When a former Uber software engineer published an expose about Uber's culture of harassment and her own treatment during her year at the ride-hailing unicorn, the event brought a key fact to the fore: Silicon Valley is known for being forward-looking about technology yet stunningly backwards when it comes to gender.
The show Silicon Valley, with its all-male "incubator" of young, pot-smoking coding geniuses making and losing millions, illustrates the same issue. Google "Silicon Valley" and "frat boy culture" and you'll find dozens of links to mainstream news articles, blogs, screeds, letters, videos, and tweets about threats of violence, sexist jokes, and casual misogyny, plus reports of gender-based hiring and firing and a financing system that rewards young men and shortchanges women. In this sense, Silicon Valley's culture echoes the Wolf of Wall Street culture of the 1980s and '90s.
But while Wall Street today seems tamer—thanks to lawsuits and diversity consultants in every corner—in Silicon Valley the misogyny continues unabated. A potent shot of that Wall Street wolf-ism among Northern California's venture capital boys' club has created a particularly toxic atmosphere for women in Silicon Valley.
In fact, a recent report on women entrepreneurs by the Kauffman Foundation identified the chief challenges to female success in entrepreneurship. Of the 350 female entrepreneurs they interviewed, the majority cited "lack of available advisers" at the top of their list of blockers preventing them from becoming successful entrepreneurs. Attrition among female professionals is only one reason for the scarcity of mentors for younger women. Another is that women who stay in the game beyond their late 30s may be sidelined by virulent ageism in the industry.
But it's not all gloom and doom for women in Silicon Valley.
At least I don't think so.
I believe that women can and must help women, and I think there are certain things companies can do to help the cause. They include:
Mentoring and advising budding women entrepreneurs
Only by building communities can women address gender-related issues, combat inappropriate behavior and remarks in the workplace, and help younger generations develop career goals.
Paying men and women fairly
Companies that pay women 20% to 30% less than men may think they are getting away with something, but it will cost them in other ways. Undervalued employees can ascertain via contextual clues that they're being undervalued even if they don't know by how much—and they will respect founders less for it and behave or leave accordingly.
Celebrating employees equally
When top execs model professional and respectful behavior, it helps foster a positive work culture where certain behaviors and stereotypes (such as expressing sexist or racist beliefs) are not tolerated.
Recognizing that work is work
Navigating a work environment in which you are both undervalued and overworked is exhausting. This dynamic only adds to the unsustainability of the tech industry for many women. The solution lies with the founders, the investors, and the startups themselves, who should all treat women and their work as valuable, discrete, and important.
Removing locker-room talk from the office
We can all relate to feeling paralyzed in the face of what is clearly inappropriate talk or behavior simply because we don't know what to say. But the onus is on every employee to curb these inappropriate conversations at the onset and not let them bubble into something that will have lasting impact. Companies should provide lessons in what's unacceptable and encouragement to speak up when something inappropriate is being said as part of the onboarding process.
In short, if a startup has funding to pay for engineering work, it can pay for all the other forms of labor that go into growing the value of the company. Only then will the prospect of being a "woman in tech" be something that is less an obstacle course to complete and/or escape than a long-term career to enjoy.
Commentary by April Rassa, who leads product marketing and growth at Progressly. Rassa has more than 20 years of marketing and leadership experience across various industries and a strong advocate for the overall customer experience. She is also a voice for women in technology as the leader of the Women's Circle at Progressly, a forum for women to openly discuss topics and experiences affecting their careers in the tech industry.
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