Silicon Valley’s Sexism Problem In Five Graphs

It factors into all aspects of work life for women

(Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Jan 15, 2016 at 6:08 PM ET

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is something of a boys’ club with an underlying “bro culture.” The TV World took the concept of “Valley of the Dudes” and sent it mainstream via HBO show Silicon Valley, hammering the point home. But new research reiterates the growing awareness of the fact that behind the jokes there is a serious culture of sexism. According to a new study of sexism in the Valley, instances of illegal hiring practices, sexual harassment and more are highly pervasive, and they’re happening to women all along the corporate ladder in startups and major companies alike.

The research compiled for “The Elephant In The Valley” was inspired by last year’s high profile gender discrimination lawsuit of then-Reddit CEO Ellen Pao against her former employer, VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Though Pao eventually decided to drop her case after a jury found in favor of the firm, she brought attention to the issue of Silicon Valley’s lack of female representation and a seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling, and created a dialogue within the female tech community. Having both heard of (and experienced) situations that closely followed Pao’s same narrative, a group of tech industry researchers anonymously surveyed over 200 women in the field with at least 10 years of experience, some working for start-ups, with others working at major companies like Apple and Google. Ninety-one percent of participants work within Silicon Valley.

“I think that there’s a much higher prevalence [of sexual discrimination] than we were even aware of,” said Julie Oberweis, one of the study’s contributing researchers. “I was appreciative of the confirmation of our intuition that this sexual harassment existed more predominantly than I think many people realized. I think [there’s] lot of subconscious bias to start out…when you bring more females into that environment, it’s not healthy.”

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The results of the study showed that even before a woman gets a job in Silicon Valley, the odds are stacked against her. Three-quarters of all women surveyed responded that they had been asked about their family life, including their marital status and whether or not they had children in their interviews, despite the fact that this practice is prohibited under California law.

One survey participant said that she had been asked if she could work as hard as her fellow partners “given that [she was] a mom with a young child.” Stemming from such attitudes towards motherhood in the workplace, 40 percent of women chose to keep quiet about their families once hired in order to be taken more seriously. One decided the bias against motherhood was so strong she felt it necessary to remove photos of her children from her desk.

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Another major issue highlighted by the report was the general sense of exclusion and uncomfortable behaviors experienced by women in the workplace. In addition to the subtle sexism the majority of women observed in instances like demeaning remarks (at 87 percent), comments that they are “too aggressive” (84 percent) and incorrect assumptions about seniority and rank, women often reported feeling intentionally shut out by male colleagues.

When it came to group activities, anecdotes from respondents told of a bro culture that would completely alienate female workers. Like lunches at Hooters, late-night drinking followed by a head-shaving bonding exercise, and a rescinded invitation to a networking event upon realization that the invitee was a woman. Additionally, 90 percent of respondents reported that they had witnessed sexist behavior at company offsites or industry events.

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Likely the most serious problem discovered in the research was the prevalence of sexual harassment, which was commonly perpetrated by the victim’s superior, with stories ranging from crude comments, (like being asked to sit on a client’s lap or walk in front of a superior to give him a “view”) to sexual assault. One woman surveyed wrote that things became physical when she was groped by her boss at a company event.

Just as alarming as the problem of sexual harassment itself is the infrequency with which such situations are properly handled, with most women surveyed choosing not to report the harassment to the company. It’s not hard to see why. When the aforementioned victim of groping chose to tell HR, this was what she found: “After learning this had happened to other women in my department, and then reporting the event to HR, I was retaliated against and had to leave the company.”

For Oberweis, who had experienced sexual harassment in a professional setting as a student, these stories were not entirely surprising. “Really, reporting is a lose-lose for women,” she said. “Women who experience sexual harassment [in this setting] are stuck.”

Though respondents were able to respond with multiple answers to their course of action following harassment, researchers told Vocativ that only 23 percent chose to speak with their direct supervisor, and just 10 percent chose to speak with HR. Only one percent took legal action. While 32 percent directly addressed the person harassing them, just as many did nothing, stating they just wanted to forget about it.

Despite the fact that gender parity in boardrooms has been steadily increasing on the whole since 2011, according to the Women on Boards campaign, parity within the tech industry is lagging, with Silicon Valley bringing up the rear.

Across a group of Fortune 1000-recognized companies nationwide, women made up just 12 percent of overall tech industry board members. In California, where Silicon Valley-based companies accounted for about three-quarters of all the state’s tech firms and where roughly half of all the nation’s surveyed tech companies are based, the numbers were even worse.