By the Blouin News Technology staff

FEATURE: Silicon Valley’s problem with ‘the other sex’

by in Enterprise Tech.

Getty Images

Getty Images

This week, a bit of a firestorm erupted around a party at Twitter’s headquarters. The company — notorious for historically boasting a male-only board, and currently embroiled in a proposed class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit — sponsored a fraternity themed party for its employees dubbed “Twitter Frat House.”

A heavy dose of criticism followed for the company’s choice of theme; many see the seemingly innocuous party as emblematic of Silicon Valley’s shortcomings in how it hires, promotes, and generally treats women. To some, a frat house themed party is exclusionary in its message, symbolically misogynist, and indicative of Twitter’s very problem with bringing women through its ranks.

The company has come under fire in the past for its male-dominated population, particularly its board of directors that — until recently — had zero women on it. Fusion writes that Twitter released figures last year showing that only 10% of the company’s tech employees were women, women made up 30% of employees, and 21% of those in leadership positions. In March, former Twitter software engineer Tina Huang — who has proposed the lawsuit against the company — said that it has no formal procedures for posting job openings or granting promotions, instead it uses a secretive “shoulder tap” process that favors men, and elevates few women to top engineering positions. Twitter has since said that it acknowledges that the frat party was “in poor taste.”

Unfortunately, this trend of failing at gender diversity — and even mocking the problem — is rife throughout Silicon Valley. Over the last couple of years, more tech companies have undergone scrutiny as the lack of women on their staffs became glaringly apparent. The problem is systemic. Speaking to Blouin News, Kelly M. Dermody, Managing Partner of San Francisco-based law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann, & Bernstein, LLP and chair of the firm’s employment practice group, says that — in many ways — the gender dynamics of Silicon Valley technology companies mirror many Wall Street financial companies where “professional women are similarly underrepresented.”

“They are both overwhelmingly run by men who encourage fierce competition and risk taking, and who cultivate exclusionary cultures where ‘boys can be boys’ in their social and sexual activities,” she noted. “It is ironic that technology companies can be so creative in imagining and responding to a world that does not yet exist and yet promote internal cultures that often resemble the workplace of forty years ago.”

Some companies are trying to make strides. In early June, Intel pledged $125 million for startups that back women and minorities. Before then, the company said it would devote $300 million over the next five years to improve management diversity. But Monica Eaton-Cardone, CIO of Global Risk Technologies, says that bringing women up through the ranks of tech has to start at the grassroots level of education. In an interview with Blouin News, she said:

A bottom-up approach is needed to impact results (not top-down). We need to cultivate more interest and advancement in women at a younger age. Otherwise, we are putting pressure on companies to consider hiring for political reasons or out of pressure. This stigma is not wise for any company. Hire for production, hire for quality, hire for needs…women are not charity cases.

Of course, measures like Intel’s should be lauded; any steps are better than no steps towards creating opportunities for women. Studies abound that show that companies with diverse boards and management staffs are more successful than ones with homogenous leadership. But, while it is important that tech giants like Intel pave the way for more action, singular initiatives are not enough. Dermody noted that companies need to look inward to the talented women already in their own cultures:

These current employees need to be supported and treated fairly too. It is demoralizing and pointless to stay in companies with a toxic culture that rewards only those who already look like the homogenous group of guys at the top.  If this is not corrected, the outflow of women from technology will merely grow along with the enhanced pipeline.

If anything, the raised awareness around the treatment of women in Silicon Valley — whether it be blatant misogyny or secretive promotional practices — is helping women like Huang to speak out. The high-profile case of Ellen Pao earlier this year — in which Pao sued Kleiner Perkins — was another proverbial rocking of the boat. Women are more inclined to speak out against gender discrimination now for a number of reasons. Dermody has seen an uptick in women trying to address unfair practices against them in the workplace in tech companies, and says that, ironically, technology has played a role in that it is easier for employees to learn about previously secret practices — particularly around compensation — and for groups of employees to “find each other to fight for collective change.”

The signs are clear: tech companies cannot continue gender discriminatory practices and get away with them anymore. It will not only behoove businesses to create diverse staffs, it is necessary for future success. As Eaton-Cardone warns, companies — and not just those in tech — need gender diversity in order to stay ahead of the curve:

It is a fact that women and men see things a little differently. Companies that are able to exploit opportunities in technology development and advancement today are those companies who are able to see things that others missed. Bottom line: diversity breeds innovation, and in today’s technology marketplace companies that fall behind this curve may never have a chance to catch up.