Women and Silicon Valley: Are We Missing the Bigger Picture?

Overt sexism as a practice in Silicon Valley and beyond

Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins ended in a loss for the plaintiff two years ago. While Pao didn’t win the battle, the war was clearly just beginning. Over the past few months, several leaders from notable Silicon Valley companies, including Uber, 500 Startups and BetterWorks, have been ousted for behavior like what was found in the Pao case.

And so it begins. Kind of. The allegations against these men, and the exposition of those who protected and enabled their deviant behavior, have signaled a tipping point of sorts. Finally, it seems people are listening to the women who are brave enough to come forward and fight the power that has clouded their every move. The floodgates have swung open. But, it’s not enough. Not yet.

Sexual harassment in Silicon Valley is symptomatic of a far larger problem. Adam Quinton, founder and CEO of Lucas Point Ventures, calls the culture in Silicon Valley a “mirrorocracy.” It’s a perfect way to describe the “bro culture” (the most capable people I can hire are just like me) that exists in tech.

For example, women received $1.46 billion in venture capital (VC) funding in 2016. That sounds impressive, until it’s compared with what male-founded startups received ($58.2 billion). Sexual harassment is part of a far larger problem: overtly sexist systems that permeate far beyond the money firms in Silicon Valley. The meritocracy long believed to be the bedrock in tech has always been a fairy tale.

Beyond the rhetoric: It’s time to get real.

There are conscious and unconscious biases at play at the intersection of multiple traits that have nothing to do with the foundation of Silicon Valley and broader technology markets.

However, it’s not people who have to change – it’s the system. We work in a system where 50 percent of women are college educated with MBAs, law degrees, MDs and PhDs, and they are starting companies at five times the rate of men. Yet, the numbers don’t reflect the power of women. With other factors being equal, men are 60 percent more likely than women to secure funding, and more than 95 percent of venture capital equity partners are men.

Take a look around: diversity is not an option. In the U.S. alone, women are 51 percent of the workforce and by 2055 there will be no majority race. We have diversity. We do not have inclusion. If this problem continues, it will continue with the full knowledge and support of us all.

If you can’t change the system, create your own.

While the headline-making terminations and public outcry this year left many questioning, “what took so long?” few believe any real, evolutionary change will happen.

Sexism has existed since, presumably, the beginning of tech. The macho culture of Wall Street informed the sex-and-power of Silicon Valley and the blind gender barriers throughout large tech. The “Awe-shucks, this-is-as-hard-on-me-as-it-is-on-you” blogs (no doubt written by PR agencies) and the well-intentioned solutions that followed, including Reid Hoffman’s proposed decency pledge and Marissa Mayer’s defense of Travis Kalanick, were met with understandable shaking of heads. We need action, not words.

From an economist lens, the growth of women-founded businesses is staggering. Businesses started by non-minority women grew 40 percent from 1997 to 2015. While impressive, firms started by African American women grew by 322 percent and firms started by Latinas grew by 224 percent.

Thankfully, some of the right people – people with power and money – are paying attention to the momentum and the economic impact of fighting back against discrimination. How can we come together to enable access for all?

1. Stiletto Network Approach

Introduced by Pamela Ryckman’s book, women are forming power circles aimed at actively helping women to accelerate toward success. From introductions to clients to perfecting a pitch, there is no replacement for women using their platforms, influence and skills to help all women rise.

2. Shift mindset from increase representation of women to get women funded

The dearth of investment in women is not a pipeline issue. Organizations like Astia* have evolved to focus on solving the right problem: equitable access to capital.

3. Rise of female investor

From executive-turned-VC like Anu Duggal of Female Starters Fund or Susan Lyne of BBG Ventures to angel investor groups such as Astia Angels or Golden Seeds, more women are using their own experience with investors as well as personal and professional financial and social capital to invest in women-founded businesses.

4. Women VCs opening their own funds

Over the last few years, female VCs have left the largely male-dominated firms to start their own funds in droves. Not only are investors such as Cynthia Ringo of DBL Investors and Kristen Green at Forerunner Ventures making money for themselves instead of the mostly all-male partner-led VC firms, they are leveling the playing field for female investors.

Eradicating all sexism from the entrepreneur ecosystem requires a paradigm shift. While awareness and a personal desire to drive change by members of the ecosystems are the right first steps, lasting transformation in the systems that provide equitable access to capital and material consequences for sexual discriminatory behavior are a good start in the revolution to level the playing field.

*Disclosure: This author is a member of the Astia Board of Trustees and is an active Astia Angela investor.

Dr. Patti Fletcher is author of the forthcoming book, Disrupters: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold, and expert on helping executives create change around bias, diversity and inclusion in their businesses. She currently works for SAP on enhancing its HR cloud suite of solutions to enable businesses to move beyond bias.

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