Image Credit: Nino José Heredia/©Gulf News

‘Silicon Valley sex discrimination on trial’ — Financial Times, February 24

So male chauvinism is alive and well, albeit mostly resident in Silicon Valley? Perhaps you haven’t heard about Silicon Valley’s ‘Dave rule’ then? What’s that?

The tech industry joke that once you have at least as many women on your team as there are guys called Dave, then you have achieved a gender balance.

Oh dear. That’s the sort of talk you would expect from the 1960s, not the enlightened technology era. Who’d have thought the cool west coast could be so very unprogressive?

Yes, as it stands, unless you are a nerdy white male, chances are you won’t be succeeding in the tech sector anytime soon. Surely it can’t be as bad as all that? What about Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer?

Well, there are always going to be some who slip through the gaps. But even Google and Yahoo admit there is an issue. Last year, diversity reports from these companies showed that women represented 15 per cent of the technological workforce at Yahoo and 17 per cent at Google.

Is that the same for leadership positions?

At Yahoo and Google the figures come in at 23 per cent and 21 per cent respectively. But the statistics are much worse if you look at venture capital firms. According to research last year from Babson College, women made up 6 per cent of partners in venture capital firms, down from 10 per cent in 1999.

What’s the story behind the statistics? Why so few women? Do women just not like tech?

Far from it. According to Vivek Wadhwa, one of the few technology entrepreneurs who has spoken out about diversity problems, the real issue for women is the frat-house culture of Silicon Valley, which can make working in the environment intolerable. A few days ago Wadhwa decided to withdraw from making further comment on this “controversial” subject after being the target of personal abuse.

He says on his blog that: “The diversity discussion has itself become incendiary.” So does it turn out that the all-male, hoodie-wearing clichés about the industry are true?

It is more the case that women are not only under-represented and sidelined for promotion but are also regularly exposed to inappropriate behaviour. British entrepreneur Andrew Keen says in his recent book ‘The internet is Not the Answer’ that the “tech bros” mentality of Silicon Valley encourages the treatment of women as sexual objects. There are even cases of male colleagues unashamedly developing products just to embarrass women.

That’s certainly not acceptable. But on the promotion side, perhaps there is some validity in the argument that women simply don’t make very good coders or tech leaders?

Statistics don’t back that up. According to Wadhwa, research shows that companies with the highest proportion of women board directors outperform those with the lowest proportions. Most impressively, firms founded by women tend to be more capital efficient than those founded by men, with female-founded start-ups having lower failure rates than male equivalents.

Furthermore, venture capital-backed companies run by a woman have on average generated 12 per cent higher revenues than those run by men. Women, it seems, can do these jobs very well indeed.

Isn’t Ellen Pao’s case against a venture capital firm? It is. Pao has taken on one of the most successful venture capital firms in Silicon Valley — Kleiner Perkins — to court in a gender discrimination case. Her former employer is famous for being an early investor in both Google and Facebook.

Which is why it’s a trial that has everyone gripped. It could provide the first real glimpse into what’s going on behind closed doors in tech land.

So what exactly are the allegations?

Pao, who is now the interim chief executive of the huge internet forum Reddit, is claiming that Kleiner Perkins paid her less than male colleagues, denied her promotions and retaliated when she complained of bias. Pao is seeking $16m in damages. Kleiner’s lawyers will argue that she was “territorial” and “did not have the necessary skills for that job”.

The trial is likely to last a month. Whatever the outcome, it has got people talking about the issue of Silicon Valley’s women problem — and that has got to be a good thing.

Financial Times