By Kelsey Page
Two weeks ago, Newsweek published an issue with the cover story “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” written by Nina Burleigh, which discusses the subtle and blatant sexism present in Silicon Valley culture. The cover art itself, which features an eyeless woman in a bright red dress and heels looking back at the sexism of Silicon Valley that is represented by a cursor lifting her skirt, has been a subject of fierce criticism for perpetuating the same objectification of women as the article’s topic.
The article, which mostly alternates between anecdotal examples of sexism and well-known gender research, aims to lift the veil of sexism from the otherwise generally utopic media portrayal of Silicon Valley. While this exposé brings issues like women’s inherent disadvantage in fundraising and building mentorship relationships and the underrepresentation of women in engineering programs, it fails to consider ways to correct for these problems effectively. At most, Burleigh offers the example of Glassbreakers, a startup that connects entry-level women in tech to mentors, as a potential solution to this societal and institutional bias, but banking the future of women in tech on one company is not fair. There are ways to overcome the complex social biases that make Silicon Valley culture difficult for women to navigate, starting with becoming aware of these biases.
Burleigh, an outsider to the Valley, appears surprised to come across the rampant sexism that colors the technological center of the world. Her apparent shock is revealed immediately with her opening anecdote about a female startup team, when she concludes that its biggest flaw is “almost the sine qua non of the fabled Silicon Valley startup. They don’t have penises.” However, even Silicon Valley insider and Glassbreakers co-founder Eileen Carey admitted, “I’ve never been told I would not be able to do something or that it would be harder to do because I was a woman. So it’s been strange going through this experience and being told that because we are women it will be harder for us to fundraise.” Yet this oblivion is not uncommon. In fact, according to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s study “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide,” it is not uncommon for women to be unaware that they are part of an oppressed group or to even end up believing the existing system of inequality is appropriate because of their gender socialization.
What’s more, the startup world is viewed as the most meritocratic sector in the economy, and because of this, people tend to disregard historic identity barriers as a possible obstacle to success. This is an important realization to grapple with, especially for Stanford students who may be blinded by “the bubble.” At Stanford, a university that is generally considered one of the most accepting and forward-thinking campuses in the world, it is easy to come under the impression that women and men will still be treated equally once they venture just slightly farther down Palm Drive to University Avenue for “real-world” jobs.
There is even a common sentiment that female students in engineering and computer science even have an advantage in finding jobs because of special programs that are built to increase the number of women in these fields, like the Stanford Society of Women Engineers, Stanford Women in Business, Stanford Women in Computer Science and she++. While these programs are certainly beneficial, and I support them wholeheartedly, they do not correct for the deeper sociological patterns that disadvantage women. As Burleigh explains in her essay, women have greater trouble networking, finding mentors, negotiating, securing funding, restarting after failure, advocating for themselves and dealing with sexual harassment. While college students may begin to come to grips with these challenges during their undergraduate careers, they may not fully understand these biases’ impact on their careers until they are already fully entrenched in the industry and do not have the correct tools to effectively prepare themselves to handle these hurdles.
Yes, women are disadvantaged in technology, but that does not mean that they will never be able to catch up. Burleigh’s extensive exploration into all of the factors that seem to minimize women’s potential leaves the reader feeling pessimistic about women’s future in the ever-so-relevant world of Silicon Valley, but there are signs that the tech bubble is opening up to women. For example, Burleigh points out that there is no female equivalent of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but women like Meg Whitman, Heidi Roizen and Sheryl Sandberg have have risen up through the ranks to achieve high positions at already well-established companies. Microsoft and Apple were founded during a time when technology was even more male-dominated than it is today, so it is very likely that a high-profile female founder will arise as more women enter tech. However, this phenomenon is explained by the more accurate metaphor of rising to the top as a labyrinth instead of a glass ceiling. As explained in the Harvard Business Review’s “Through the Labyrinth,” the path to success for women is more like a labyrinth filled with obstacles that are difficult yet surmountable, rather than a glass ceiling.
Newsweek’s story brings the appropriate media attention to a topic that deserves more careful consideration, but it serves only as a starting point in terms of what Silicon Valley women ought to do about their situation. As more women develop a deeper understanding of the roadblocks to success, they can better use the resources available to them to take a detour around them. As proven by Glassbreakers, there is startup potential in the intersection of sociology and technology in and of itself. Why not start there?
Contact Kelsey Page at kpage2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.