Sexism in Silicon Valley — and how to beat it

Anna Godeassi

When Olivia Long ’20 and Lillian Xu ’20 wanted to teach coding to girls from middle schools around the Princeton area, they turned to Alice.

Alice, a popular and easy-to-use programming language, teaches users to build basic computer animations using 3-D models. It’s fun and unintimidating — perfect for beginners, says Long, who along with Xu and other members of the Princeton Women in Computer Science (PWiCS) group organized two workshops for middle-schoolers last winter. More than 40 local teenagers attended two daylong coding workshops at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and feedback, offered over cookies and pizza, was enthusiastic. Many of the girls told Long that they are already active in a school robotics club and want to do more. 

“Lots of stereotypes prevent women from going into [computer science],” Long says. “But it’s the stereotypes that keep them out, not the content.” 

Computer science is the most popular undergraduate major at Princeton, and thanks to a concerted effort by faculty and administrators, about a third of students within the department are now women. Nationwide, however, the percentage of women graduating with computer science degrees has dropped by almost 50 percent over the last 30 years, even while women make up a larger share of students in other STEM fields. 

Women who do get jobs in tech often drop out early or feel they are denied the promotions and professional recognition they have earned. Like so many women in so many high-powered, high-money industries, they experience unwanted sexual advances. Liza Mundy ’82 last year captured the problem in a widely cited article for The Atlantic titled, “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?”

Few women know better than Ellen Pao ’91 just how awful Silicon Valley can be, and few are doing more to correct it. Pao, who unsuccessfully sued her employer, venture-capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for sexual harassment in 2012, and was CEO at the aggregation and discussion website Reddit, has landed a new VC job across the Bay in Oakland; published a memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change; and started Project Include, a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to promote gender and racial diversity throughout the tech industry.

The problems women face in tech are many, nuanced, and layered, a tangled mix of culture and animus. But is tech really different from any of the other male-dominated industries — like politics, finance, and entertainment — that have been exposed in the #MeToo movement? 

Certainly, there is a belief that it was supposed to be different, that the free-wheeling “Move Fast and Break Things” ethos would be more open. “Because Silicon Valley is a place where the newcomer can unseat the most established player,” Mundy wrote in The Atlantic, “many people there believe — despite evidence everywhere to the contrary — that tech is a meritocracy.” Or as Elizabeth Trumbull ’98 puts it, capturing an attitude she heard expressed many times as a manager at Apple: “If you aren’t successful, that’s on you.” 

In tech, Pao believes, meritocracy is a myth. “The status quo is bad for those of us who don’t look like a ‘white male nerd,’ and it is unfair,” she writes in her memoir. “It is also bad for business. Preserving the status quo is costing companies talent and keeping them from being competitive internationally.”

Maria Klawe has long been committed to addressing the challenges women face in computer science. A computer scientist who holds a second Ph.D. in mathematics, she arrived at Princeton in 2003 as the first female dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science (the current dean, Emily Carter, is the second). Three years later, she was recruited to become the first woman to head Harvey Mudd College, a liberal-arts college in Claremont, Calif., that focuses on engineering, science, and math. Under Klawe’s leadership, Harvey Mudd has drawn national recognition for increasing female enrollment in computer science — from about 10 percent a decade ago to 55 percent today. 

When she became president, Klawe found that recruiting female and minority students was relatively easy; it was much harder to create an environment in which they felt valued. Academic culture, she discovered, “is really hard to change.” One enduring stereotype in tech is the “brilliant nerd,” the socially inept genius — think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs — behind many of the most successful tech startups. Yet a 2015 study co-authored by Sarah-Jane Leslie *07, now dean of Princeton’s Graduate School, found a strong cultural belief that brilliance is associated almost exclusively with men. The more that success in a field was believed to depend on innate brilliance, the study found, the less likely women and minorities were to be represented.

As Klawe relates and Mundy sets out in her recent book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, this was not always the case. Most code-breaking work during the war was done by young women, and women played critical roles in the development of the earliest computers and wrote some of the first computer languages. Because writing and analyzing code relied so heavily on logic, attention to detail, and typing, it was considered secretarial. “This was seen as women’s rightful domain,” Mundy writes, “the careful repetitive work that got things started, so that the men could take over when things got interesting and hard.” 

Ironically, computer science remained relatively open to women until it became popular, with the introduction of personal computers in the early 1980s. Those early PCs introduced the first computer games — mostly shoot-’em-ups or sports-related — that appealed to boys who, in turn, learned to code in order to develop new games. “Within that decade,” Klawe says, “computers became something that everyone — boys, girls, parents, and teachers — said was a ‘boy thing.’” That is also around the time the percentage of computer science majors who were women began to fall, from a peak of 37 percent in 1986 to about 18 percent today. 

Klawe has tried to encourage women to study computer science by changing the way it is taught. Harvey Mudd’s introductory class is broken into four sections, two of them for students with no prior experience in order to keep students from being overwhelmed by peers who have been coding since grade school. Professors are asked to make sure that students who regularly raise their hands — mainly men — don’t hijack class discussions. Finally, the introductory course is designed so that everyone will emerge with roughly the same level of knowledge and thus can move on through the curriculum on an even footing.

At all levels, the computer science curriculum emphasizes group projects. “We raise women to be collaborative, helpful, nice,” Klawe says. “We raise men to be competitive, aggressive, more individualist. It’s pretty clear that if you create a learning environment that is highly collaborative, it is going to be one in which women feel more comfortable.” 

Many women in Princeton’s computer science department have told Professor Jennifer Rexford ’91 that they were attracted to computer science for what it could help them do in other fields, and not just for the science.
Photo: Ethan Sterenfeld ’20

Princeton’s computer science department has made similar efforts. Students who major in the department can choose between a track leading to a B.S.E. degree or one leading to an A.B. degree, which requires one fewer math course and no engineering prerequisite, replacing those with more written independent work. It is the only department to offer both degrees. 

The A.B. track was added to attract students who had not considered majoring in computer science when they entered college, says Professor Jennifer Rexford ’91, the department chair. The introductory computer science course, COS 126, is the most popular course in the University, taken by more than half of undergraduates. It, too, is structured to entice students who might otherwise be scared away; precepts for novices meet for 80 minutes, while those for students with more experience run only 50 minutes. Those longer precepts, Rexford explains, “don’t have that ‘macho’ factor, because everybody in the room is in the same boat of not having coded before.” 

Problem sets emphasize real-world applications in art, music, and environmental science — areas “a non-computer scientist might find meaningful,” Rexford says. Many women in the department have told Rexford that they were attracted to computer science for what it could help them do in other fields, and not just for the science. 

It seems to be working. One-third of the 166 computer science majors in the Class of 2018 are female, which makes it one of the more popular majors for women. 

Maddie Cousens ’14 did not major in computer science as an undergraduate, but she is catching up. Cousens became a mechanical engineer, in part because she assumed she wouldn’t like computers. “I thought I was bad at it,” she says, “which is really unfortunate because if I could go back, I would have 100 percent studied computer science.” 

After working as an engineer for a company that manages business-listing information, Cousens wanted to get a tech job, but to do that she needed to learn how to code. She took an intensive three-month class at Hackbright Academy, one of many private coding “boot camps” that have sprung up around the country to teach the skill to women who did not learn it in high school or college. The three-month classes meet full time, and they are expensive, costing as much as $17,000. But after completing it, Cousens found her current job as a software engineer at Eventbrite, the San Francisco-based online ticket-selling service.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Eventbrite was founded by a woman and has been rated as one of the friendliest companies for female engineers. “It’s just like an intentional culture,” Cousens says of her new workplace. “The senior engineers don’t tolerate bro-y [stuff] that a lot of companies suffer from,” referring to the rowdy, off-putting, and frequently sexist behavior sometimes associated with male engineers. “They will call people out. It has to come from the top level.”

Lusann Yang ’06 notes that if she plans to make a point during a large working meeting, she will notify another person beforehand who can back her up when she speaks.
Photo: Christophe Testi/Creative Shot

An unfriendly workplace culture can also manifest itself in more subtle ways. Lusann Yang ’06 is a senior software engineer at Google. Encouraged by her mother, Princeton mathematics professor Sun-Yung Alice Chang, Yang took to computers from an early age. She analogizes coding to her favorite hobby, knitting. “If you screw up one stitch, it will affect work 30 hours down the line.” 

In college, graduate school, and now the workplace, she has grown accustomed to being one of just a few women in the room. When Yang started at Google nearly four years ago, she was the only woman on her team. “They were wonderful teammates and very inclusive,” she says of her male co-workers, “but still I found that three out of five days at lunch we would talk about guns or cars. Occasionally I would have to say, ‘All right guys, let’s talk about knitting’ ­­— just to kind of make a point.”

Technical women make up about a quarter of her current project team. Asked how a more diverse group is different than teams she’s worked with before, she replies, “One thing is not being the shortest person in the room.”

She is not being flippant. Yang notes that if she plans to make a point during a large work meeting, she will notify another person beforehand who can back her up when she speaks. “At the end of the day,” Yang says, “it really helps to be a 6-foot-5, deep-voiced man. They’re going to listen to you more.”

Another relatively recent Google hire, Trumbull, joined the company after 12 years as a program manager with Apple. She left her old job frustrated by a lack of recognition for her work despite the all-consuming pace. Slights were sometimes hard to pin down, such as routinely being left out of important project meetings although the men on her team were included. She joined Google last July as a product-support manager and praises the company for “sustaining a supportive, friendly, and cooperative work environment.”

Trumbull’s experience is not uncommon in tech. A 2013 report from the Center for Talent Innovation found that women leave tech at a much higher rate than men because of “workplace conditions” — grueling hours, the absence of family-leave policies, a lack of recognition, undermining behavior by supervisors, and a double standard of behavior. Ellen Pao captured this unwinnable dilemma in her memoir:

 “We are either silenced or we were seen as buzzkills. We are either left out of the social network that leads to power ... so we don’t fit in, or our presence leads to changes in the way things are done, and that causes anger, which means we still don’t fit in. If you talk, you talk too much. If you don’t talk, you’re too quiet. You don’t own the room. If you want to protect your work, you’re not a team player. Your elbows are too sharp. You’re too aggressive. If you don’t protect your work, you should be leaning in. If you don’t negotiate, you’re underpaid. If you do negotiate, you’re complaining. If you want a promotion, you’re overreaching. If you don’t ask for a promotion, you get assigned all the unwanted tasks. The same goes when asking for a raise.” 

Throughout her career, Yang has served as a mentor for friends trying to get jobs in tech. The hubris she sees in many men astonishes her. Women she knows often want to do three, four, or even five practice sessions before a job interview, trying to anticipate every question they might be asked. Men often don’t complete one mock interview before deciding they can wing it.

Lucinda Brown ’95, an environmental engineer at Wondros, a tech company in Los Angeles, captures this dichotomy by paraphrasing an observation from The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman: “The male way tends to be, ‘I exude confidence whether or not I have competence.’ The female way tends to be, ‘I exude confidence once I am competent and then some.’”

Perhaps as a result, female computer scientists are less likely to start their own businesses, understanding that there are benefits to having a human-resources department that enforces non-discrimination policies and that most startups fail. But women who do want to take that risk raise less money. In her book Geek Girl Rising (co-authored with Heather Cabot), journalist Samantha Walravens ’90 cites a 2014 report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that found that male entrepreneurs are much more willing to tap their friends and family for money to start a business. If they seek venture capital, they are more likely to get it. According to Fortune magazine, only 2 percent of venture-capital funding last year went to female-owned businesses. The result is that white male investors fund white male entrepreneurs, certain that they are the most likely to succeed. Rather than a meritocracy, Walravens writes, tech is often a “mirror-ocracy. ... It looks at something and it likes what it sees in the mirror. It sees itself.”

Lisa Favaro ’79 is a managing director at Golden Seeds LLC, one of several venture firms that seek to invest in companies owned by women. About three-quarters of Golden Seeds’ 300 member investors around the country are women, and the fund provides early “angel” or seed money to startups that have at least one female founder or senior executive. So far it has invested in 145 companies in the tech, health-care, and consumer-product sectors. Favaro cites research that companies that are diverse — in all ways — outperform non-diverse companies but says, “It’s hard to change from top down. You have to do it from ground up.”

Ellen Pao ’91 and seven other women co-founded Project Include, which seeks to build diversity into all tech companies by advancing guidelines and promoting follow-up.
Brian Flaherty/The New York Times/Redux

Pao also believes that it is important to build from the bottom up. She may have lost her discrimination suit and resigned amid controversy from her CEO post at Reddit, but she emerged with a commitment to transform the tech industry. In 2016, she joined the Kapor Center for Social Impact and became a partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer for its venture-capital arm, Kapor Capital. She and seven other women also co-founded Project Include, which seeks to build diversity into all tech companies by advancing guidelines and promoting follow-up. 

Project Include’s website lists 87 recommendations to promote diversity, comprehensiveness, and accountability. “If you are an early-stage startup with little or no diversity, you are in trouble and need to fix it fast,” its website warns. But pledging to do better is not enough; Project Include insists that companies commit to metrics, hold regular meetings of executives and employees, and closely track their progress in hiring, evaluating, and promotion. 

Some tech leaders are reporting progress, even if it’s minor. The percentage of women working at Microsoft, for example, increased very slightly in 2017, but remained lower than it was three years earlier. The share of female technical employees rose from 17.5 percent to 19 percent last year. “We are making progress but have a lot more progress ahead of us than behind us,” says Brad Smith ’81, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer (and a University trustee).

Last year’s #MeToo disclosures, Smith says, were “a moment. I think the moment has become a movement. But the movement ultimately has to lead to real change.” In December, Microsoft became the first Fortune 500 company to endorse legislation introduced by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, that would void clauses in employment contracts requiring that sexual-harassment claims be submitted to private arbitration rather than litigated in court. Microsoft further announced that it was eliminating such clauses in its own employment contracts. Still, Smith believes corporate change will come from within: “On this issue, I don’t think [change] is going to come from the government.” 

Out in Silicon Valley, Ed Zschau ’86 sees pressure for change as well. A director at Parker Remick Inc., an executive-search firm, Zschau says more than half of the people he placed at tech companies last year were women, in jobs ranging from senior executive to chief marketing officer. He notices a different attitude from prospective employees, both male and female. 

“It’s no longer just, ‘How fun is it to work at your startup?’” Zschau says of the questions he hears. “It’s ‘What’s your commitment to affirmative action, to diversity hiring, to creating a culture where respect and transparency are fundamental?’” 

Pao insists, though, that we think of diversity and inclusion as broadly as possible. “We could go down a path where the door opens a little bit and a few white women are let in, but the processes and the systems don’t change and you still have massive discrimination and biases,” she warns. Project Include asks companies to reach out to all groups it believes to be underrepresented in tech, including people of different sexual orientations, people with physical disabilities, immigrants, parents, and veterans. 

Last August, Startup Include, a Project Include initiative focused on new businesses, released its first progress report on 10 tech companies it had worked with, ranging in size from 10 to 900 employees. While it found that employees overall were highly satisfied with their company’s inclusion efforts, it also found — for reasons it can’t yet explain — that women, transgender men, and non-binary employees (those who don’t identify strictly as male or female) perceived less fairness at the end of the study than they had at the outset, and were less satisfied with their growth and development opportunities than their male colleagues were. 

The report concluded, “There is still a lot of work to do.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.