diversity, gender, gender gaps, Inclusion, International Women's Day, Silicon Valley, women in tech, women in the labor force, Women's rights

Silicon Valley on International Women’s Day 2018

It’s been a rock and roll year for women’s rights. Just when you thought the 2016 elections in the US were a reality TV show titled ‘battle of the sexes: who will be President’, along came 2017 and brought us the biggest women’s march in history followed by the creation of a popular movement to end sexual harassment. Much ink has been spilled in an effort to make sense of these momentous events – what were the cultural, technological and historical contexts which set up the conditions of this to take place? What created a perfect storm of feminist consciousness?

On International Women’s Day 2018, I’d like to put on my own analysis hat and look at how these broader themes played out in my microcosm of lived experiences spanning the length of the peninsula between foggy San-Francisco and sunny San-Jose: Silicon Valley. The fabled and the mythological collided with reality more than once this past year, and giants were shaken to their core in the name of equality and justice. Though the Valley, and the companies it sprung which are rooted in the ethos of innovating to improve people’s lives, has always been a place where people came together to be better, it wasn’t until 2017 when the reality of corporate America finally collided with the founding principles of these same tech giants.

Scandals and public outrage aren’t new – what 2017 brought to light were the gender dimensions of these pain points. Although revelations of discrimination, sexism, bro-culture and even harassment have been around for a while, and the pioneering law-suit brought by Ellen Pow really opened up this conversation space, it seems Silicon Valley titans hadn’t been paying attention. Now that both the #metoo movement has risen to prominence and diversity efforts are finally giving rise to a multiplicity of voices and some measures of accountability, the landscape is beginning to shift.

The year kicked off with the infamous ‘Google Manifesto’ written by a Google employee named James Damore who used an internal company forum to post a ten-page ramble which made the case that women weren’t cut out for tech. This so called ‘manifesto’ which was just a really long blog post, used a lot of motivated reasoning and pseudo-scientific studies to try and make this point, but ultimately this MGTOW[1] test-case failed spectacularly. In the effort to subvert the progress Silicon Valley has made on increasing women’s representation in tech, the document and subsequent lawsuit (after Google fired Damore), played into the hands of diversity proponents by encouraging every CEO in the Valley, more than one top VC, and even top journals like The Economist[2], to publish full throated endorsement of diversity efforts. The lawsuit also failed because Google has every right to fire someone who’s creating a hostile work environment. obviously.

Some said the manifesto was simply reflecting an existing feeling of resentment and even ‘the beginnings of a backlash’ against diversity efforts, as though the technocrats behind these kinds of policies (full disclosure: I’m one of them) are to blame for people’s adverse reactions. That maybe in the process of changing a flawed system we’re making some people uncomfortable. Here’s the thing though: change is not always comfortable, it’s not easy, and there are winners and losers. It’s not a level playing field, and in order to make it one, which will ultimately lead to better results across the board, some people will need to consciously make room for others.

If you think about the 2016 elections in which a purportedly ‘disenfranchised’ and ignored part of America’s citizenry, living in poor, under-developed, sparsely populated regions, voted en-mass for a populist candidate, it’s easy to see the dangers of ignoring inequities. This works both ways. Women and people of color who’ve traditionally and systematically been left out of the means of production have been fighting back for a century. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement weren’t welcomed with open arms, they faced resistance by those who were worried about losing their privileges. The same resistance that James Damore expressed in his manifesto, and the same anger that gave rise to Trumpism, is precisely why diversity efforts must continue. It’s also evidence that they’re working.

It’s clear that Silicon Valley is changing, in part through public pressure and in part though thoughtful leadership which cares about increasing the talent pool for their companies and doing what’s right. The ethos of the tech entrepreneur as a white male Stanford or Harvard dropout is no longer true nor indicative of the real leaders of the tech industry. But more importantly, these myths which helped perpetuate obsolete attitudes have no place in the realities of 2018, where women have stood proud and tall together to say that they will not stay silent in face of a system which glorifies and celebrates bad behavior as part of a narrative of prosperity.

On International Women’s Day 2018, it feels like the winds of change are finally sweeping the last vestiges of ‘the old boys club’ away from the peninsula, and making room for egalitarian and purposeful measures to increase women’s representation in tech.

Keshet Bachan

[1] ‘Men Going Their Own Way’:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_Going_Their_Own_Way

[2] ‘The email Larry Page should have written to James Damore’:  https://www.economist.com/news/international/21726276-last-week-newspaper-said-alphabets-boss-should-write-detailed-ringing-rebuttal