“Where are all the women?”
That was the question Vivek Wadhwa’s wife whispered to him at the 2009 “Crunchies Awards” – the tech industry’s Oscars.
It’s been five years since her question woke Wadhwa to the male homogeneity of Silicon Valley. Since then, the professor, researcher, entrepreneur, and Foreign Policy “Top 100 Global Thinker” has re-routed his career to study gender in the tech industry, finding that “despite how we glamorize it, Silicon Valley has a dark side.” He saw that dark side up close when industry insiders and strangers alike unleashed vitriolic tirades against him on social media and in real life for bringing attention to his wife’s question. His response to these critics? “Call me a feminist,” he says. “It will make my day.”
Wadhwa’s desire to expose these gender disparities for a general audience and to create a forum for women in tech whose voices weren’t being heard was a driving force behind his recently published book Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology. And yet, part of the response to the book has raised an even bigger question about the gender parity movement in all fields, not just tech. It’s one that Emma Watson also recently addressed. Can – and should – men be spokespeople for underrepresented women?
A form of that question came out at a recent New America event where Wadhwa spoke to Breadwinning and Caregiving Program Director Liza Mundy about the inspiration and impact of his new book. It also popped up on Twitter during, and after, the event.
Why, one audience member wanted to know, was Wadhwa speaking for women? Would he cede a keynote speech to a female speaker or insist that a producer contact a woman to do a media appearance in his place? Wadhwa indicated that he is mindful of the dissonance but also realistic about his media appeal: he has a platform and wants to use it. Right or wrong, he is now a prominent voice on gender issues in Silicon Valley, and he views his choice as a dichotomous one: to speak, or not to speak, about the injustices confronting women and minority entrepreneurs. If you see injustice and you don’t speak, he said, you are complicit in it.
He emphasized one particularly insidious injustice that often goes unnoticed: the process of “pattern recognition,” when Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose who to fund based on a proven preferential “type.” It’s a wordsmith’s code for overt discrimination, and something he spotlights in his introduction to the book.
Exposing “pattern recognition” lays bare the deeper sexism and double standards common in Silicon Valley. While PayPal’s Peter Thiel has garnered praise for offering high school students money not to attend college, Wadhwa says too many VCs and tech executives still get away with lamenting the dearth of qualified female and minority candidates in the “pipeline” of STEM education. In a supposed meritocracy, why must minority applicants possess postgraduate degrees in computer science while board members of companies like Twitter can get away with having no degree at all?
But if we are talking meritocracy, the facts on women should speak for themselves. After his awakening in 2009, Wadhwa revisited his own research studies on entrepreneurship to incorporate and analyze data on gender, a perspective he freely admits he overlooked the first time around. He found that female tech entrepreneurs showed lower rates of failure, were more capital-efficient and had parity with men in STEM education. And yet women were virtually invisible in venture capital and on the boards and management of top companies like Apple. A recent study from the Diana Project at Babson College found that as recently as last year, 97 percent of the companies that got VC funding were led by men and only 15 percent of the companies had a woman on their executive teams.
To Wadhwa’s mind, Silicon Valley has always been an unrepentant boys’ club where women and people of color are barred from the inner circles and the investment bounty of venture capitalists always seems to find its way into the coffers of entrepreneurs who look more like Mark Zuckerberg than Michelle Obama.
He recounted several stories from Innovating Women to illustrate his disgust with the gendered underbelly of Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Kim Polese of Marimba sold her company for half a billion dollars but became a cautionary tale of “failure,” while Heidi Roizen, a rare female venture capitalist, was subjected to sexual harassment and outright assault by colleagues and potential clients. Mundy, who moderated the event, raised the counter-example of older, more established companies like Xerox and GM, where gender diversity initiatives have been largely successful and where HR policies against harassment structure a more traditional workplace environment. As the workplace continues to evolve, Mundy asked, how should we promote innovation and protect employees from harassment and discrimination?
The book is striking a chord with readers who are asking themselves that very question. Wadhwa gets emails every day from women thanking him or telling him they are giving it to their daughters who, unlike their mothers, now have access to girls’ coding camps and the like to develop their confidence and skills. This response to the book, in combination with a growing network of both institutional and informal female mentorship and Google’s recent decision to break ranks with other tech giants by sharing their personnel data on gender, emboldens his relatively positive outlook for the future. His next frontier is to demand that VCs release their own gender data, just as Google has, and to erode what he called the “family unfriendly” nature of many startups.
Women are, in Wadhwa’s words, “now primed to lead the next generation of innovation: every data point you look at says the future belongs to women.”
And he has no plans to stop promoting that message. “The good news is that women, men and the media are now talking about it,” he said.
Jane Greenway Carr is an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.