Calling Silicon Valley Out On Its Gender Problem

It's no secret that the Valley has a gender problem, a new book explores just how deep discrimination runs and how to fix it.

In July, Twitter reported that only 10% of its tech jobs are held by women. This report joins a host of recent demographic disclosures by tech firms, from Google to Facebook, that together reveal a disproportionately white, male workforce. Now, a new book co-authored by entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa, Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, with journalist Farai Chideya, attempts to address the discrepancy of women in the tech field by sharing their personal and professional stories.

Knowledge@Wharton recently spoke with Wadhwa about the book, why he chose to publish it in a nontraditional way, and what can be done to provide more job opportunities for women in tech.

An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: You start the book by sharing a moment of epiphany inspired by an observation made by your wife. Can you tell us about that moment?

Vivek Wadhwa: I came to Silicon Valley to research its immigrant networks: Why had Silicon Valley been so successful in fostering immigrant entrepreneurship? Why is it one group—in particular, Indians—had been so successful? I was really fascinated with Silicon Valley, and I imagined, I believed and I said it was the world’s greatest meritocracy—until I came over here. I used to do a lot of writing for [tech blog] TechCrunch, and we happened to be at a big TechCrunch event, one of their major conferences, and my wife said, “Vivek, do you notice something strange over here?” I said, “Yeah, we’re sitting next to Mark Zuckerberg.” It was amazing to be in the middle of all of this innovation and the amazing things that happened over here. She said, “Vivek, no, look around. What don’t you see?” That’s when the light went off in my head … there weren’t any women there, and it was a shock to realize that half of the population is being left out of the innovation economy.

That, ultimately, led you to research the presence of women in the tech field. What did you learn?

What I learned was that there was really no difference between women and men; they had the same strengths, the same weaknesses, the same motivation. I systemically went in, opened up my research papers in the past. I went through my own data sets, and I realized that I was so ignorant that I had never recorded the gender of the people I was interviewing, so I had to [go back and] look at it again, and I was surprised that there was literally no difference. The question was, if there’s no difference, then why is it that women are left out? Why don’t we see women in tech conferences? Why is it that there are no women on the boards of Silicon Valley companies? Why are the executive teams all male, when there’s really, literally, no difference between women and men?

In talking about these issues, you faced some criticism, is that right?

Oh, boy, the first article I wrote [in 2010] was titled, “Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your [Venture Capitalists] Have a Gender Problem.” I rehashed my own research, I cited other data, and I noticed that something was really wrong here, coming to this ecosystem and not seeing women. I was stunned at the negative, visceral reaction that I received: the angry emails, the comments posted online, the nastiness on social media. I was just absolutely shocked at the crude, childish behavior of the boys’ club. Frankly, this wasn’t just a bunch of immature children, this was a “Who’s Who.” These were prominent venture capitalists and prominent executives of companies who were attacking me for saying that there’s something wrong over here.

That led you to publish a book for the general reader on your research findings. The way in which you created the book was unusual; please tell us a little about this process and why you chose to go that route.

I decided to do more research and interview hundreds of women, and I have a research paper, which will be released soon, on women and innovation. At the same time, I wanted to express opinion, and in academic papers, you can’t do that. What I decided to do was to write a book. The first thing that occurred to me was, who is a guy to tell women how to solve their problems? So, that was the dilemma. Also, I had to spend a lot of money on research. I wanted to fund it, and I spoke to my wife about it. She said, “Vivek, get women to help you.” It was such an obvious answer.

So, I decided to crowdfund the book and then crowd-create it; I essentially did an Indiegogo campaign in which I raised money. Instead of the $40,000 I needed, I raised $96,000. All the money from this is going to a fund to educate and empower women, so it was great to get that kind of support. I wanted 30 or 40 women to help me with the research and writing. I ended up getting more than 500 women. It was an outpouring of support from women who were thrilled that I was stepping into this debate and that I would be researching and writing more about it.

You call the women who contributed to the book “ambassadors.” What themes arose in what you heard from the ambassadors?

It was heart-wrenching. Every woman who I spoke to talked about the problems she had faced; I had no idea that women faced these problems. Being a guy, I was really ignorant about the problems and the fact that men can actually treat women the way that they do. Every experience that women have, from being in college and the way professors mistreat them, to joining the workforce and then being treated differently from the guys, and then having different expectations and all the challenges they face. Then, the real harsh stuff: women being groped, women being raped, women being abused, women being talked down to.

To hear these stories firsthand—this changed me. I’m not the same person I was before I started doing this research because I’ve become a feminist. Literally, that’s the best way to describe me. I’m as vocal about this issue, as are the women I’ve interviewed, because I’ve learned firsthand about the challenges they faced and the treatment that women received. This is just not right; it must be fixed.

What is it that you think can be done to change the way things are now?

First of all, we have to admit there’s a problem. This is like being an alcoholic. Unless you admit that you’re an alcoholic, you’re not going to fix it; you have to admit to the problem. Then, you have to understand the root causes and then fix them. Silicon Valley has now had the crap beaten out of it. I was one of the few people writing about this issue to start with. Now, there’s a chorus of writers, including venture capitalists and Silicon Valley moguls themselves, who are writing about the fact that there’s a problem and we need to fix it. Silicon Valley has now acknowledged that it has been out of line.

The next step is to understand the root causes or what causes the problem, to measure it and to fix it. One of the battles that I had to also fight was to get companies to disclose their gender data, to basically tell us how many women they have. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, and I’ve been speaking to some of the large companies behind the scenes saying, “Look, tell me what your gender data are,” and they wouldn’t do it. They said it was a trade secret. Well, there’s been a chorus of criticism, and over the last three or four months, one after the other, they are coming in line, starting with Google and most recently, Apple, each of them is now disclosing their data and they are coming clean. They are saying, “Look, we know these numbers are not impressive, we know we have a problem and we pledge to fix it.” So, this is the process that’s happening right now and it will lead to a lot of good.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

The book really is for women to understand that they are not alone; it’s to inspire them and to motivate them, to have other women tell them their stories. It is not Vivek Wadhwa telling them what to do or how the problem can be fixed; it is really hundreds of other women saying, “Look, this is what we went through. It’s all right. This is how we surmounted the problems, this is how you can surmount the problems, and by the way, here’s what the future looks like.”

I wrote a chapter on the new opportunities for women, about how advancing technologies are leveraging the playing field and how the future belongs to women. It is women telling women, “Rah-rah-rah, go, we can change the world and we will change the world.” It’s a very positive message overall, and I’m hoping that they will inspire thousands of women now to take their rightful role in the innovation economy and to save the world.

Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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4 Comments

  • Will Toogood

    What? My experience is that Woman in Tech are uber- smart, assertive, and very independent.. For example our director of development, she rocks!

    Thank you Ladies, a hetro white male on his fifties

  • qb3tl+9qnpvzy6ndkoo

    I'm sorry, but this is bullshit. Tech is willing to let women in, it's women who aren't going after tech. Face it: men, generally, are more drawn to tech. Not to say that women aren't, but more men are drawn to it than women. Quit trying to strong arm companies into bending to trivial pursuits. This is just as bad as the diversity reports.

    The tech industry, along with most other industries, hires the best of the best interviewees most of the time, regardless of gender or race. I think it's high time to cut this propagation of bullshit just to push some agenda.

  • fastcompany

    Yeah, a CS professor telling my entire class that us women were taking up spaces that should have gone to men who aren't going to have babies is "bullshit just to push some agenda." Or being the only engineer in the room interrupted to ask where the break room is or how the coffee machine works. Or explaining to me how to use the nifty new device that actually works because my team built the back-end. Or calling me out for using profanity in an office full of drunks. Or having a co-founder start a discussion about his code I had to fix with "Now this is the header file, it contains the function declarations."

    Yeah, it's an agenda all right.

  • Steve Kravitz

    It's not either/or, it's both/and. Women are not drawn to tech (for several reasons, see below), AND for the ones who are, it is a sexist nightmare. No wonder they avoid it.

    It starts in secondary school, it is reinforced by product marketing, as well as societal gender mores. "Girls don't do science" is a common theme that is communicated both overtly and covertly.