Silicon Valley’s gender gap problem is really a culture problem

Free lattes are not worth climbing the ladder in an industry with culture problems.
Free lattes are not worth climbing the ladder in an industry with culture problems.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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I find Sand Hill Road intimidating. Board rooms and venture capitalists scare me. When pushed for quick answers to their questions, I sit quietly and hope that someone else will respond. It’s not that I don’t know the answers. But like many other women (and men for that matter), I thrive in a different environment.

Companies, sensitive to complaints of persistent gender gaps, are trying harder to appeal to women. And while it’s nice that many now offer lavish perks and go out of their way to recruit and retain women, implicit biases still exist.

The problem? Silicon Valley’s culture rewards the kind of aggressive, think-on-your-feet, answer-with-confidence interactions that are prevalent among men. And as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, because people “commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women.”

When raising venture funding, for example, you hope to get invited to the Monday full-partnership meeting, where you get an audience with all brand-name (male) partners. They fire questions at you and, after an hour of grilling, decide if you get your tens of millions from them. It’s not dissimilar to what happens in board rooms or management team meetings across the Valley.

I’m often asked to speak on “Women in Tech” panels and to help recruit women to careers in engineering and business. I’m hesitant to participate in these activities, and often feel guilty that I don’t want to “help.” Yes, there are perks like nursing rooms, generous leave policies, and egg freezing(!). But far too many women still have to deal processes and systems that implicitly discriminate against them.

The women at the top that I have worked with (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Shona Brown) are badasses who know how to win at a men’s game. I have huge respect for Mayer (she was a Stanford classmate and friend). Yet I am just as scared of presenting to her–or even getting grilled in a casual conversation with her–as I am of the men. I want the business world to not just encourage women to “lean in,” but create space for non-aggressive, soft-spoken people to succeed.

Just because company perks now include dry cleaning, house cleaning, or three organic meals a day doesn’t translate to a rush of female candidates. Above all, people want a place where they can thrive. Personally, I think slowly, communicate better in writing, and am not comfortable giving an answer with confidence when I’m not actually confident in my answer. Fixing the dry cleaning is easy. Changing how decisions are made in business is hard.

The numbers show that while perks are improving, that isn’t translating into higher numbers of women in tech. Just recently, McKinsey found that only 15% of tech’s chief officer titles are held by women—a small representation compared to men. What’s more, according to The Economist, roughly half of America’s publicly traded technology companies have all-male boards. Women’s share of jobs in software and computing fell from 34% in 1990 to 27% in 2011, and a recent study by Babson College found that the number of female partners in venture capital firms declined from 10% to 6% between 1999 and 2014.

I don’t have the answer, but I doubt these poor numbers are due to a lack of perks. We should start change by firing the assholes: the people who make others feel small, shut down constructive debates, and generally create miserable environments.

After the worst of the jerks are out, we should set up asshole police. When someone loses their temper, they should be given a time-out. We should set up performance indicators that allow for people with different work styles. We should fund female entrepreneurs and encourage them to be themselves.

Getting more women to work in tech isn’t going to happen by hard-sell recruitment. Rather, tech firms need to create and foster environments that women actually want to be a part of–ones that value different viewpoints and work styles. Study after study has shown that diversity strengthens companies.

Silicon Valley is the global hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. And for those of us here, we have a responsibility. The world looks to us, and we need to make sure our record on women is one we can be proud of. For my part, the next time someone yells at me, demanding that I jump the minute they snap, I won’t respond. Instead, I’ll ask them to lower their voice–and perhaps go sit in the corner.