodded.

"Well, I'll tell you, Jethro," Boulton replied, while a photo of a buxom woman flashed on the projector behind them. "It's science, my good friend. Science. Did you know that looking at breasts is directly linked to a good, healthy heart?"

"Dave, I think this is the 'breast' hack ever," Batts snickered.

"It's the breast, most titillating fun you cans have," his partner concurred.

The predominantly white, male crowd erupted in applause and laughter. Some women walked out, while more responded with a collective eye-roll, then anger. At the same event, the developer of an app called Circle Shake pretended to masturbate by moaning and vigorously shaking his iPhone. It was the same tired joke, told countless times to other punchlines about dongles, gangbang interviews, women-as-company perks and brainy ovaries.

For Elissa Shevinsky—a startup CEO and veteran coder who watched the livestream of the hackathon on her laptop—that marked the moment she began to feel like an outsider. It didn't help that her business partner, Glimpse Labs cofounder Pax Dickinson, publicly defended the Titstare duo.

"I'm now of the opinion that pervasive bro-ness is enough of a distraction to be worth dismantling," Shevinsky tweeted, joining a chorus of outrage over the TechCrunch scandal. She elaborated on her rekindled feminism in a follow-up blog for Business Insider titled, "That's it—I'm finished defending sexism in tech." "I thought that we didn't need more women in tech," she wrote in the impassioned manifesto that elevated her to the role of social justice warrior. "I was wrong."

Yet in her new book Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Startup Culture, Shevinsky says her initial response was flawed. Recruiting more women is not the answer, she writes, because women are not the problem. "The solution is to respect the professional environment," says 36-year-old Shevinsky, an acclaimed designer of female-centric dating apps and cybersecurity software. "Simply having more women in the room doesn't fix that. We need to fix the root issues in tech, to overhaul the entire culture. Women are smart to not show up to an industry that doesn't welcome them."

In the 2013 memoir Lean In, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg explained how to get ahead in the existing male-dominated tech culture. Leaning in is about how to speak up so that men will hear you. Lean Out—a feminist anthology of 25 stories by 18 writers—takes Sandberg's point a step further, urging women to build their own cultures and create their own spaces. In effect, to sidestep the patriarchy.

"To see a leader of one of the biggest companies saying women in tech are important was really impactful and empowering and meant a great deal to women like me," Shevinsky says of Sandberg's widely read work. "On the surface, I have quite a lot in common with Sandberg—I'm an overeducated, arguably privileged, reasonably attractive white woman. But Lean In didn't speak to me."

Instead of martyring themselves trying to reform a culture run by "brogrammers" who consider breast-ogling apps "disruptive" and workplace breastfeeding stations controversial, Shevinsky advises women to forge their own path. "I've had my best experience when I created my own environment," says Shevinsky, who broke into the industry straight out of college in the late '90s. "I didn't understand why that was right way. In school and in those early days, we didn't' know that tech was 'for the boys.' Now that we know—thanks to the connectivity of social media and statistics that prove gender disparity—we know definitively. But when we first got started, it was like nerds against the world."

In some ways things have regressed since then, she says, partly because of the mythology of the White Male Nerd. "The success of men like Apple cofounder 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," Shevinsky writes in the intro to Lean Out, which is due for release in September by OR Books. "This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favorable."

The problem with that narrative is that it's patently untrue. Women played critical roles in creating Apple and Facebook, despite revisionist spin that erased them from the origin stories. In a 2014 sexual harassment lawsuit, Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe also alleged that her colleagues tried to scrub her from the company's history. Contrary to what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Streitfield wrote in the New York Times in 2012, men alone did not build the Internet. Judith Estrin designed one of the main protocols for communicating online. Radia Perlman has been called the "Mother of the Internet" for her impact on how networks self-organize and move data. Ada Lovelace, who in 1853 penned the first published description of "scientific computing," is considered the first programmer.

REPEATING PATTERN: Legendary venture capitalist John Doerr is quoted in Lean Out as saying he invested in Google because its founders were socially awkward white guys like other successful Internet company founders.

"The movies and history books and hiring practices at big tech companies may reinforce the idea that young white male nerds have a natural affinity with computers and with code," Shevinsky writes. "But the truth is that women—and women who defied their assigned gender roles at great cost—have just as rightful a place among the luminaries of Silicon Valley."

Lean Out, she says, is part of a movement to tell those untold stories. The book also elevates the discussion of intersectional feminism—the idea that women who are anything other than white, cisgender and middle-class experience multiple layers of oppression—by including voices from minority and gender-queer women. Brook Shelley compares the experience of working in tech as a man compared to her experience after transitioning as a woman. New York-based entrepreneur Gesche Haas describes becoming Internet-famous for being sexually harassed by a venture capitalist in Germany. Leanne Pittsford shares the story behind Lesbians Who Tech, and how she grew its membership to more than 9,000 in just a few years since the group's founding.

In her essay "Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds," trans-feminist Latina sociologist and gaming critic Katherine Cross traces the gender disparity in tech to the "imaginary homeland" nerds have created for themselves out of a shared sense of childhood rejection. Silicon Valley may view itself as color-blind, sex-blind meritocracy, but the industry has morphed into an entitled, racialized patriarchy.

"The triumph of the nerd is a gendered one," Cross writes. "However many of us as women, LGBT/queer people, or people of color might have experienced bullying (and actual discrimination atop it), the vision of who gets to be a nerd, a geek, or a gamer, remains defined by a classic image that is now plastered on bus shelters nationwide of the Big Bang Theory-style pretentious, perpetually adolescent, young male nerds."

Sunny Allen, co-founder of robotic sex toy company HUM, cuts through the frothy optimism endemic to the industry in her essay "What We Don't Say," a glimpse of a darker side of startup life. In fleeing her ex-fiance's Adderall-induced psychosis, she writes, she became homeless, though armed with a laptop and a patent lawyer. She recounts the three-hour-each-way public transit trips she took from the battered women's shelter in San Francisco to the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View to "write code, solder connections, talk about control systems and gesticulate wildly at the white board" while developing an open-source bioreactor. "This is Silicon Valley," she writes. "We do uppers and write code until they have to pull us out of the Dojo on a stretcher, and we glorify it."

The overall tone of Lean Out, however blunt, doesn't wallow. Instead, the book feels more like a call to action. "Lean Out is a manifesto," Shevinsky declares at the outset. Leaning out or walking away is by no means an admission of defeat, Krys Freeman writes in her piece about being a second-generation techie who dropped out of corporate life over the incessant bias expressed against her as an African-American lesbian woman.

"I don't fault anyone for choosing to engage, for taking their destiny into their own hands, however clumsy it might look at first, or how unnerving it may become over time," Freeman writes. "But I do want to celebrate the daring few who disengage."

Shevinsky calls it creative disengagement—using her own entrepreneurial prowess to move beyond entrenched corporate culture and set her own terms. "When someone asks me how to have the best possible experience in tech, I tell them to create their own culture," she says. "Lead the way."... Read an excerpt from 'Lean Out'