Does sexism really bug Silicon Valley?

A high-profile sacking at Google has exposed tech’s ‘women’ problem

Features

04 Oct 2017

When my mother was at school, there wasn’t much in the way of careers advice, though she was presented with a few options deemed suitable for a young woman about to enter the workforce: nurse or teacher. (Alternatively, in 1960s Ireland there was always convent life to fall back on.) Thankfully, I had a slightly more substantial list to consider as I prepared for university, but the suggested professions were still traditionally female roles.

Seventeen years later, the gender debate rages on. Recently, Google software engineer James Damore ignited an international firestorm after writing a ten-page leaked memo arguing that women are, in aggregate, biologically less suited than men to engineering and leadership positions. The internet giant swiftly sacked Damore, with chief executive Sundar Pichai claiming that his former employee had breached the company’s ‘basic values’. Although Damore’s remarks were condemned by many, there are plenty who support his view that ‘the science of human nature’ is behind the under-representation of women in tech.

Women hold just a quarter of IT jobs globally and, according to a 2017 report, men outnumbered women by at least three to one in more than half of 3,000 British companies analysed by Tech City UK. Google, meanwhile, prides itself on its progressive ideals, yet only 20 per cent of its engineers are female. What’s going on?

Silicon Valley was supposed to be a panacea for the greed and corruption of Wall Street — all ping-pong tables and free bagels and bright young things hell-bent on changing the world for the better. But for all the utopian rhetoric of its founders, something has gone awry. With the exception of outliers like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, few women in tech have a seat at the table. ‘There were hardly any women in the technical field when I was at Facebook and little was done to recruit them,’ says product manager Bo Ren, who worked for the company from 2014 to 2016. ‘There was this disconnect between Sheryl’s whole “Lean In” philosophy and feeling that change on the product and engineering side. Facebook prides itself on being libertarian, but there’s a lot of unconscious bias underneath.’

Even more disturbing is the conscious bias — and outright sexism. Elephant in the Valley, a 2016 survey of more than 200 senior women in tech, found that 60 per cent had experienced unwanted sexual advances, while 87 per cent had been subjected to demeaning comments from colleagues. When Susan Fowler, a former Uber software engineer, spoke out in February about the sexism she encountered at the ride-hailing service, she prompted the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick — the man who once described his company as ‘Boob-er’, because it helped him bed more women — and set a domino effect in chain. In June, Dave McClure, co-founder of the accelerator and investment firm 500 Startups, apologised for ‘being a creep’ by making multiple sexual advances towards women he worked with. The same month, Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence after six women accused him of lechery.

London’s tech scene isn’t immune. Earlier this summer, 52-year-old Melindi Nicci met an ‘angel investor’ she hoped might provide capital for her startup, Baby2Body, an app for new mothers. But towards the end of their one-on-one he became distracted, his eyes ‘wandering from my shoes to my body, before asking me if I was single. I can handle myself, but that upset me.’

James Damore reckons the under-representation of women in tech isn’t due to sexism, at least not primarily, but the fact that, at a population level, boys have a greater interest in maths and science than girls. To be fair to him, the stats aren’t exactly heartening. In Britain, women represent just 16 per cent of the total number of computer science students at degree level. The memo also references several scientific studies, including the work of developmental psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (Ali G’s more cerebral cousin), that claim a difference exists in male and female psychological traits. Baron-Cohen’s essential thesis is that the male brain is ‘systemising’, while female brains are better at empathising. Baron-Cohen heads Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre and holds several prestigious academic posts. The guy clearly has credentials. But so does Cordelia Fine, who has also written extensively on gender differences. She says that while there are some differences between men and women’s brains, there is no convincing evidence that they are biological in origin. Fine’s take is that our brains are shaped by our physical, social and cultural environments.

Hands up: neuroscience, behaviour genetics and evolutionary biology are not my strong suits. Credible voices on both sides have raised interesting points that merit debate. But if from the outset you give a little girl a doll to play with instead of Lego and tell her, ‘Don’t worry, darling — girls are rubbish at algebra’ when she fails a maths exam, it’s unlikely she’ll be itching to pursue a STEM career in later life. Last year, Gap came under fire over an ad campaign that featured a boy wearing an Albert Einstein T-shirt, with the headline ‘The Little Scholar — your future starts here’. The girl next to him was dressed in pink alongside the caption ‘Social Butterfly’ and a promise that she’d be ‘the talk of the playground’. Hardly inspiring stuff.

There may well be some truth in the argument that men are more drawn to certain fields than women. But the controversy surrounding Damore’s memo detracts from a wider issue. The question isn’t whether women want to work in male-dominated industries — it’s what the industries can do to attract and retain female talent. The frat-house lifestyle of Silicon Valley’s startup scene isn’t exactly female-friendly. Late, boozy nights are the norm — where does that leave working mothers? Even Apple’s glitzy new campus has no childcare facility. It all comes down to the culture, says Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, a California-based non-profit that supports women in technology. ‘Small startups are typically launched by a few men, who hire their friends, so it’s very easy for the first 100 people to be mainly white guys,’ she says. ‘They don’t have any advice about basic best practices for their employees. That’s what you’re seeing with Uber. It grew really fast and they didn’t pay attention to some of their infrastructure, like HR.’

However, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Last year, Facebook pledged $15 million to the Seattle-based non-profit Code.org, which promotes diversity in computer science. There are a number of UK initiatives aimed at tackling sexism in tech, while networks like Decoded and Women Who Code are helping to close the gender gap. Because whether or not self-selection is at the root of the problem, technology — like every other industry — needs diversity to thrive.


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