The tech sector’s bro culture is undeniably toxic to women, but there are some revolutionary efforts underway to create change.
One of the closest things the English have to a martial art is something called shin-kicking. It’s exactly what it sounds like: two contestants face each other, grab onto the other’s collar, and then attempt to kick each other in the shins. They stuff their trousers with straw to provide some semblance of protective padding. According to Wikipedia, “success in the event requires both agility and the ability to endure pain, the loser crying out ‘sufficient’ when he has had enough.”
Competitive shin-kicking is the best metaphor for what it’s currently like to be a woman in the tech sector—a world that embraces bro culture and lauds as heroes a band of young white men who’ve hustled their way to the top of billion dollar companies. An industry that’s ready to disrupt everything except itself. Being a women in this world often involves enduring unconscious bias, everyday sexism, even actual harassment. It’s like getting your shins kicked repeatedly until you cry sufficient and leave, because it would be madness to stay.
But for an industry that prides itself on being data-driven, the sidelining of women makes no empirical sense. All the research shows that diverse teams build better products and run companies that are more financially successful. McKinsey’s diversity study shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Racially and ethnically diverse teams are even more successful. And yet only a tiny handful of the tech sector’s celebrated unicorns—startups valued at more than $1 billion—are run by women. Instead, companies like Uber, with aggressive and hostile corporate cultures, continue to succeed in raising millions of dollars in investor capital and are the ones being hailed as disruptive icons of the new economy.
There’s a now-famous story about survivorship bias. It’s been embellished in the re-telling, but legend has it that during World War II the U.S. Air Force attempted to improve the design of their bomber aircraft. They wanted to add more armor to the planes, but still needed them to be able to fly. So they carefully studied the aircraft that made it back from bombing runs, tracking where they’d incurred the most flak damage, and they discovered a recurring pattern. The top brass’s instinct was to add more armor to the places where the planes were being repeatedly struck. It was apparently a mathematician, Abraham Wald, who saved them from making a terrible mistake. He pointed out that the damage actually showed where the planes were strongest, because it showed where a plane could be shot and still make it back safely. The extra armor needed to go in the places the planes hadn’t been hit at all. David McRaney, author of “You Are Not So Smart,” concludes from this story that “if you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete.”
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that that’s exactly what we’re doing with tech startups: holding up the unicorns as our lofty goal and then trying to replicate their success through mimicry. It’s the modern version of a cargo cult. Put all the right ingredients in place: an elevator pitch that describes your product as “Uber for X”; an investor deck that reels in your audience the way Airbnb’s did; hipster office space with standing desks; really great laptop stickers. How can fame and success and an IPO not automatically come your way?
When we only listen to the stories of the “winners,” we’re not getting all the information we need, because we’re only looking at the planes that made it back. Is it any wonder, then, that the same mistakes get made over and over again? When we hold Uber and Tesla up as successes to be emulated, despite their hostile internal cultures and lack of diversity, we’re overlooking the weaknesses that are sinking thousands of startups, turning out terrible products, and driving women away from the industry in droves.
Culture beds in quickly at a startup, and swiftly becomes very difficult to change. Founders will tell you that in the early days, what matters most is the ability to move fast and break things. To do that, they claim, they need to work with a bunch of people who think alike. That usually means people they know well from previous projects; people who’ve been on a similar journey to them; often, people who look like them. Sure, diversity and inclusion are important, they’ll tell you. They’ve seen the data; they know. But it’s one of those things that’s going to have to wait until after they’ve built their minimum viable product, until they have paying customers, until they’ve raised their seed round. Because it takes time to hire outside your immediate network, it will slow the team down to have to learn to communicate with people who think differently, and there are other more urgent things they need to prioritize.
Here’s the problem: Once you’ve committed to your founding team and made your first key hires, it may already be too late. By the time the Team page on your website is 10 white guys with beards and a dog, you’ve created a company culture that underrepresented groups are going to be wary of joining.
The industry’s problems don’t begin and end with hiring, either. They’re also entrenched in the machinery of capital raising. The Pitchbook database reveals that venture capitalists invested $58.2 billion in companies with all-male founders in 2016, while women received just $1.46 billion in VC money. And for many of the same reasons. Venture capitalists are overwhelmingly white and male, and the cognitive bias toward pattern-matching means they keep backing the same kinds of founders and the same kinds of companies—repeating the same pattern and expecting a different result— the popular definition of “madness.” Clearly the sane thing to do would be to give up and leave companies like Uber in the hands of men that Arianna Huffington apparently described as “brilliant jerks” (provoking eyerolls everywhere). But fortunately there’s an increasing number of women in Silicon Valley who are determined to not only stay in an industry that keeps kicking them in the shins, but also give it the specific tools it needs to change.
For instance, Project Include is a community effort to improve diversity and inclusion in tech companies, and it’s aimed specifically at early- to mid-stage tech startups—companies that have fewer than 500 employees. The eight women who launched the project are all senior figures in tech, including Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit who was a junior partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of the Valley’s most storied venture capital firms. She brought a case against them for gender discrimination in 2012, which she lost but which shone much-needed light to the endemic bias in tech culture. Erica Joy Baker is a senior engineer at Slack, and spends an enormous amount of her time writing about and advocating for diversity and inclusion in the industry. Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, started the important work of collecting and disclosing company diversity data with a Github repository collecting numbers on women in engineering.
The whole team at Project Include brings a wealth of practical experience, but what sets the effort apart is the way in which they present a set of specific, actionable recommendations that early-stage founders and managers can put in place right away. The project isn’t about diversity as a “worthy goal” to be put on a company’s work plan for “someday-maybe.” It’s a practical toolkit around culture, hiring, remuneration, and advancement, backed by research and data, that can be implemented immediately.
It’s this commitment to change from within that’s really inspiring. In establishing the Refactor events here in New Zealand, my partners and I spent a long time thinking about how to position an event that would connect and empower women working in the tech sector. Refactoring is a concept that describes the process of changing a software system. Refactoring fixes the internal structure so that the system works much better externally. It’s not about adding new features, but about reconstructing and improving what’s already there. In choosing the name “Refactor,” we wanted to emphasize that to keep improving the tech industry, we need to empower women to not only stay but get to the top—at the head of teams, in board positions, on the speaker line-ups at conferences, and as visible leaders to inspire an incoming generation of smart women. The Refactor events focus on women telling their own stories—a series of short talks about career journeys and passion projects. Over the five years we’ve been running the events we’ve heard from someone who started out as a hairdresser and ended up as Head of Corporate IT for an international airline and from some- one who taught herself data visualization for fun in her spare time. We’ve heard from CEOs and founders, and from students who are just starting out and obsessing over electric cars.
We need to start to tell these stories more often, the stories of women who are forging their own paths. Women like Kimberly Bryant, who founded Black Girls Code to provide young girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology and computer programming. Tiffani Ashley Bell, whose Detroit water project The Human Utility has helped people around the world donate to pay the water bills of more than 900 families who would otherwise have been disconnected. Laura Gómez, founder of Atipica, a data-driven HR-tech company that addresses bias in recruiting with machine learning. Julia Hartz, the cofounder and CEO of Eventbrite, which earned the “unicorn” badge with its 2014 fundraising round valuing the company at over $1 billion. Arlan Hamilton, who founded Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm backing female, minority, and LGBT entrepreneurs, and is now being credited by establishment VCs for backing companies that they themselves would never have even seen. Jessica Matthews, whose company Uncharted Play has developed kinetic energy-harnessing products that can produce a source of clean energy for developing communities.
It takes a kind of madness to stay in a field that’s excluded and mistreated you—both in the sense that it’s irrational, and in the sense that it can be bad for your mental health. Those that do need to hear these stories. So they know they’re not alone. So founders start to see that not all successful companies follow the same predictable template. So investors start to put pressure on the companies they back to make change. So customers have alternatives and can vote with their wallets to support diverse and inclusive businesses. And so the next generation of passionate, hard-working and creative young women considering a career in our industry won’t need to stuff their trousers with straw.
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