What it’s like to be a woman working in Silicon Valley - “One client asked me to sit on his lap”

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 13, 2016
A truly insightful survey has been released by two senior female executives working in Silicon Valley, which provides anecdotes about sexism in the tech industry.

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The Elephant in the Valley. That’s the title of a new, very insightful, survey out this week that not only provides statistics about what it’s like to be a woman working in the west-coast technology industry, but also provides some shocking anecdotal evidence that should make for uncomfortable reading.

The survey was conducted by Trae Vassallo and Michele Madansky, the former of which has been a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and was subpoenaed in the controversial Ellen Pao trial.

In a podcast with Re/code, Vassallo explained that following the trial she was contacted by a number of women that wanted to share their experiences with her. This led her to her working with Madansky (whom in the past has worked on consumer insights research at Yahoo!), on this research to shed some light on the conscious and unconscious treatment of women in the technology industry.

The pair used their extensive network to ask over 200 women with over 10 years experience, 75% of which have children and 77% of which are over the age of 40, about what it’s like to be a woman in Silicon Valley.

And the results are sobering.

Sexual Harassment

Let’s start with the most disturbing statistic from the survey, which found that 60% of women reported unwanted sexual advances. 60%!

Some 65% of women who report unwanted sexual advances had received advances from a superior, with half receiving advances more than once. Also, 1 in 3 have felt afraid of their personal safety because of work related circumstances.

Here are some of the stories provided by women (anonymously):

Once a client asked me to sit on his lap if he wanted to buy my products. My company didn't do anything about it when i told my boss so unfortunately I asked to be taken off that client but it's not like they can fire the client.

Experiences included being groped by my boss while in public at a company event. After learning this had happened to other women in my department, and then reporting the event to HR, I was retaliated against and had to leave the company.

So many...recently, I attended a VC firm's conference where they required one group of people to strip to their underwear and swim in a lake. The men all got naked and jumped right in. But the women? So devastating.

The survey also found that of those that reported sexual harassment, 60% were dissatisfied with the course of action. 39% of those harassed did nothing because they thought it would negatively impact their career, 30% did not report because they wanted to forget and 29% signed a non-disparagement agreement.

[I received] vicious comments by online (anonymous) commenters following my writing a piece about gender equity in tech industry.

After a colleague made a (VERY unwanted) advance, I did not complain to anyone but I ensured that I never was alone with him outside an office setting. Not complaining was a mistake. The colleague later criticized me in a review as "not putting in enough hours." If I'd filed a complaint, his spiteful slap back at me would have been put in context. But I wouldn't have known whom to complain to or how.

Hard to say. He worked in HR so I would have had to go to the head of HR which felt career limiting. That said, after I left I know he continued to harass other women, which makes me wish I had filed a complaint. I'm not proud of how I handled it but I was afraid and didn't want to invest any more time or emotional energy. It was behind closed doors, no one else was there, so I knew it would be a he said/she said.


Something that Silicon Valley is often accused of is ‘bro-culture’, or as this survey describes it: ‘not

having a seat at the table’. Anyone who has worked in business knows that networking is a key element of success. Many of the women sharing their stories felt that they were excluded from these activities because of their gender.

For example, 66% said that they felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities because they were a woman. Some 59% felt they have not had the same opportunities as their male counterparts and 90% (!!) have witnessed sexist behaviour at company offsets and/or industry conferences.

Their stories:

Honestly, in two decades the list is just too long. This is an industry that has Cougar Night practically next door to my office and thinks it's perfectly appropriate to meet there for business conversations. (Why do we put up with that, BTW?)

At annual sales conference once, all the men gathered in the suite of the head of sales, drinking late into the night and then all shaved their heads as a bonding exercise. (The boss had a shaven head).

I don't know that I have been consciously excluded so much as some of the times that business is taking place on the golf course or late night at the bar just are not places I want to be.

Closely tied to this is the impact of being a mother and wanting to continue working. For example, late night drinking activities rebranded as ‘networking’ doesn’t fit well with a woman that has to go home and care for her kids in the evening.

The survey found that 75% were asked about family life, marital status and children in interviews; 40% feel the need to speak less about their family to be taken more seriously; and of those that took maternity leave, 52% shortened their leave because they thought it would negatively impact their career.

Examples of questions/comments during interviews, included:

It's a good thing you don't have children yet as that would work well in venture/start up world

Would I really have the time needed for the job and could I work as hard as the other two partners I'd be joining "given that you are a mom with a young child”.

Once I was asked about my religion and my views on abortion. On another occasion I was asked about how I would take care of my child while working.

Other stories shared by the women surveyed:

The women at my firm didn't talk nearly as much about their families as the men did. We felt the need to appear more professional and "all about business”.

I don't keep photos of my kids on my desk any more.

I had 2 kids 20 months apart. When I told my boss about the second pregnancy, his response was-"OMG! Didn’t you just have a baby?" BTW, he had 3 kids. When I returned from my 2nd mat leave, the mood was different, and there was little effort to include me in the flow of things. I was no longer part of the discussion on the cool big game-changer project, and my boss was complaining about how little my team had accomplished that summer. I had to remind him repeatedly that I hadn’t been around, and there was no backfill, so how could anything have been done?

A woman is either too hard or too soft

Multi-tasking businesswoman
Another interesting aspect to the survey was that 84% of women have been told they were too aggressive (with half hearing that on multiple occasions). Some 47% have also been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food).

At Company X we had a joke that there were only two reviews for women - you are either too reticent or you are too bossy - no middle ground.

Finally, it’s worth highlighting that women often experience what the survey calls ‘unconscious bias’ - which essentially means men treating women differently, but perhaps not being fully aware of their actions. On the Re/code podcast this is also described as explicit/inexplicit bias, so it’s not quite sexual harassment, but it still alienates women in the workplace.

In evaluating deals, sometimes a male ceo will address all his replies to my male associate--while I'm the GP on point. I don't make investments in those companies”

When I am with a male colleague who reports to me the default is for people tend to defer to him assuming I work for him. As soon as they know that is not true they look to me. I have also had male colleagues say to me that once a woman is pregnant she is irrelevant.

As a VC, I had a casual pitch meeting with a male founder and two of my male colleagues. Despite my background/skill set being clearly the most relevant, the founder didn't make eye contact, and didn't really listen to the questions I asked before answering. Definitely the most blatant gender-based example I've had while a VC.

My take

This survey really jumped out at me because of the anecdotal evidence. I would hope that a lot of men read these and begin to question things that they have experienced. Or maybe question things that they have said or done in the past.

This sort of stuff just shouldn’t be happening today. Are we surprised women often don’t see Silicon Valley as an attractive prospect?!

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