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Silicon Valley’s Lasting Gender Problem

Closing the gender gap is about more than just numbers

23May

It’s no secret that tech has a long-standing issue with gender. In line with wider problems of diversity in STEM industries, technology’s gender gap is stark; research firm PayScale found that just 21% of US tech executives are female, a particularly damning figure when compared with the (albeit poor) 36% in other industries. An alarming 60% of female Silicon Valley employees reported that they have experienced unwanted sexual advances, while two-thirds felt excluded from networking and social opportunities on the grounds of their gender.

This imbalance is damaging both literally and notionally. It seems that for every plaudit hurled at Silicon Valley’s startup paradise, there is a sexual assault allegation or an accusation of misogyny to counter it. Women are still paid less than men in tech - even when experience, education, and responsibilities are taken into account - and that inequality is prevalent even at Silicon Valley’s very biggest names.

The latest to appear on the ignominious list of deeply problematic companies is UploadVR, a virtual reality media startup based in San Francisco. The company is currently being sued by its former Director of Digital and Social Media, with a long list of accusations that includes intense and explicit gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination, according to TechCrunch.

‘The atmosphere and work environment at UploadVR was marked by rampant sexual behavior and focus, creating an unbearable environment for Plaintiff and other female employees. Defendants purposefully and expressly created a boy’s club environment at work, focused on sex and degrading women, including female employees. Male employees, including [co-founders] Mason and Freeman, would even speak sexually about women that worked in the office, right in front of them. For example, male employees stated how they were sexually aroused by female employees and how it was hard to concentrate and be productive when all they could think about was having sex with them.’

This explicit misogyny manifests itself in more insidious ways, too. According to the law suit, women at UploadVR were given the more menial tasks and were less likely to be reimbursed for business expenses, when compared to their male colleagues. The full document of the suit is incredible, reading more like a description of a caricatured post-war ad agency than a cutting edge company in the US’ most famous pocket of innovation.

Silicon Valley shouldn’t bear all of the blame, though. Just 18% of computer science degrees, for example, are awarded to women, and a wider societal shift towards parity in STEM will need to happen if we are to see change at its top level. Everyone from CEOs to parents with young children can contribute to this shift, and it may take time for any significant change to be seen. Having said that, the boy’s club mentality of ruthless competition does seem to be endemic in California’s northern hills.

One of the more high-profile companies to be embroiled in scandal is ride-sharing giant Uber. By the end of this month, an investigation into former employee Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment claims will have concluded, and the findings may prove damning for key members of the hierarchy. Uber’s history of cultural problems is long for a company that didn’t exist in 2008, and CEO Travis Kalanick is viewed by some as the leader of a ‘bro’ culture that by definition sidelines women.

‘You just see this pattern of arrogance that says, “We can do whatever we want and get away with it,”’ said Orson Aguilar, president of the Greenlining Institute. ‘We definitely see Uber as a bottom-feeder of the tech industry when it comes to issues of fairness and equity.’ Kalanick has been predictably outspoken about the claims, going to great lengths to dissociate Uber as a wider brand with the allegations.

The truth remains, though, that venture capitalists are largely older, majority white, and overwhelmingly male. In fact, only around 6% of partners at VS firms are women, an imbalance that is both worsening and having significant trickle-down effects. As put by The Economist - ‘Venture capitalists are the technology industry’s demigods.’ Through support both financially and in mentoring programs, the whim of the VC community is heavily influential in deciding which startups get off the ground.

John Doerr, an investor that backed the likes of Google, admitted that his philosophy was: ‘Invest in white male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard of Stanford.’ If other investors share his view - and, evidently, they do - two damaging biases are being propegated at a fundamental level of influence. Doerr’s confession is representative of an industry that needs to be doing far more to tackle its stark gender imbalance, both in terms of board level representation and office floor culture. UploadVR’s case has turned heads because of its severity and its transparency, but the numbers across the industry at large reveal a more damning profile. Until the image of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur as being intrinsically white, male, and well-educated is dispelled, tech’s lingering and unedifying gender problem will continue to turn women away. 

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