Scandals in a Male Dominated Silicon Valley

The recent Ellen Pao–Kleiner Perkins scandal has brought much needed attention to the gender gap in technology and venture capital. The media attention and debate surrounding the lawsuit has opened up a dialogue that often remains hidden and overlooked, particularly in this field. But the gender unbalance is unmistakable. A recent report reveals that women make up a mere 9% of board members at Silicon Valley Companies, compared with 16% of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies. While the glass floor has yet to be broken in countless industries, why is it even higher in tech and VC? The New York Times published a great article explaining the lawsuit and discussing the gender gap in Venture Capital. The article opens by saying:

“MEN invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks.”

The NYT is wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, women played a huge role in the years leading up to the invention of the internet. In fact, software programming was supposedly invented by a female, Ada Lovelace. She is known as the “mother of software” and wrote the first algorithm for a computer program in the mid 1800s. Later, as computers became more advanced, females continued to play a big role. Females known as the “ENIAC girls” were the ones looking at flow charts, operating sheets, and doing the work to operate the switches and manually program the machine. Girls programmed the first electronic computer. But the balance shifted and software became a world primarily open to men alone. So what happened?

Well for one, in the 70s and 80s as computers became more integral to daily life, there was a deliberate attempt to make software programming more masculine. For example, look at advertisements like the one above. Females were blatantly discouraged from entering this world, and men, particularly those with math, chess, and science skills, were encouraged and incentivized to replace them. Worse, the notion that women were incapable and unfit to participate in this field became widespread. It worked. Too well. Take a look at the charts below. While overall graduate degrees in  computer science have soared dramatically in the past decades, the percentage of females in these fields has steadily decline since the mid 80s. Likewise, only 18% of CS degrees are earned by women.

The stigma associated with tech and engineering has long been what the NYTimes described – nerdy men with “pocket protectors” who were probably socially awkward and lived in the library. This stigma has persisted throughout the years and created an environment that is hostile towards females.

What can be done?

  1. The stigma needs to change Thankfully, in the past couple years there has a been shift where tech is finally cool. Thanks to popular consumer internet sites like facebook and twitter, the “nerdy” stigma is beginning to change. That will certainly help, but the female element is still lacking.
  2. It must be a bottom up effort Educational institutions must make a real effort to recruit females and foster an environment where females in tech is encouraged. This needs to start before college, and probably well before high school. Coursework, extra curricular activities, and camps etc must all make an effort to integrate computer science or engineering into the curriculum in a way that is appealing to girls. As the demand for software increases each year, there will be an even more severe deficit of skilled engineers if half the population is excluded.
  3. Female Role models Women like Sheryl Sandberg and Megan Quinn are great role models that help to bring attention to successful females in the tech and VC industries. Unfortunately, women like this are few and far between, but its important that those females that are pioneers in the industry be vocal and support the movement.

My experiences, both working at startups and in venture capital, have consistently been male dominated. However, they have also all been great experiences working with people who are incredibly smart, supportive, driven, and hard working. I have not felt discrimination. I think that in general, this industry is not discriminatory by nature. In fact, it’s the opposite. I see tech and VC as worlds where people are excited by the democratizing powers of technology and its ability to facilitate enhanced experiences. They are pioneers of an open, democratized, and connected future.  I hope that this lawsuit fuels people to address the deeply rooted circumstances that have caused a dramatically disproportionate number of qualified and skilled female entrepreneurs, VC’s, and leaders. If any industry can do it, it’s definitely this one.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s