Elephant in the Valley
We all know the geek stereotype. Guys in their 20s. Super smart. White. We can point to a hundred movie roles that play with this trope. It’s ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
Perhaps the reason we’ve accepted the stereotype so readily is the very real foothold it has found in reality. Our vision of the pop-culture geek – young, White, male – has become the face of success in tech and STEM fields; in many ways, the face of Silicon Valley.
There ARE women killing it in the valley. But there’s a reason our vision of tech-stardom hasn’t wavered in the past 10 years.
This “Elephant in the Valley,” the unspoken but ubiquitous problem of discrimination towards women in tech and STEM fields was the subject of SXSW Interactive’s Sunday keynote. Michele Madansky, co-author of the study the keynote was based on, moderated the panel and was joined by Trae Vasallo, another co-author; Megan Smith, the United States Chief Technology Officer; and Laura Weidman Powers of Code2040.
Smith and Madansky introduced the premise as thus: There are currently 600,000 positions in the tech and STEM fields that need to be filled with qualified candidates. In not committing more dedicated focus to encouraging and supporting women in these areas, we essentially cut our pool of potential tech employees in half. We decrease our own ability to grow in tech, as a country, if we turn a blind eye to the narrowness of the group from which we draw our talent.
Before turning to the situation women currently working in tech find themselves in, Smith spoke about the problems we face when trying to encourage young girls in tech and STEM fields.
The biggest thing we can do, she said, is inspire young women and girls using the incredible feats of women who have been fundamental to the evolution of technology in America. But that becomes incredibly difficult because nobody knows those women.
“We run our history through the rinse cycle and wash all the women out of it. It has to stop.”
Everyone knows who Thomas Edison is, but very few people have heard of Grace Hopper. We as a society don’t do enough to educate girls about the inspiring women in the history of tech, she continued.
However, all panelists agreed, even when girls and young women do continue with STEM, they sometimes face even greater challenges. It was at this point that Vasallo and Madansky introduced the survey study they co-authored, along with several others, called Elephant in the Valley.
They spoke with over 200 women who had worked for a minimum of 10 years in Silicon Valley. They surveyed them on a number of topics but ultimately broke their results into these areas: Feedback & Promotion, Inclusion, Unconscious biases, Motherhood, and Harassment & Safety. Women faced everything from micro-inequities to discrimination and harassment in all of these areas.
Overt bias is getting better, Smith commented. The situation women often face now is, “death by a thousand cuts,” she continued, referencing the sometimes small but ever-present nature of gender biases in tech.
Vasallo rattled off some of the more disturbing statistics they found.
First, it should be noted that companies led by women, while increasing in number, receive only 3% of venture funding in Silicon Valley. In the face of that statistic, many women will choose to work for a company or startup vs. beginning their own.
The first, which many women can undoubtedly identify with, is that 84% of women have been told they are too aggressive. Strangely, 50% of all women surveyed also reported having been told at some point that they were too quiet. This illustrates the strange lose-lose situation women often find themselves in.
When it came to social/networking opportunities, 66% of women said they felt, or were overtly, excluded. 90% of women reported seeing sexist behavior at these off-site networking events or at professional conferences.
Almost 90% of women reported having questions addressed to their male counterparts when it should have been asked of them. Similarly, almost the same amount report having eye contact more readily made with male counterparts than with them.
A full 60% of respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances at work. Of those, 65% had had a superior make the advance. Many were left with little or no recourse and/or were retaliated against if they did complain.
Vasallo and Madansky opened the survey to female SXSW attendees in the weeks leading up to conference. The statistics from those surveys matched very closely to their results from Silicon Valley.
And yet, the four women on stage presented a surprisingly optimistic front. Weidman Powers spoke about the confidence to move through difficult situations, using a performance analogy.
You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable, she said, adding that there are times where women must adopt a strong demeanor and face these situations, and conversations, head on. She did say that there is a difference between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe, and that no one should ever push through feeling unsafe.
“We didn’t create this problem,” Smith said, looking to the audience. But we can be part of the solution, she continued.
“But we can only fix it if we all fix it.”
She told the packed room that she was often asked by business owners about what they can do to hire more women, more minorities. Her reply, she said laughing, was, “just hire them.”
This can no longer be one of many important things we’re focused on for the long term. This needs to be one of a few things we are determined to change in the short term, she finished.
Madansky ended the panel by asking each speaker what their hope was, for the future. She cited the year 2040 for its special significance as the year the United States will no longer be majority White.
“I hope that by 2040, a panel like this won’t exist,” Weidman Powers replied simply, “because there will be no need for it.”