Men of Silicon Valley: We’re sexist, we just don’t know it.

08/01/2012

As someone who moved to San Francisco about a year ago from Dallas, I was really struck by how progressive everything here was. Silicon Valley seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream, and one of the few places left in the country where you have a good shot at realizing it, especially in technology. We like to pride ourselves on being at the cutting edge – technologically, economically, and socially. I know sexism has been a big debate around here lately, so I want to relate some of what I’ve seen as a man who’s relatively new to the scene. In short, there’s definitely a problem.

Last week, my company (Selligy) was competing in a startup competition against 7 other teams. We ended up winning, but barely, with tough competition coming from the only female founder in the group, Kati Bicknell at Kindara.

Kindara is a mobile app for women to track fertility signs, with the goal of conceiving quickly and successfully. It’s a big problem, and one that a woman should be behind solving. Before Kati’s presentation even started, however, it felt like many of the men in the room suddenly reverted to Junior High.

As the event’s host introduced Kindara as an app to help women get pregnant, someone in the audience shouted “I can’t wait to see the demo!” Comments and puns continued after the pitch, many from the all-male panel of judges: “Fertile markets”, “market penetration”, etc., with a pretty giggly audience.

It was all pretty juvenile. Clearly Kati’s startup was taken seriously, as she almost won, but it’s one more thing to have to play along with and endure. Kati chuckled along with everyone else, but I think that’s just a defense mechanism she’s employing. If I were Kati, what I would hear in those jokes is a discomfort among the men in the room when it comes to a woman talking seriously about a sexual issue, and I don’t think it’s a problem a man would face.

Women are a big market, maybe the biggest, and women founders and engineers bring a unique and needed perspective to female-specific pain points. We need them involved, but any women in the audience for the pitch listening to the juvenile wisecracks probably felt discouraged from doing something like this. Why would they want to put so much effort into starting a company if that’s what they would have to endure in front of hundreds of people every time they want to promote their business?

To put it in user experience terms, some men in the room were adding unnecessary and unfair friction for women founders.

When I related the above story about Kati’s presentation to my good friend Lauren Roth, I could see her heart sink. Her voice lowered as she told me how humiliated and discouraged she would have felt, and that she’s faced the same thing herself.

Lauren is an awesome hacker, and has been highly involved in the Drupal community. She organized Drupal events in Austin for years, and helped organize the largest and most profitable Drupal conference to date in San Francisco after moving here. She has since, however, sidelined herself from those gatherings. This is not due a lack of interest in the industry, but because of how she’s treated as a woman.

Lauren is attractive and fashionable, and as a result attracts a lot of attention. But that’s not what should define her. Unfortunately, for many in the community, they can’t seem to see past her face, even when she’s next to them in a conference hall, in front of a computer, typing away.

At conferences and meetups, she is constantly asked what she’s doing there. Men are always asking if she’s in marketing or PR or something, and nobody seems to takes her seriously as a hacker, at least not upon first meeting her.

As an introvert, it’s already difficult for her to attend events like this, but to then have to put up with everyone asking if she’s there with her boyfriend, or hitting on her, and not accepting her as one of their own because of how she looks makes the experience intolerable. She is now disengaged and working on her own, away from the support of the community. That’s a real shame, because Lauren is one of the coolest people I know, and would make any organization a better place.

Kati and Lauren aren’t alone. Even women at the very top have to deal with this. How many hours did it take for Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy to be on the front page of every tech blog and news outlet? And within minutes, there were already rumblings about her ability to cope with the job and her hormones at the same time. We really need to grow the fuck up.

I think many women don’t speak out because they expect to be told that they have no sense of humor, or that they’re being over sensitive – so let me just say that I don’t think that is the case. I’m speaking out because this affects people I care about.

I’ve spoken to several female friends about this issue this week, both inside and outside of the tech community, and every one of them has stories to tell. Some of them are horrifying. With those experiences always in the back of women’s minds, is it any wonder than even little jokes can make them feel like outsiders who don’t belong in the room?

For all you geeks who need data, check out NPR’s recent report on ‘stereotype threats.’ The research focuses on why women are leaving scientific fields, but it absolutely applies to tech as well. It’s eye opening, and something we need to be aware of. I think it’s fair to say based on my conversations with women that most of the ones in male-dominated industries like technology have a little voice in their head telling them that they don’t fit in, and they don’t belong, and they frequently have interactions and experiences with men which reinforce that idea. Overcoming that is a challenge most men can’t really appreciate.

I don’t mean for this to be taken as a criticism of any events, organizers, all the men out there, or as a patronizing defense of women, who have proven they can take care of themselves despite all this nonsense. But for the guys, you all need to be aware of the effect our words and behavior have on our fellow females in the field. It may be subtle (and sometimes not so subtle), but it’s real.

The first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing that there is one. If you’re a guy reading this, you may be thinking “I’m not sexist! I treat everyone equally!” Maybe that’s true, but it’s more likely you just haven’t noticed. There is definitely a problem here of which we need to be self aware. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past, but I’m coming to realize that the little behavior changes men have when a woman walks in the room are noticed, and have a big impact.

We all need to do what we can to encourage everyone to be a part of this wonderful community we have here in the bay area. This is an incredible place full of opportunity for people of all backgrounds, and that’s something we can all be proud of. Our work is not done yet, though. Next time you see a cute girl at a tech conference, don’t ask her about her boyfriend, ask her what her favorite technology stack is. Next time a woman is pitching a female-targeted business, treat it seriously and help her feel like she really belongs. And maybe a few female judges wouldn’t hurt either.

And for all the women out there – keep up the good work and please don’t get discouraged. Our world will be a better place with more of you in the game.

 

Note: I would like to thank Kati and Lauren for both their input on this article, as well as their courage to let me share some of their personal stories.