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The Pros and Cons of Being a Woman in Start-Ups & Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is the Californian home of high-tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Apple. Named after the silicon-based transistors and circuit chips that are used in the manufacturing of technology hardware, it is a hub for innovation, and a breeding ground for numerous successful start-ups. The opportunities in Silicon Valley have attracted many enterprising individuals and companies, but realistically, what is it like for women in the field?

Interestingly, at the inception of Silicon Valley post-WWII, writing software was considered a secretarial task and, therefore, a women’s role, while constructing hardware was dominated by men. As programming became more lucrative, women were pushed out of the coding world. The echoes of this exclusionary shift are still felt now, more than half a century later, from the gender disparity found in STEM education all the way to the upper echelons of tech companies.

Let us take a realistic look at the opportunities and challenges that specifically exist for women in Silicon Valley today and within the technology and start-up industry in general.

Pro: It’s an exciting and rewarding place where people can shape the world around them.

Fresh ideas and hard work can be transformed seemingly overnight into multi-million-dollar companies. Although it is an oversimplification of the realities of success, the potential to impact the world is undeniable. Women have brought their own ideas into founding companies like Bumble (a female-friendly dating app), Polyvore/SSense (a luxury e-commerce platform), and Lynda.com (an online education website). Plenty of women in tech (19 per cent according to a 2018 report by the Center for Talent Innovation) have also said that they enjoy the work they do in problem-solving and creating new and exciting technology products and services.

Con: Women still deal with gender-based discrimination.

Women at all levels of the tech industry, from STEM students to C-suite executives, have related stories of mistreatment and harassment from male peers. From being ignored at meetings to facing outright attacks, women have had to deal with a boys-club mentality that permeates the culture, and often stops them from advancing or even staying in the field. A 2015 survey titled “Elephant in the Valley” that was conducted among 210 women in senior levels of the tech industry, mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area of Silicon Valley, revealed the exclusion, tone policing, sexual harassment, and other forms of implicit and explicit sexism that they faced from their male colleagues.

Pro: There are plenty of specialized organizations to help women in working in tech.

In response to the male-dominant trend in the tech industry, countless programs have been launched to provide mentorship, networking opportunities, competitions, incubators, forums and global summits for women. Among them are Women in Tech, an international community; Women of Silicon Valley, a yearly conference; and Women’s Startup Lab, an accelerator. She Loves Tech is the largest tech start-up competition for women around the world and Rethink Impact is a venture capital firm focused on investing in women leaders.

Con: Women tend to be placed under more scrutiny and have to fight a double standard.

A common criticism levelled at women is that they are too emotional. Interestingly, male colleagues who behave the same way do not receive the same treatment. In fact, women with strong credentials and capabilities are often passed over in favour of men with fewer talents. Women are frequently made to prove themselves, but investors seem more willing to take risks on unproven men, according to findings by Boston Consulting Group in 2018. In the same vein, many women have endured the discomfort of being questioned on their abilities and knowledge by men with less experience than them or having to deal with “mansplaining.”

Pro: Systemic change toward inclusion and equality is happening.

A reckoning in Silicon Valley, sparked by the 2012 Pao v. Kleiner Perkins lawsuit, brought to light a lot of the gender discrimination in the tech industry. Although the 2015 verdict cleared Kleiner Perkins, a prominent venture capital firm, of gender discrimination against former employee Ellen Pao, who went on to become the interim CEO of Reddit, and is now the CEO of Project Include, it opened up the conversation among women in tech and made the public aware of just how stacked the cards were against them. Many companies began adding anti-bias training and releasing annual diversity reports. This was a trend spearheaded by Google. The company implemented the use of anti-bias training and diversity reports in the year 2014 in an effort to combat the negative effects of discrimination.

Con: It is especially difficult for BIPOC to get jobs or funding from companies and investors.

As tough as it has been on women, the difficulties are compounded for minorities. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2014), Black people make up less than 15 per cent of the tech workforce in America, with even fewer persons in executive positions. The numbers are similar for Latinx. Moreover, investors are less likely to invest in Black-owned companies, and if they do invest, it is usually less than what they would invest in a white-led company, according to Northeastern University. Google’s 2020 diversity report shows small percentages of Black (3.7 per cent), Latinx (5.9 per cent), and Native American (0.8 per cent) employees, but a predominance of white (51.7 per cent) and Asian (41.9 per cent) ones.

It’s clear that it is challenging for women working in Silicon Valley and other related areas, but they have also been leading change and building communities for themselves. In data gathered by the global accelerator MassChallenge and analyzed by Boston Consulting Group in 2018, women-led companies received less money than their male-led counterparts, but the revenue they generated consistently surpassed the earnings for male-led companies, making it clear that female-led ventures offer a stronger return on investment. It’s time for more people to acknowledge and uplift women’s skills, expertise, and work in tech so that everyone can thrive.

Rose Ho | Assistant Editor

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