That women represent a minority of executives, business owners, and employees in the tech industry is a reality that’s become so ingrained it barely needs citing – and an ongoing Stanford University-led study of Silicon Valley helps explain why.
Inspired by former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s failed gender discrimination suit against her former venture capital firm, the authors of Elephant in the Valley – all of whom are tech industry veterans – interviewed more than 200 women in the industry, paying special attention to respondents with at least 10 years of experience.
The results are even worse than previously reported: 60 per cent of the women surveyed had been sexually harassed (which is double the reported rate of harassment overall), and 60 per cent who reported what happened had been unhappy with the outcome; 90 per cent had witnessed sexist behaviour at off-site company activities or industry conferences; 88 per cent had experienced clients or colleagues asking questions of men that should have been addressed to them; 84 per cent had been told they were being too aggressive; and 66 per cent felt excluded from networking opportunities because of their gender.
A substantial cross-section of the Bay Area’s workforce has been captured by the researchers, which include venture capitalist (and Pao’s former coworker) Trae Vassallo, former LinkedIn vice-president Ellen Levy, former Yahoo executive Michele Madansky, Foodily co-founder Hillary Mickell, digital executive Monica Leas, and financial manager Julie Oberweis. Respondents have included women in positions of power – 25 per cent are CXOs, 11 per cent are founders, and 11 per cent are in venture capital – and are employed by startups and tech giants alike. The majority come from the Bay area (91 per cent), with 77 per cent over 40, and 75 per cent have children.
While collecting their stories, the researchers have focused on five main categories: “Too hard or too soft”; “No Seat at the Table”; “Unconscious Biases”; “Impact of Family”; “Sexual Harassment”; and “Resolution?”
A current sample:
- “At Company X we had a joke that there were only two reviews for women – you are either too reticent or you are too bossy,” one said. “No middle ground.”
- “At [an] annual sales conference once, all the men gathered in the suite of the head of sales, drinking late into the night and then all shaved their heads as a bonding exercise (the boss had a shaven head),” another wrote.
- “While I was on maternity leave, a colleague tried to poach my team,” wrote another. “In talking to other female execs, I think there is generally a concern that absence opens up teams and roles for poaching.”
- “In one review session, one male partner said of a female employee, ‘we don’t have to worry about her bonus or promotion because she just got married. So she’ll probably have a baby and quit soon,'” another wrote.
- “[My] experiences included being groped by my boss while in public at a company event. After learning this had happened to other women in my department, and then reporting the event to HR, I was retaliated against and had to leave the company,” said another.
- “After a colleague made a (very unwanted) advance, I did not complain to anyone but I ensured that I never was alone with him outside an office setting,” another wrote. “Not complaining was a mistake. The colleague later criticized me in a review as ‘not putting in enough hours.'”
“If I’d filed a complaint, his spiteful slap back at me would have been put in context,” the last respondent acknowledged. “But I wouldn’t have known whom to complain to, or how.”
In reading the stories, one might be tempted to assume these are isolated incidents. But it’s been well documented that a great deal of systemic discrimination is unconscious, with male-friendly office environments acting as a barrier for women without anyone involved realizing what’s happening. Even when attempts are made to correct the problem, it’s hard to measure their impact.
As of this writing, the project continues to collect anonymous surveys from women working in tech. You can submit yours at ElephantintheValley.com.