Breaking The Silence: Gender Discrimination In The Tech Industry
In 1843, Ada Lovelace published a translation of an article on the Analytical Engine, to which she added extensive notes which described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. She introduced many computer concepts a century before the development of the modern computer, and though her article got little attention while she was alive, Ada Lovelace is now considered to be the first computer programmer. That’s right, the first programmer was a woman!
However, since Ada Lovelace’s revolutionary work, the modern tech world has become an increasingly hostile environment for women. It is no secret that the science and technology industries have long suffered a significant gender imbalance, and as the tech world has grown, the inclusion of women seems to be moving in the opposite direction. After peaking in 1991 at 36 percent, the rate of women in computing roles has steadily declined to 25 percent today. This poses a significant issue for female entrepreneurs as well, as women own only 5 percent of startups and just 7 percent of partners at top 100 venture capital firms are women.
Thinking about this topic always reminds me of the Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins case of 2015, as this was one of the first times this issue had been publicly addressed. I was a high school senior at the time, with an interest in computer science. I remember this case inspiring me to pursue a degree in computer science, both because I was interested in the subject and because I felt a sort of duty to my gender to forge ahead in this male-dominated field. Even though Pao lost, I think that this case paved the way for more women to come forward, and prompted discussion about gender discrimination in technology and venture capital.
Since this case in 2015 there has been an onslaught accusations of harassment and bias by both female founders and tech employees, hinting that sexual harassment happens far more than we think, it’s just not always talked about or brought to the attention of the public. This points to the more pervasive problem of women being discouraged from coming forward for fear of their career being hindered, thus making discrimination seem like a smaller issue than it is.
In The Tech Industry
In the past year alone, Google has been accused of having “systematic compensation disparities” between men and women in the company; Susan Fowler Rigetti published a 2,800-word blog post containing allegations against Uber; and AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer at Tesla filed a lawsuit claiming a culture of “pervasive harassment”. And these are just a few of the many allegations that have recently come to light.
A survey by Elephant in the Valley found that 87 percent of women in Silicon Valley felt subject to “demeaning comments from male colleagues” and 60 percent of women in tech report unwanted sexual advances. This is made worse by the fact that 65 percent of women who report unwanted sexual advances had received advances from a superior, which puts these women in the difficult position in which they feel that their success at a company rests on them keeping quiet. Because women are so vastly underrepresented in positions of power within these companies, with the average tech company’s board of directors being only 11 percent female across Silicon Valley, these allegations are often squashed and denied by the company authorities.
While this issue clearly has a profound effect on the wellbeing of those harassed and discriminated against, it also poses a problem for the tech industry as a whole. The trend of women being underrepresented in positions of economic and political power across all industries is not a new one, but it’s prevalence in the tech industry is particularly troubling as this is a sector commonly thought to be forward-thinking, and one that is shaping all of our lives in many ways. There is also a startling hypocrisy in the fact that the tech industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers, and is striving to gain more women representation, yet women are being driven out or discouraged from entering the field by perpetual discrimination.
In an industry which relies on innovative, creative and forward-thinking minds, diverting half the population from contributing can seriously impede the development of new ideas and the progress of the industry as a whole. Instead of sweeping this issue under the rug, or combatting and denying allegations of inequality (as many companies have done), the source of the problem should be addressed. Tech companies need to be aware of and take action to reform the gender discriminatory culture that seems to form the fabric of this industry.
As For Startups…
This issue extends beyond tech companies to the tech startup environment as well. We’ve heard the story several times now, from Binary Capital’s Justin Caldbeck being accused of “unwanted and inappropriate advances” by several female founders, to 500 Startups’ Dave McClure “making advances towards multiple women in work-related situations,” to investor and former Google executive Mr. Sacca who female entrepreneur Susan Wu claimed “touched her face without her consent in a way that made her uncomfortable”.
Many of these advances stem from a leverage of power, in which an investor can take advantage of an entrepreneur who needs funding. This quickly becomes a gender game, as most investors are male and hold tremendous funding power. Indeed, this New York Times articles cites that many of the women they interviewed said “they believed they had limited ability to push back against inappropriate behavior, often because they needed funding, a job or other help.”
As with the tech industry, dissuading female entrepreneurs by maintaining such a blatantly demeaning environment can only hurt the venture capital industry, and perpetuate the cycle of unequal distribution of power and skill. In fact, last year female entrepreneurs received only $1.5 billion in funding while men received $58.2 billion, according to the data firm PitchBook. Confining such a innovation-filled industry to almost exclusively men can profoundly stunt the growth and conception of new ideas which could benefit investors and entrepreneurs alike.
In another interview for New York Times, Katrina Lake, founder and chief executive of the online clothing start-up Stitch Fix, who was one of the women targeted by Mr. Caldbeck said “female entrepreneurs are a critical part of the fabric of Silicon Valley. It’s important to expose the type of behavior that’s been reported in the last few weeks, so the community can recognize and address these problems.”
I think this hits the nail on the head in terms of cultivating a change in the tech and VC industries alike. As more women speak up about their experiences, these industries as well as society as a whole are receiving a wake-up call. The Ellen Pao case brought my attention to this issue in high school, and is one of the reasons that I am currently in my third year studying computer science in college. Just as Ellen Pao inspired me, I am hopeful that the increase in women coming forward about this problem will spur more action from women and men alike to prevent and reverse these inequalities, and create a more diverse and welcoming environment in both tech companies and the startup environment.
Also published on Medium.