What’s Life Really Like As A Woman In Silicon Valley?

Google employees are staging a global walkout in support of women

Forget slippery dips and sleeping pods. Today Google offices from San Francisco to Sydney are sparse, with staff walking out to protest the company’s treatment of women.

It comes in light of a recent The New York Times article which revealed a former Google employee received a $90US million payout despite allegations of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, the business – along with fellow tech giants Apple and Facebook – have been slammed for discrimination and an extreme gender pay gap. The resounding cry today? Time’s up, tech.  

So what’s it really like to be a woman working in the boys club that is Silicon Valley? Here, as part of an extract from Valley of the Gods by Alexandra Wolfe (Simon & Schuster), women share their stories.

Her whole life, Laura Deming was different to the rest. Homeschooled in New Zealand, Deming finished high school at 14 and enrolled at Boston’s MIT as the school’s youngest sophomore. As a 17-year-old she became a recipient of the prestigious Thiel Fellowship to fund her desire to “cure’’ ageing and moved to California’s fabled Silicon Valley to take up residence in a share house with other Thiel scholarship winners. Upon arrival, Deming realised that being female in Silicon Valley was different than it was on the East Coast. The conversations women had with one another, and also with men, were different – as were the social circles they aspired to join and the clothes they wore.

Walking through the Valley’s main towns – Mountain View, Sunnyvale or Palo Alto – in a dress was akin to getting ready for the prom at noon, or it would label a woman as an East Coast visitor, or maybe a costume-party guest. Few women wore heels, and walking down University Avenue, Palo Alto’s main drag, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single lingerie shop. Most ready-to-wear clothes were for camping. Wrap or shawl? Forget it. Polar fleeces were for throwing on after the sun went down. The less cutesy, feminine and frilly you could be as a Silicon Valley woman, the better; proving that you were not a slave to stereotypes of sexuality was essential. Jeans were the uniform for both sexes. Women’s jeans could be loose or tight, but pants were a must. Skirts were only OK if they had pockets, similar to jeans, or somehow resembled construction-type attire, showing one’s toughness. If a woman wants to feel and look attractive, it should be through fitness, rather than an expensive dress. “Someone told me I was dressing like an idiot as I was parading around in a bunch of teenager-ish dresses from college without thinking about how I looked,” Deming remembered. “The advice was basically to look more professional. Lose the short skirts and start wearing blazers.”

She followed the advice for the most part, tossing out anything delicate, lacy or detailed, which could make her look weak, but she kept the miniskirts and a pair of combat boots. Designer handbags and brand logos were a no-no, replaced instead by tech company emblems or slogans – preferably Facebook, Google or Apple. The earlier in the company’s history the T-shirt was made the better, because that would signify how much equity you might have and how wealthy you could indirectly say you were. Wearing a Facebook T-shirt made in 2007 was a stronger symbol than driving a Ferrari, since a Ferrari costs about $150,000, while an early-stage employee at Facebook in 2007 could have made tens of millions of dollars after the IPO. Some men even wore Steve Jobs’s favourite New Balance sneakers to prove that they had something in common with the tech master, whose legacy lived on in his stock price and user interface.

Dating behaviour was equally confusing. In fact, Silicon Valley was a sexual wasteland; men, who made up roughly 60 per cent of the population, were too busy coding to do anything else. When they were working – coming up with a program, racing against the clock to build something before the next person – their physicality was basically irrelevant. They didn’t act like the testosterone-fuelled bankers on the East Coast; their feet were planted. Their sexual rage didn’t come out in boozy pool parties, but on late-night online “dates”, if they were lucky. Some women complained that men were in fact “beta” (read: weaker), while women were “alphas”. Instead of suave businessmen, the most desirable men in Silicon Valley were employees ranked fifth, sixth, and seventh at big tech companies. Women commonly hooked up with younger men because they were the wealthy ones, having grown up working as early-stage employees at the new tech giants.

For Deming, the so-called promised land of Silicon Valley felt like a place of contradiction – fierce ambition disguised as casual demeanour and loose definitions of fidelity, people married instead to their ideas. Here, boys would be boys, and girls would be boys. While Deming didn’t mind the gender imbalance – she never felt out of place being the only woman at a party, or in her house, which she shared with six men – she soon realised that many women around her were angry about the lopsided gender ratio.

Google protests

Aileen Lee spent more than a dozen years working at influential venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB). As one of the Valley’s relatively few female venture capitalists, she’d observed sexism and chauvinism over the years. Speaking on the gender imbalance in 2014, she said: “People are racially sensitive and disability sensitive, but they’re just not gender sensitive. I mean, the Tinder situation?” She was referring to Whitney Wolfe, the Tinder co-founder and vice president of marketing who sued the company for sexual harassment. The case was ultimately settled, and Wolfe left the company to start Bumble, a competing dating app.

Sexual discrimination cases were nothing new in the Valley. There was Ellen Pao, the KPCB partner who had charged her firm with gender discrimination in 2012. Pao famously said she was routinely passed over in favour of men, excluded from all-male company ski trips, and subjected to harassment from a male partner. Pao lost her case in 2015, but she ended up opening a conversation about gender equality in Silicon Valley. On top of those scandals was Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, whose female-denigrating fraternity rant was leaked to Valleywag (a now-defunct Silicon Valley news and gossip website) in 2014. Spiegel promptly apologised.

Lee started her own firm, Cowboy Ventures, in 2012, and believes the industry is making small steps towards equality. “The number of women in venture capital has actually decreased in the past decade, but the awareness and sensitivity has hopefully improved,” continues Lee. “If you look at tech companies, they’re starting to report their diversity numbers publicly.” But there’s still more work to be done. “We’re still very far as an industry from being a reflection of our country and from reflecting the college graduate population.”

This extract originally appeared in marie claire Australia magazine.

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