Nov 2, 2016 · 16 minutes

Last week some sobering news came to us via USA Today.

Well, it was sobering news if you care about equality in the tech world, which not everyone does as evidenced by reality. “The Silicon Valley gender gap is widening,” read the headline.

In 2013, women made up 26% of “computing professionals”, less than thirty years ago and about the same number as in 1960. In engineering in particular, women make up just 12% of the work force. Women of color fare even worse, according to the article. “African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaskan Native women” combined got just 6% of computing degrees in 2013, despite making up nearly 20% of the population.

From the USA piece:

Girls graduate high school on par with boys in math and science, but boys are more likely to pursue engineering and computing degrees in college. That disparity only grows at the graduate level and in the workforce where women are dramatically underrepresented in engineering and computing. Even those women who pursue this kind of technical career drop out at much higher rates than men.

A report released Thursday by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is sounding a wake-up call for the industry. It warns that the gender gap in technology is widening as women are being held back by stereotypes and biases.

"What we found is that not only are the numbers low, they are headed in the wrong direction," says Catherine Hill, AAUW's vice president for research. 

But this isn’t merely a question of “more women need to code.”

Sure, women make up less than 20% of the technical staff of the leading companies in Silicon Valley, per their own diversity numbers. But it’s not only that: Women don’t even excel in “non-technical” roles at these companies. Company-wide, seven out of ten employees at major tech companies are men, and few women make it all the way to the top, according to USA Today.

The number of female GPs at venture firms has also declined, although several firms have started to address that lately including Greylock, First Round Capital, and Sequoia Capital. And the percentage of venture backed deals lead by female CEOs is a mere 3%.

Plenty of these roles aren’t filled by coders, and some of the most successful VCs never held an operating role. Enough excuses about qualifications: This is a case of straight up bias. And it seems to begin in college.

A lot of people in the Valley have argued the problem with diversity in tech is simply teaching more women to code. And I agree, that’s incredibly important. But that’s clearly not the whole picture here.

It’s become more fashionable of late to blame “unconscious bias” for the slow winnowing of women out of the tech world. And again, it’s a problem. Author, entrepreneur, and CEO coach Kim Scott explains the compounding effect of a career of “micro-indignities”:

Researchers ran a simulation of what happens to promotions over the course of several years when bias impacts ratings just a little bit. When gender bias accounts for just 5% of the difference in performance ratings, an organization that starts out with 58% of the entry level positions filled by women winds up with only 29% of the leadership positions filled by women.

But neither the “more girls should code!” nor the “it’s just unconscious bias!” arguments take into account one of the biggest, blatant reasons women drop out of tech starting in college, because to face that reason would entail Silicon Valley gate keepers taking a stand. It’s the overt, hostile work environments at many startups and large tech companies alike. Not only that, but the celebration of them.

Does this post by an anonymous woman in tech sound familiar?

I was one of a handful of women working for the company, and for a long time, one of only two women on the technical side of things. But my male co-workers seemed nice, I was working remotely, the job offered a lot of flexibility and freedom, and my salary was fair. I ignored those jokes my boss made about the snake in his pants. The times he dismissed my ideas, only to bring them up again a few weeks later as his own invention. How he constantly tried to prove me wrong. The way he made clear my input wasn’t welcome – I would simply have to do things his way. The times I asked for help, and didn’t receive any.

But hey, they sponsored diversity-in-tech events, paid for me to attend and speak at conferences. For a long time, I thought they were really good to me.

During my two years working in the industry, I’ve heard many stories of women in tech having bad experiences: belittled, dismissed, harassed and bullied, and many times, even worse than that; many leave their job in the end, or are forced out. Now I realize that a lot of those things had been happening to me, too, but it was my first tech job, and I hadn’t known better. Until last month, when I became a woman who left.

Or how about this from a recent Apple email leak?

Danielle* didn't expect her workday to begin with her male coworkers publicly joking about rape.

Danielle is an engineer at Apple — and like many of the women in the company, she works on a male-dominated team. On a Tuesday morning in July, when men on her team began to joke that an office intruder was coming to rape everybody, Danielle decided to speak out about what she described as the "very toxic atmosphere" created by jokes about violent sexual assault...

...This wasn't the first time Danielle had allegedly seen something like this happen on her team, nor was it the first time she complained that the office culture at Apple was, in her words, toxic. Despite repeated formal complaints to her manager, Danielle said, nothing ever changed.

But this rape joke was the final straw. The next day, Danielle escalated her complaint about the offense to the very top: Apple CEO Tim Cook.

"Rape jokes in work chat is basically where I completely draw the limit," she wrote to Cook in an email obtained by Mic. "I do not feel safe at a company that tolerates individuals who make rape jokes."

Danielle wrote that she did not receive a response to her formal complaint to Cook — even as he made headlines for responding to emails from random Apple customers.

And then there are the women who flat out refuse to work at the Valley’s hottest startup, Uber, no matter how much money or prestige might lie in those jobs. The standard response Tess Rinearson gives to recruiters when they call her roughly once a month on behalf of Uber:

Thanks for reaching out. I really do appreciate that you took the time to check out my writing, and I’m sure the technical problems you’re solving are genuinely interesting.

However, I am a woman, and Uber’s track record on women scares me. The latest, on women who have been assaulted via Uber, felt particularly jarring. But also: The gendered attacks on a prominent woman in tech, the sexualized ads in France

I just don’t think I’d be a culture fit.

And how a second female engineer said she turns them down:

Over the past few years, it’s become clear to me that I do my best work when I work with organizations that are aligned with my values. Uber’s sponsorship of Urban Shield, an event that aimed to further militarize the police, Uber’s responses to reports of sexual assault on passengers, and Uber’s treatment of its drivers are just a few of the many concerns I have about Uber’s values as someone who cares deeply about racial and gender justice. 

That’s right. Uber is so gender-hostile, turning them down has become a meme.

I’ve heard from a woman who worked in the same building as Uber that when the elevator doors open on Uber’s floor an uncomfortable, palpable wave of bro’y testosterone fills the elevator. An all natural version of Axe Body Spray, if you will.

Then there are boneheads like John Greathouse who wrote that women should hide their gender if they want to get funding:

[W]omen in today’s tech world should create an online presence that obscures their gender...

...As a reader, I appreciate a book when I don’t know the author’s gender and haven’t formed a concrete image of him or her. If I enjoy a particular work, I then research the writer to better understand how their background and motivations shaped their fiction….

...however unfair it may be – I would suggest that if you are a woman raising capital, you might consider not including photos of your team in your pitch deck. If you identify your team via their initials (men and women), you effectively strip out all preconceptions related to race, ethnicity and gender. In your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials (or a unisex name) and eliminate photos.

He apologized, belatedly, only after a large outcry, and his partner had already apologized to their entire portfolio.

Then there are the boneheads of the week: Two dudes in Australia who have opened a men’s only coworking space. It’s not sexism! It’s an innovative way to address men’s anxieties about the workplace! Nevermind the startup world in Australia is 75% male.

You’re going to love the justification:

[Cofounder Samuel] Monaghan told Junkee that there were “a couple of things that got us to this point.”

“We’d been working in coffee shops and at home and it wasn’t that conducive to working,” Monaghan said. “We both had a mate who ended up in a violent situation with his wife. He pushed his wife over.”

According to Monaghan, domestic violence is an issue that “stems from depression in many cases”.

“Depression and suicide result from a lack of social support and community. Having a space where they [men] can be men is more of a preventative measure,” Monaghan said. “Healthy, happy men don’t hit their wives.”

Wait… let me get this straight. The way to make men more sensitive and less aggressive is to sequester them with other men. If the woman wasn’t there, they couldn’t beat her, right?

So contrarian! So Disruptive! Sharia Law 2.0! Not an hint of apology on their faces:

Someone on Twitter joked that the startup, called-- I’m not kidding-- “Nomadic Thinkers” sounded like a great safe haven for “the titstare” guys. And I remembered: Fucking “titstare”! No, it wasn’t a bad dream: TechCrunch actually put a company on stage that coded an app to help men demean women without getting caught. (One could argue that app already exists. It’s called Twitter.)

And remember all the jokes about the Airbnb logo looking like a vagina at the Crunchies a few years ago? The one Katie Stanton wanted to take her daughter to so that she could share in her mother’s accomplishment of being nominated for her work at Twitter. From her post she wrote that night: “I left as soon as I received the Crunchie, saddened and disappointed to see such a public lack of respect for women.”

Do I need to keep going before we admit that a lot of the reason women drop out of this field is the disgusting culture permeating so many of its major companies? The same “hard charging” “disruptive” culture that VCs celebrate on one hand, while they say they care about diversity on the other hand?

It isn’t hard to imagine that mentality starts in college, which is also when women start to drop out of tech. Bros have to come from somewhere. After all, VCs like Jeremy Liew (a stated proponent of female entrepreneurs) excused Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s incredibly misogynist college emails as something all guys in college do. Sounds eerily similar to the justification that the Donald Trump “grab ‘em by the pussy” talk, right?

It seems there are two explanations here: Misogyny is a phase men go through in college, in which case computer science classes may well be worse than all those stories above. Or misogyny isn’t a phase and guys sending sexist emails in college grow up to be Travis “boober” Kalanicks and Donald “grab ‘em by the pussy” Trumps of the world. They just learn to hide it better. (When not on a hot mic.)

Both are depressing thoughts. Both explain why women get dispirited somewhere along the road. Here’s the New York Times on the dangers of “bro talk” on Wall Street, even when it occurs out of the earshot of women:

But most of the sexism on Wall Street occurs when women aren’t in the room. “Bro talk” produces a force field of disrespect and exclusion that makes it incredibly difficult for women to ascend the Wall Street ladder. When you create a culture where women are casually torn apart in conversation, how can you ever stomach promoting them, or working for them? There are many reasons that men still overwhelmingly populate trading floors and boardrooms, but this is one that has gotten too little attention.

And that’s just the impact of talk. What about women who actually get assaulted? Michele Dauber, the Stanford professor who has devoted her career to protecting women from domestic violence and campus sexual abuse, was on my podcast last month. She talked about the link between what happens on Stanford’s campus and what plays out later in Silicon Valley.

Dauber talked about young women arriving on campus, thrilled to go into engineering and build a startup, only to become victims of assault. They spend their time with grief counselors, while boys in school spend time networking in the community, she says. It’s no wonder they start to feel uncomfortable in a bro-y atmosphere.

And even when women struggle through the sexism, sucking it up and working harder and finally beating the odds to make it to a corner office, it doesn’t get much better. They may not have to answer to a boss anymore, but they do have to answer to the business press and shareholders. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that female CEOs get far more blame when a company struggles than male CEOs do.

Nearly 80% of digital and print media stories about companies in crisis cited the CEO as a source of blame when the company’s leader was a woman, according to a new analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation and public-relations and research firm Global Strategy Group. That compared with 31% of stories assigning blame to male CEOs in stories about companies in similar situations.

Watching the second Presidential debate, when Hillary Clinton essentially had to stand on stage for 90 minutes next to the world’s biggest internet troll with no way to block him, concentrating on neither smiling too much or too little, without taking his bait, without contradicting all of the lies he told, with her husband’s various accusers in the audience, I thought: Honestly, it’s a wonder she still wants this job so badly.

Reading that Wall Street Journal report-- and watching it play out over the last few years for Marissa Mayer-- you have to think the same thing about female CEOs. Which may be one reason there are so many strong no. 2 female executives in tech, and so few female CEOs of major companies.  

This week, an industry group lead by Dell and signed by some 80 tech CEOs sent a nice-sounding letter to whomever the next president will be urging more support of female entrepreneurs. Certainly there is a role for policy to play here. For one thing, this country also needs to join the ranks of every other developed nation in providing universal paid parental leave.

But it seems to me these 80 CEOs and VCs would do better to denounce and stamp out hostile work environments around the Valley than, say, urge the government to offer incentives for funding female CEOs.

To pretend a lack of government programs alone is what’s holding women back is as insane as pretending more girls coding solves the problem. The numbers are getting worse just as the bro-culture has become more extreme. It isn’t a coincidence that women are feeling dispirited in an America where Trump is a major party’s candidate, Travis Kalanick is its most celebrated tech entrepreneur, and we watched in horror as Brock Turner got a slap on the wrist despite being caught in a violent sexual assault.

This won’t get fixed until the culture gets fixed.

And as study after study tells you, that’s a bad thing for everyone. We’ve all heard the numbers: Companies with women on their board of directors see a 42% higher return on sales. Tech companies led by women are more capital-efficient and deliver a 35% higher return than those lead by men, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Female entrepreneurs make 20% more revenue than male entrepreneurs, according to Forbes. First Round Capital found in its portfolio, companies with a female founder did 63% better than companies with all male teams. McKinsey has said advancing equality across all industries for women could add as much as $12 trillion to the world’s GDP in less than ten years.

And in several quarters of the Valley, men are rejecting the macho “eat sleep code repeat” way of company building, and some research backs up that “getting shit done” versus “facetime” mentality of work yields higher productivity and employee retention. Slack’s Stewart Butterfield bragged early on that his office is mostly empty at 5 pm. Mark Zuckerberg made a loud statement when he took two months of paternity leave.

Plenty of studies have also shown that mothers in particular are the most productive members of the work force. And the more children they have, the more productive they become.

So it’s not a pipeline problem. It’s not that more women need to do science. It’s not that we need to “raise more awareness” about the problem. And it’s not that this even makes rational business sense.

It’s much more simple. We have a hard choice to make as an industry: To tell “passionate” “pugnacious” “aggressive” male founders that hostile environments are simply not OK even at a tiny startup, “disruption” be damned. Or to keep shrugging and saying as long as a company performs, a hostile environment is just fine and wonder why there aren’t more women in tech.