'Uncanny Valley' writer Anna Wiener explains why women are souring on Silicon Valley

Key Points
  • "Uncanny Valley" author Anna Wiener says that the sudden wave of narratives by women who worked in Silicon Valley arise from the growing realization that these companies' narratives about themselves don't match reality.
  • "I think there's a greater willingness to push back against that story, whether it's about Facebook or Google or the industry at large — and deconstruct it and challenge it."
"Uncanny Valley" author Anna Wiener says more women are coming forward with long-form testimonies about Silicon Valley

Several former tech workers are releasing non-fiction accounts about their experiences in Silicon Valley and one of them says it's largely because tech companies have fed women a story that, itself, is fictional.

Anna Wiener wrote "Uncanny Valley" as a memoir that recounts her personal experiences of ambivalence and disillusionment working in San Francisco start-ups in her early twenties during the last decade. That often included being the only person who identified as female in a room. She's one of a cohort of women in their early thirties who are now recounting their stories about working in the tech industry.

In December, ex-Google employee Claire Stapleton wrote a long-form feature for Elle Magazine called "Google Loved Me, Until I Pointed Out Everything That Sucked About It." Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a forthcoming book "Whistleblower," which comes out in February. Wendy Liu's book "Abolish Silicon Valley," which comes out April 14, teases that it will bust the myths of the tech industry.

The long-form testimonies come as tech workers arise in spurts, protesting how their companies are handling government contracts, climate action and sexual misconduct.

"I think we're seeing narratives of disillusionment now because we were sold this story about Silicon Valley, all of us were very respondent to it and we have seen, in recent years, this story start to fall apart," Wiener told CNBC. That story includes promises of identity, security, and value for the workers who help companies succeed.

Empty promises

In her book, Wiener never identifies the companies she works at by name, referring to them instead as "the data analytics startup" or "the open source startup," although her descriptions make it easy for insiders to figure out where she was. But her narrative stretches well beyond her workplace, encompassing the full scope of the weird and often exclusionary Silicon Valley tech culture of the last decade.

Wiener says women's narratives are getting more attention this year because "the distance between when these companies have been talking about themselves and seeing them grow into their own entities that are completely antithetical to the initial narrative," she said. "There's a value in personal narrative when it can point to structural issues."

Companies and executives made lofty promises, like Google's famous motto "Don't be evil," while pushing workers to be "Down For The Cause" at all costs, often leading to burnout, Wiener reflected in her book. "An entire culture had been seduced by ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America's soft suburbs," she wrote.

"These companies have really intense mission statements and high-flying stories of themselves but what you see is a conflation of personal worth and economic output that is very American," Wiener told CNBC. "I think you see a culture that rewards dedication to a company or a start-up and rewards the merging of one's identity with the company. I think you see this a lot at places like Google or Facebook, as well as start-ups."

When former Facebook employee Katherine Losse wrote a book called "The Boy Kings" in 2012 about being one of the first Facebook employees, it didn't get as much public attention, Wiener points out.

"It didn't get as much attention as it should have gotten in part because people weren't taking Facebook seriously enough or were quite eager to buy into Facebook's story about itself," Wiener said. "And now I think there's a greater willingness to push back against that story, whether it's about Facebook or Google or the industry at large — and deconstruct it and challenge it."

At one point, she recalls tech executives saying they wanted more diversity and women in the ranks, but refused to hire them or acknowledge their respective sexist cultures.

For instance, she describes a "Male Allies" panel where male executives from companies including Google gave their "best advice" on managing workplace discrimination by telling workers to "push though boundaries" and to "speak up, and be heard."

But Wiener says her own personal stories are "mild" compared to others'.

"I feel like I got lucky," she said. "I was seeing things happen to other people and the discrimination I faced mostly had to do with career trajectory and my value, which is quite different from being constantly assaulted and harassed by sexist colleagues and superiors."

Wiener started blogging about her experience and observations in Silicon Valley in the years leading up to her book, but disguised them. "At the time, I said, 'I'll write this as fiction — that'll feel safer for me.'"

While "Uncanny Valley" has only been out for a couple of weeks, Wiener said she's already received personal responses from other women in the industry who confide their own stories of sexism, discrimination and harassment.

"People have shared stories with me about being told they're non-technical and demoted while given simultaneously given more work," Wiener said. "They say they're discriminated against because they have kids, and feeling alienated because they're working in a company run by men in their twenties who have a party environment."

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