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Silicon Valley needs to be more women-friendly, say advocates

Moderator Laura Sydell, from NPR; Sara Clemens, COO at Pandora; Emily White, former COO at Snapchat; and Minnie Ingersoll, co-founder of Shift, speak on a panel for women in tech in San Francisco on Tuesday night.
Lauren Thomas | CNBC

Studies show that having more female executives at the top of an organization leads to greater success and larger profits. Yet many remain "stuck in the middle" and find the tech industry particularly challenging to excel in, three of Silicon Valley's biggest advocates for women said during a panel in San Francisco on Tuesday night.

"I've been nervous about going to board meetings because there is an aggressive style there, and we see a lot of that in Silicon Valley," Minnie Ingersoll, former lead at Google Fiber and co-founder of used car marketplace start-up Shift, said during the event. "Marc Andreessen comes at you and says he needs an answer, or that something about your company is wrong."

Silicon Valley's culture is prone to rewarding "aggressive, think-on-your feet, answer-with-confidence" interactions, scaring many soft-spoken individuals away, but instead more tech firms should create environments that women want to be a part of, Ingersoll said. "Diversity strengthens companies."

According to a tech marketplace for women, theBoardlist, as of June 30 a mere 6.8 percent of private tech companies' and 10.2 percent of "unicorn" companies' board seats are filled by women. Seventy-nine percent of private tech companies have no women on their boards, the report found.

Singh Cassidy launched theBoardlist last July, with the goal of getting more qualified women on boards, and her index of the tech industry will be updated quarterly, she said. Cassidy's research on the gender gap adds to a growing dialogue that has been hanging around Silicon Valley for more than a decade, with plenty of data to show the lack of women in tech.

A study from McKinsey & Co. in March found only 37 percent of female respondents to hold entry-level positions in tech, and under-representation grows in more senior positions, with only a fraction of women advancing to the C-suite. According to the firm, women hold only 15 percent of tech's chief officer titles. Further, 38 percent of women in tech said their gender makes it difficult to advance, and 60 percent of respondents in the industry cite stress and pressure on the job, significantly more than in other industries, the report found. (The data surveyed 30,000 employees across nine industries in 2015.)

"I've seen women in engineering dressing and behaving like men, just to fit in," Emily White, former chief operating officer of Snapchat, said during the panel. "But the best women embrace themselves and stop pretending."

Women have phenomenal communication skills, the ability to work well with others and to think creatively, White said, and those skills aren't being valued or employed to their fullest potential in Silicon Valley, yet. The dialogue surrounding women in tech positions must progress, in order for the statistics to change, the panelists agreed.

When the conversation transitioned to talk of Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes, Sara Clemens, chief operating officer at Pandora, said, "It pisses me off that two women who are attractive get more attention for failing when hundreds of men fail and don't get covered."

For Clemens, the tech industry presents a "clean slate" because things are constantly changing, and women are as capable as men — if not more capable — of doing a good job. "You have the chance to reinvent yourself" as a women in tech today, Clemens said. More female entrepreneurs need to realize these opportunities exist and pursue them.

The number of women in VC firms fell to 6 percent from 10 percent between 1999 and 2014, a study by Babson College found. Those numbers have to change, Ingersoll said. "At least at the surface level, companies in Silicon Valley are saying they want women and they want diversity," but the next challenge is getting firms to act on that, she said.