Silicon Valley: It's hard out here for a bitch

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 2, 2014
The Tinder lawsuit brings the debate about 'brogrammer' culture and sexism in the workplace back to the fore and the more I look at it the more I realise the system just isn't built for women who want it all.

“We've never had it so good, uh-huh, we're out of the woods
And if you can't detect the sarcasm, you've misunderstood”

Just for those of you that aren't into a bit of Lily Allen (shame on you), the headline and the above quote are lyrics of hers in a recent satirical pop song that she

lily allen
released about the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated music industry. Never one to mince her words, and although the song is meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, it's underlying message delivers a punch with lyrics such as:

                               “Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits”

Now as a man in his mid-twenties I'm not even going to begin to pretend that I fully understand the difficulties or pressures of being a woman in the workplace. However, a story that came to light this week has made me question how well we are tackling this issue. And I can tell you now, I feel a bit depressed about it all.

The story in question is of course the sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuit that Whitney Wolfe, former vice president of marketing at Tinder, has filed against said company. She claims that she was stripped of her co-founder title at Tinder for being a “young female” and that she was branded a “whore” in front of the CEO at a company party by CMO Justin Mateen, with whom she had a brief romance with in 2012. She also claims that CEO Sean Rad dismissed complaints from her and branded her an “emotional girl”. Now the majority stakeholder in Tinder, IAC/InterActiveCorp, has said that the claims are unfounded and obviously no verdict has been reached yet – so this is all very much still 'alleged' – but the news will strike a chord with women working in technology companies, where there has been a perception of 'brogrammer' culture for years in Silicon Valley.

The Tinder case comes shortly after one of Silicon Valley's most esteemed venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, was hit with a sex-discrimination suit by a former junior partner, Ellen Pao. Although this started back in 2012, the case is still ongoing and is set for a public trial next year after the two parties weren't able to reach an agreement confidentially – what comes out in the public trial could potentially add even more damage to the sexist reputation that Silicon Valley is currently fighting.

Facebook's got some leaning in to do of its own

Shortly after I read the Tinder story, I noticed another post pop up on my Twitter stream from Computerworld UK, which states that women only make up 31 percent of Facebook's workforce. Even worse, only 15 percent of technology departments and 23 percent of senior managers are female. The story states that this is in line with industry figures and is comparable to Google, but I'm surprised that such a new, young, internet company has such poor female representation – especially with COO Sheryl Sanberg constantly telling women to 'lean in'. Interestingly, on the same day as I spot these two stories, I also notice that the London's Evening Standard carried out an interview with Facebook's Nicola Mendelsohn, the social network's VP of EMEA (arguably the company's most senior role outside of the US). In her interview she makes some of the following comments about being a women in the workplace:

“There are cultural issues holding us back. I want to make sure I help the next generation of women come up. I want to make sure I can inspire my daughter, in the same way as I would my sons, to do whatever it is they’re passionate about... I’ve always created an environment for the women in the businesses I’ve been in to be the best that they can, however they define that.”

“We’re talking about the importance of a cultural shift that means women can see and position themselves at the top of companies and see role

models that can get them there. 

“There are just not enough women in engineering and there need to be more.To think that only one half of the planet are the right people to solve things in the engineering and coding side, that’s just rubbish... It goes to the point about role models — making sure people see what you can do with engineering or maths. People wouldn’t imagine they could get jobs in the creative industries but in fact we’re crying out for people with these skill-sets.”

She is also quoted as saying she took two years maternity leave over an eight year period, but that she doesn't think particular attention should be paid to the family life of successful women - “I think [the discussion of family] should be treated in the same way as it is for men in top jobs.” I have to say I fundamentally disagree with her on this point – I don't understand why women should have to ignore the success of their family - but I'll come back to that later.

Finally, I was also pointed to an interview this week with PepsiCo CEO, Indra K. Nooyi, in which she outlines a very honest description of what it is like being a mother and a CEO of a multi-national company. Although not specifically a technology company, her comments were so surprising to me that I felt the need to include them here:

“I don't think women can have it all. I just don't think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.”

I haven't watched the video of the interview, but my colleague Dennis assures me that Nooyi seemed “totally relaxed” with the coping strategies that she goes on to reference – including roping in everyone from your family members to her receptionist to help out – but I still can't help but feel irritated that this has to be what women do in order to have both work and family part of their lives.

Personal experience

So when I said I told my flatmate, who is female and works as a marketing executive in the online gambling industry, that I was writing this piece today – I asked her: Do you as a woman feel like you can have it all? Do you think you can be the best in your field and have a happy home life? Her response was:

“Hahahahhaha. No. I feel like companies force women to either be the career type or the middle management mother.”

Sigh. I really do think that most of the time this is the case in our industry – and probably many others. I know from personal experience that when I've worked in teams with women alongside men in senior positions, I've had a far more positive experience of work in general. And yet, when these women had babies, or didn't act like the men in the senior positions, they were side lined. In fact, I once found out that I was getting paid more than a woman who was my senior (and far more capable than me) in a previous job – how is that right? She had a kid, sure, but she worked extra long hours and never let her home-life impact her work-life, and yet I was the one who was paid more.

Similarly, I was at an event recently with some female journalists who are at the top of their game in the industry, all with decades of experience between them, and yet a fellow male journalist felt the need to send them all a tweet telling them how impressed he was with their work and how professional they were all being. No men mentioned in the tweet. Is it just me or is that extremely patronising and indicative of the way men treat women at work? “Good job love, surprised you managed that, now run along home and look after the kids.”  Luckily for him all of the women in question are extremely professional and just thanked him

for his kind words, but I would have been inclined to tell him to stop being such a pig.

The problem, I think, and I'm still working this out, is that we are trying to make women compete within a system that was inherently not built for women that see having children as an important part of their lives. Because, let's face it, and although not for everyone and should absolutely be a choice, reproduction is an important part of our society. And so is working. I read an interview with film director Bruce LaBruce this week, where he said something that rung true for me. He said:

“In the 70s and 80s, the black movement, the gay movement, the feminist movement... they were all very hardcore leftist, sometimes even Marxist, movements. That has definitely changed. Particularly now, it's like you have acceptance of some of these groups because they are playing in the same kind of playing field as the dominant culture. Does feminism make sense if women are trying to compete in the same kind of corrupt institutions that men are excelling in or that have power in? That's a certain kind of strategy. The other strategy is to actually challenge the institutions, and challenge the dominant ideology and the status quo because it isn't working.”

Now, I'm not advocating some sort of Marxist revolution in Silicon Valley, but I do wonder if the corporate structures we have built up over the years need a fundamental overhaul to cater for the equal society that we should be living in today. Women shouldn't be judged for having children, they shouldn't be judged for flexible working and they shouldn't have to act like men (whatever that means) to get ahead. All of which I've experienced first hand. I also think if we put some of the onus of childcare on men, that would help – like they do in Sweden, for example, where the amount of parental leave is 480 days per child. It isn't maternity and paternity leave, you get 480 days per child and you as parents can decide how to split that...down to the hour. I'm convinced that this sort of incentive would level out the playing field a bit in the US and the UK.

However, of course, this sort of overhaul requires a buy-in from corporate boards, which are of course mostly made up of men, who probably wouldn't see it in their interests. Boys club indeed.

This piece isn't meant to be some sort of groundbreaking assessment of inequality in the workplace – you will all probably be aware of what's going on and I'm sure others have written about it more eloquently than I have. But I do think it's important that we recognise the problems exist and don't assume because we have the odd female CEO that the glass ceiling is broken. As you can see from the amount of stories popping up just this week (and I've not included a few others), it really isn't.

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