Silicon Valley might be sexist, but its feminism is not the answer

Frederike Kaltheuner
February 6, 2015

Sexual harassment lawsuits and executive women leaving  the industry:  this year, sexism in Silicon Valley has made the  front-page news. In June, a former executive and co-founder of the  popular dating-app Tinder filed a sexual harassment lawsuit  against the company. Whitney Wolfe was allegedly stripped of her  co-founder title because she was just a “girl” that would “make the  company look like a joke”. Earlier this year, former engineer at the  programming network GitHub, Julie Ann Horvath, left the company with  public accusations of a sexist internal culture. In August an anonymous  female founder offered Forbes Magazine a compelling account of the  routine harassment she faces raising money for her start-up.

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.
— Dorothy Gale

A systematic problem

Whoever thinks these individual cases have received disproportionate  attention from the media should watch the trailer to HBO’s Silicon  Valley and count the number of women who made it to the show’s three  minute clip (hint: just one, and she’s a stripper, not a hacker). HBO  plays the Valley’s stereotypes with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Yet,  critics were surprised to find that the show is only a little more  male-dominated than reality. Recently published diversity reports by Google, Apple, and Facebook  confirm this disparity: merely thirty percent of the companies’ global  workforce is female. For technical positions, this number drops to  twenty percent at Google and fifteen percent at Facebook.

A lower number of female graduates in science and technology is not  sufficient to explain this difference. According to a 2008 study by the Harvard Business Review, 52  percent of all women in the tech industry leave the industry  mid-career—double the rate of their male colleagues. Surprisingly, women  do not give “family” as their main motivation but instead “hostility in  the workplace culture”.

The problem begins at the company’s earliest stages. Less than five  percent of all start-ups that receive venture capital have even one  woman on their board (see a study by the Diana Project).  According to an MIT study from 2013, men have a 40 percent higher  chance of receiving venture funding than women, even when identical  pitches are given.

Lean-in feminism

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.
— Dorothy Gale

As its lack of diversity has become too apparent to  ignore, Silicon Valley has nurtured a new breed of feminism in response.  Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and mother of two, is its most vocal  representative and icon. Her advice is to lean-in and overcome internal  barriers to success. In her 2013 book, Lean-in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,  the most vivid examples of female self-sabotage are inspired by her own  experience as a manager at Google. While her male colleagues regularly  approached her to demand more money and ever-more-challenging tasks,  many women had to be pushed to pursue their own advances. Only half of  Sandberg’s female cohort from Harvard Business School are still  full-time members of the workforce. Regardless of their desires and  aspirations, she tells her fellow women   to let their obstacles be  external, lean in, and not hold back.

This new feminism has become so mainstream that the underwear line “Dear Kate” hired female tech-CEOs to pose in underwear next to images of code and lean-in career advice. The underlying message seems to be: you can also emancipate yourself,  if you work hard and lean-in. The unspoken assumption is that this will  magically improve the lives of all women. Recently, Apple and  Facebook began offering female employees the option of freezing their  eggs as part of their benefit package. This development has been  celebrated as the latest triumph of lean-in feminism. Forbes magazine  reported that the program helps “women employees lean all the way in”.  In their official press release, Apple declared they want to “empower  women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved  ones and raise their families”. In this vision, literally putting  family and child bearing on ice becomes an act of empowerment.

The new normal

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.
— Dorothy Gale

Egg freezing as a corporate perk marks a wider societal change that  affects both sexes. In her book, Sheryl Sandberg notes the concern of  her mother: “There’s too much pressure on you and your peers. It’s not  compatible with a normal life.” Sandberg’s response is indicative of  this change: “The new normal means that there are just not enough hours  in the day.” Likewise, a Business Week feature on women who have  frozen their eggs quotes the reaction of the mother of a New York  investment banker: “I’m glad you went to business school and work 100  hours a week — and don’t have time to meet anyone — so you can afford to  freeze your eggs.” The new normal is absurd.

Of course, the Harvard graduate and billionaire Sandberg does not  claim to speak on behalf of every woman. Nonetheless she propagates a  breed of feminism that defines work itself as the ultimate form of  liberation. While a critique of the workplace used to be an essential  component of emancipatory politics, success within the workplace becomes  the emancipatory act. This claim would be less problematic if the tech  industry did not portray itself as the utopia of work: free food, laid  back nerd culture, kicker, and now egg freezing. Despite its apparent  lack of diversity, Silicon Valley still promises to be a meritocratic  industry. A critique of the workplace itself seems superfluous because  the ideal of the hoodied-up geek epitomizes the victory of merit and  genius over age and convention. It is in that spirit that the lead  character of HBO’s Silicon Valley declares: “It’s not magic, it’s talent  and sweat. That’s what the fuck we’re doing”.

A dangerous liaison

The philosopher Nancy Fraser calls this development a dangerous  liaison between feminism and neoliberalism. While highly educated and  mostly privileged women do indeed struggle to live up to their full  potential within the tech industry, long-term inhabitants of San  Francisco demonstrate against tech giants pricing ordinary citizens out  of the housing market. The industry is not only inaccessible for female  developers, CEOs and founders; only two percent of Facebook’s workforce  is African-American. For the vast majority of the US population, landing  a high paid job in Silicon Valley is virtually inconceivable.

Diversity in tech is not just a matter of equal opportunity. Google,  Facebook or the next big thing have long surpassed their roles as  Internet companies. Tech companies and their predominately-male-geek  employees have joined the ranks of the most powerful global shapers of  our future. Does a breed of feminism that equates a corporate career  with emancipation really stand to curb or critique this trend? Would the  world be a better place if it were run by Sheryl Sandbergs rather than  Mark Zuckerbergs?

Lean-in breeds of feminism assume that the feminist question is  simply, how can I be a more successful worker? My generation of graduate  interns and underemployed and indebted job seekers has more than  sufficient reasons to question the inherently emancipatory nature of  work. In August, the German journalist Gero von Randow raised the  question in DIE ZEIT: why does this demoralized generation not revolt?  Jeff Hammerbacher, one of Facebook’s first employees has an almost  legendary answer: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about  how to make people click ads. That sucks.” As long as we tell young  women that leaning into corporate careers is the only definition of  emancipation, this problematic brain-drain will not change.

For a more diverse and possibly even more egalitarian design of our  technological future, we need many more men and women with technical  skills and with diverse backgrounds: hackers, security researchers,  activists, CEOs and developers. A breed of feminism that uses technology  to lure women into investing ever more time toward archiving a  single-minded version of success will not contribute to this.


All by
Frederike Kaltheuner