Mar 17, 2017 ยท 7 minutes

For about six months, I’ve been having a debate with various senior women in the Valley about what represents “progress.”

There are two bull cases that things are, yes, still lousy but getting better. First off, there has anecdotally been a rash of high profile companies who employee female “No. 2s” or very senior female operations leads. Airbnb, Stripe, Square, SpaceX, Walker & Co., Postmates to name a few.

Sure, some of it is the “get me a Sheryl” pattern recognition, which is kinda lame. But, still, it’s progress. You don’t have to look very far to see examples of COOs who have taken over major tech companies: Tim Cook at Apple and Safra Catz at Oracle to name two. And while it’s on one hand a bummer that the most admired woman in tech, Sheryl Sandberg, is a COO not a CEO, at least she’s number two, right? There’s little doubt if Mark Zuckerberg were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, who would take over the company.

Yes, it’s progress. And there’s hope that women being in charge of operations will lead to more gender diversity at these companies.

Meantime, a similar data point: Studies that show that “female founded” startups are being funded in larger numbers. This time, from Pitchbook, showing that investing in companies with a female founder is going up. Good news!  

The problem is neither of these data points are nearly as good news as they seem. Why? Because job title matters when you are playing from the gender penalty box. It matters for so many reasons. It matters because the CEO sets the tone of the company. It matters because you are a role model. It matters because you have the final say and the power.

There is a gulf of difference between CEO and any other C-level office when you are talking about real change occurring with gender diversity in the Valley.  

At the large company level the choices seem to be the Glass Cliff, which Marissa Mayer succumbed to, or become the “grown up” COO for a brilliant manchild, the “get me a Sheryl!” scenario. Only one female tech leader seems to have hacked this deterministic choice, at least when it comes to the consumer Web: Susan Wojcicki, who just waited out a corporate restructuring at Google that made her CEO of YouTube.

That’s it. In 2017. That’s it.

And at the venture level, let’s ignore “female founded,” because it can easily be tweaked to make diversity stats look good and right now every VC wants to look inclusive. “Female founded” can mean anything from a startup has a female CEO to a marketing person that they claim is on the “founding team.”

So let’s look at companies with female CEOs. The venture industry’s funding of them is down. Women-led companies made up just under 5% of all deals, which is the highest level in a decade. But the money going to female-founded companies fell below 3% to 2.19%-- the smallest slice of the venture pie than any year in the past decade, except 2008 and 2012.

That means in an era of unprecedented capital going into startups, what women-led companies that are getting funded are mostly being frozen out of the largest rounds.

The debate I’ve had with other women about this mixed picture of “progress” usually boils down to whether or not I’m being a buzzkill in pointing out the CEO suite is still so heavily male-- both at large companies in tech and startups. After all, CEO can be a thankless job. Maybe some of these women simply don’t want it. If women are having more influence in more organizations, can’t we celebrate that?

Yes. We can. And I do a weekly podcast with awesome women to do just that. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t be pissed. That doesn’t mean we have to be OK with the world the Atlantic’s horrific cover story on sexism depicts, because a few women are making some minor strides.

Look at countries like Iceland, which have the lowest delta between female and male pay of anywhere in the world. Instead of feeling good about such progress, the women in that country are furious that there’s any gap at all. In fact, they just passed a law requiring companies prove they are paying men and women equally.

Or look at China, which I mentioned last week, does far better in gender diversity at the senior level than the US or the UK’s tech scenes. And still, a higher percentage of tech companies in China have diversity programs to do even better.

It’s not being a buzzkill to look at modest progress and become more impatient. It’s a sign that the women of Silicon Valley finally feel entitled to true equality not fucking table scraps.

Let’s be clear: We are nowhere close right now.

  • Despite handfuls of high profile individual companies that have hired female no. 2s, overall the numbers of women at any C-level inside tech organizations has decreased a bit. And 75% of tech companies have no plans in place to make things better.
  • Uber was just hit with one of the most egregious-- and uncontested-- accounts of sexual harassment at a major tech company, and nothing has happened to address it other than phony apologies and an “independent investigation” that is in no way independent.
  • Someone actually wrote this about Sheryl Sandberg, the most respected woman in tech right now. It reduces her talents and impact at Facebook-- one of the largest companies in the world-- to helping Mark Zuckerberg “grow up” and suggests she leave that prestigious position to go do the Valley a favor and help (the 40-something) Travis Kalanick “grow up.” Set aside, the bizarre stance that a 40-year old man should keep his job if he’s has struggled to “grow up” enough to be able to competently run it. It describes Sandberg as some sort of Mary Poppins here to do the bidding of the rich men of Silicon Valley, not, say, an internationally respected and accomplished senior leader in tech who has every right to work wherever the fuck she wants. And almost no one was outraged.

Susan Wojcicki wrote a piece for Vanity Fair this week on this seemingly intractable issue with sexism the Valley faces that we all get so upset about every year. She pointed out there was a solution to all of this that wasn’t “rocket science” unlike some actual companies in the Valley: Hire fucking women.

Fortunately, there is a solution that has been proved to address gender discrimination in all its forms, both implicit and explicit: hiring more women. Employing more women at all levels of a company, from new hires to senior leaders, creates a virtuous cycle. Companies become more attuned to the needs of their female employees, improving workplace culture while lowering attrition. They escape a cycle of men mostly hiring men. And study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better outcomes, more innovative solutions, less groupthink, better stock performance and G.D.P. growth.

Yep, yep, yep. It is that simple. The problem with her argument was in the next graph: “First, tech C.E.O.s need to make gender diversity a personal priority.”

Most of them haven’t, and simply won’t. 95% of companies do not list diversity as a “top problem.” 40% are sick of hearing about it. We need to face the reality that all the op-eds and studies in the world simply aren’t going to change that if they haven’t already.

Instead, what needs to change if indeed that is “the” answer, is who is in the CEO chair. Period.

Women don’t only need to be hired, they need to be partners at venture firms, they need to be CEOs of companies, both small ones and large ones. Until we see any signs of greater cultural change, those three things are the only diversity stats that matter.