The Silence Of Silicon Valley

By Nam Phuong Thi Doan ‘18

 Original photo from  Startups Venture Capital .

Original photo from Startups Venture Capital.

Since its rise in the ’70s, Silicon Valley has become the synecdoche for the U.S. high-tech sector. It is the breeding ground of innovation, and simultaneously, of a toxic “bro” culture that perpetuates a variety of systemic issues related to gender. Last year, many women spoke up about sexual harassment and sexism in Silicon Valley, including Susan Fowler who disclosed her appalling experience at Uber. The existing gender issues and intersectional inequality are endorsed by the toxic culture of Silicon Valley, a culture of silence, or rather, silencing. Solving these issues is a design challenge that requires the decentralization of power in the growing creative-technology sector and constant attempts to put an end to unjust projects.

LET’S TALK GENDER

Growing up in a traditional public school system in Vietnam, I was always insecure that I wasn’t that good at maths. I adored my girl friends who did so well in any natural science subjects because to me that meant badass; to some others: nerds. When I visited MIT during college spring break, the boys there confessed to me that they “didn’t have many options” in terms of dating girls at MIT. I realized that the stigma of women working in technology or sciences was a global notion. Why is “women in science” such an anomaly, a wonder?

According to an article published on The Muse, in 2008, only 18% of computer science grads were women, compared to 37% in 1985. To quote the article, “There’s a boom of ‘women in tech,’ but a scarcity of women who are actually technical.” We must think that this is an obsolete argument today, but it’s not. The numbers are speaking volumes.

Inside Silicon Valley, the gender issue isn’t hidden, but blatant in the fabrics of business culture. Women own only 5% of tech startups, and only 11% of tech executive positions. This number is not so positive in the venture capital world either. It is a phallocentric game and a sexist culture. Silicon Valley isn’t made for women, particularly women of color. When I heard the testimonies from women in tech for my class “Inside Silicon Valley,” particularly Reset by Ellen Pao, and listened to other people’s observations of the Valley, I was, quite frankly, disgusted. I knew about the problematic sides of the tech world, but to actually fathom such “kink room,” “atmospheric models,” sexual harassments, and discriminations against women was unbearable.

The gender issue runs deep, from the gendered education system to the culture where the capital is masculinized and associated with male power. Women are commodified and objectified in the tech world to incentivize the capital and satisfy the macho. Their brainpower and talent are excluded from a historically male-dominated territory, despite their enormous contributions to innovation and economic growth.

When sexual misconduct happens, the perpetrator is protected by the enterprise because reporting or revolting against him is a threat to institutional power and the corporate culture’s status quo. As soon as Susan Fowler reported her sexual harassment encounter, she was faced with two options: leave the team or stay and receive poor performance review.

INEQUITY IN RECRUITMENT

Michael Connor called out a troubling reality in his Wired article: “The American tech industry remains a bastion of white, male privilege.”

The data from U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)backed up this statement: the high tech sector employs a larger share of whites (from 63.5% to 68.5 %), especially for executive and manager positions. In select leading Silicon Valley tech firms, Black workers are less than 1% of executives and managers, while Latino workers are 1.6%.

It seems like a highly sought after and well-paid industry such as high tech doesn’t welcome marginalized groups. The status quo goes: when wealth and privilege weren’t historically granted to disenfranchised people, there’s no reason to change that opportunity map. The recurring rationale for this inequity issue is the “pipeline problem” — the notion that diversity doesn’t exist in the tech industry due to lack of qualified candidates. This sounds like a deflection to admitting the inequity in recruitment and unfair distribution of wealth. “The lack of diversity in employment has led to the under-utilization of available talent and under-recruitment of potentially valuable employees,” states the EEOC report.

While there might be some truth in the failure of the higher education system to train and prepare students of color for the high tech industry, the issue that hasn’t been dealt with is how tech companies fail to attract these individuals, or hesitate to hire them with equal benefits to other white candidates.

Hiring is one thing, but making sure the company is structured to support employees of color is another major challenge. The retention rate for disenfranchised groups and women is much lower than that of white males and has significantly decreased in recent years. There are many reasons for why women and people of color exit their jobs after a short amount of time working in STEM fields, some of which are inhospitable work cultures, isolation, and lack of advancement and promotion.

In fact, bias pushes women out of STEM jobs, rather than pipeline issue or personal choice. A study in 2017 found that men are offered higher salaries than women for the same role at the same company 63% of the time. Three-fourths of Black women reported having to prove themselves over and over again while their success and expertise are questioned. In this survey, 41% of Asian women admit that they have to play the traditional feminine role, while Black and Latina women are seen as angry when they fail to conform to female stereotypes within the field. This data indicates that while the tech world prides itself on innovation and its fast-changing nature, the recruitment agenda and HR culture very much adhere to the status quo and the traditional model of exclusion.

COUNTERING “THE PIPELINE PROBLEM”

The first solution to the pipeline problem is to get companies and organizations to invest earlier in the pipeline, such as through early education and childhood development. It will take a long time to improve the shortcomings of the education system, but education can start from providing people, young women in particular, with the right information about what computer science is. Female students should be encouraged to take STEM classes and join hackathons, where they can learn how to code and partner up with different like-minded people in the field. Once they see that they’re not the anomaly, they will feel more comfortable and inspired to pursue a career in tech, while the social stigma against women in STEM alleviated in the public’s eyes.

On a grassroots level, nonprofits and educational institutions can create more avenues for girls, especially girls of color and LGBTQ+ to explore computer science and STEM as a hobby. The element of play is very important in childhood development. There are organizations and initiatives that have been doing great work in creating a culture of play for young girls and women who code such as Black Girls Code, Women Who Code and Girls Who Code. The tech startup Kano invents computer-making and coding kits for children and young adults. The premise is that girls should enjoy playing “programmers” as much as other professional roles.

The second solution to increasing equity in tech industries is reforming the recruitment policy of tech companies. A report from McKinsey suggests that a racially diverse tech sector could translate into stronger financial performance. It’s high time recruiters chose candidates outside of the élite orbit of Ivy Leagues schools like Stanford and Harvard, or of powerful tech-business people. There are young creatives doing amazing things in state schools and institutions in low-income neighborhoods.

“Talent doesn’t discriminate by zip code,” said Andrew Cencini, professor of Computer Science at Bennington College and co-founder of Vapor IO, a data center startup based in Austin, TX.

I’ve personally witnessed creativity sprung fiercely in adversity and scarcity of resources. I was really inspired to hear that there was a women coding team in a New York State prison where professor Cencini taught. Having more women of color or first-gens in STEM fields not only increases representation for marginalized groups but also helps defy the traditional discourse of who gets to set the agenda in the tech industry. Schools and universities should create more opportunities for computer science students to interact with different populations outside of their academic bubble.

There are a lot of things left unspoken inside Silicon Valley. Salary is one of them. Transparent discussion of salaries is expected to contribute to alleviating not only the wage gap between CEO and other employees, but also the gender wage disparity. In an attempt to address gender wage gap, California recently passed a law earlier this year, which bans employers from accessing employees’ salary histories, and requires employers to give applicants a pay range for the job they are seeking, if requested. Within a company, every individual should have the right to know how much they earn compared to their colleague, and how much their talent is worth. The Board of Directors should consider embedding transparency in multiple aspects of the company, including salary and promotion, and define clear goals for change instead of just “being aware.”

I’ve worked with several nonprofits in which staff participate in equity training. Tech companies should do the same, and training doesn’t mean having only one day to talk about “diversity,” but hosting constant events and designing the office environment in a way that can help each employee recognize their biases and actively participate in everyday work culture with intention. The labor shouldn’t fall onto the shoulders of folks of color or women. Matter-Mind Studio’s new approach to design is a suggestion for companies wanting to raise awareness around equity through workplace design.

It’s shocking to me that so many people don’t know what consent and ongoing consent are. It’s important that both employees and leaders understand and practice consent. The company needs to be transparent about the consequences of discrimination and sexual misconduct in the workplace since day one, so that HR wouldn’t have to struggle coming up with a decision that oftentimes favors the powerful. We need to stop perpetuating a culture of silence, of blasé attitude. Talent and wealth cannot buy a free pass for wrongful actions. Brainpower cannot be the shelter for ethical misconducts.

Changing the work environment and the culture of Silicon Valley will have an enormous impact on not just the tech industry across the U.S. and around the world, but many aspects of our modern society because of how much technology infiltrates our lives. There are many solutions to play with; it just takes time to research and commitment to making it happen.

Great news is, the narrative is gradually shifting right in the heart of Silicon Valley, under the teeth of power.


Special thanks to Andrew Cencini, who teaches with passion and “sponsors” my reference list for this article.