The Women of Silicon Valley: How the Girls Are Catching Up to the Boys

The Women of Silicon Valley: How the Girls Are Catching Up to the Boys

Technology is still an old boys’ game, but women are making strides in the sector — though it may take some time for their impact to be felt.

Sheryl Sandberg made a splash when she joined Facebook’s board of directors, making the company’s COO the only female board member. Facebook, like other tech companies, is often labeled as a “boy’s club,” with men holding the most executive positions and dominating programming culture.

Even a man founded, and controls, female-dominated social media playground Pinterest, and a CIO survey by research group Harvey Nash revealed, despite Sandberg’s appointment, the percentage of female lT leaders is still extremely disproportionate, despite more than half of CIOs surveyed saying their companies would benefit from more women on board.

Is the Sandberg appointment a harbinger for a beefed-up female presence in technology? Or is it an outlier in a business environment that men continue to dominate? Here’s a look into the state of gender politics in Silicon Valley.

Yes, It’s True: Tech Remains Male-Dominated

Technology companies, especially on the executive level, continue to skew male, with booming businesses like Twitter, Foursquare and Zynga helmed by all-male boards.

Moreover, even in the start-up realm, only 8 percent of venture-backed start-ups feature female leaders. Sandberg is one of Facebook’s key players, but her presence at the top is rare. Though Sandberg is rightly lauded in the press due to her accomplishments, her gender is still almost always an integral part of the discussion about her talents, demonstrating how her gender continues to impact her career.

Newsweek recently ranked the most powerful people in technology in the Newsweek Daily Beast Digital Power Index, separated into categories like revolutionaries and angels — and 99 out of 108 of the key players identified are men. Similarly, Foreign Policy also released a list of “Twitterati,” or leaders in foreign relations on Twitter, and although Twitter’s user base is predominantly female, the list is 90 percent male.

Whither the Women Techies?

So: women are woefully underrepresented in the higher echelons of the tech world. Is this endemic to the “brogrammer” culture, or does it speak to the fact that women simply aren’t choosing tech jobs?

Although the tech sector, like the rest of corporate America, expects its executives to work long hours and sacrifice hands-on parenting in favor of a workaholic culture, dismissing the lack of women in technology because of corporate hostility to motherhood oversimplifies the problem.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter recently explored in controversial Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” women (in her case, women in government) still struggle to balance family life and high-level professional responsibility.

But that only partly explains the startling absence of high-profile women in Silicon Valley. After all, the demands of the tech sector aren’t vastly different from elsewhere in the corporate or political world, yet the gender gap is much larger in the tech sector than in other sectors of business and politics.

More so than being discouraged from climbing professional rungs due to their gender, women are underrepresented in technology because they do not pursue these positions in the same way that men do. Women continue to shy away from technical professions like computer programming and engineering, which stems both from the educational opportunities presented to them and the cultural expectations they hold.

A panel of female technology leaders met at CES 2012 to discuss opportunities in technology for women and discussed the complicated issue. Google vice president Marissa Mayer, Flickr founder Catarina Fake, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews Lindsey Turrentine, and Cisco Systems chief technology officer Padmasree Warrior volleyed around reasons why women lag behind in technology. They cited a failure in the education system starting from grade school, coupled with a lack of female role models.

It Won’t Be Long

Despite the lopsided state of gender politics in Silicon Valley, 20 years from now — or sooner — the playing field is likely to get exponentially more female-friendly. First of all, a number of organizations are making a concerted effort to get women involved in the tech sector, like Techbridge, an educational program that aims on engaging girls with science and technology from a young age.

Entertaining games and activities that involve science, math, engineering and technology skills could pique girls’ interests earlier, boosting the number of young women aiming towards careers in the Valley. For example, the Roominate dollhouse, a toy designed to help girls develop their tech know-how early, could introduce concepts of electricity and modular design along with a tradition feminine playtime pursuit, skewing the traditional barrier between the science toys aimed at boys and the domestic toys targeting girls.

And as young women grow up continue to outpace men in getting post-secondary educations, there will be more qualified female graduates to choose from in the future, making it difficult not to see an upswing in high-powered Silicon Valley women.

Finally, the convergence of a growing female presence in the traditionally male-dominated gaming and filmmaking industries may hint at the future for the tech world.

The situation in Silicon Valley mirrors a similar gender climate further south in California, in Hollywood. Men continue to dominate filmmaking, especially at executive and leadership roles, but women are catching up, with Kathryn Bigelow honored as the first female Best Director in 2009 and auteurs like Sofia Coppola and Lena Dunham ushering in a new era of women behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, gaming culture transcends gender lines, which could also spark more female interest in the tech sector. Since one of the hurdles for women in technology is a lack of interest at an early age, getting girls hooked on gaming may boost their interest in creating the kind of software or company necessary to create these games.

Women remain leagues behind men insofar as holding leadership roles in the tech sector, but this will change. The improvements in line for female-oriented tech education, especially comprehensive initiatives and entertaining toys with tech-y components, will help bring girls into the fold early on. The growing pool of female role models will further show female students that achieving big in this field is possible. Meanwhile, gaming and coding are going mainstream, and more women will want in on the action once this sector’s reputation as a bro zone is put to rest.

These factors will eventually even out the playing field, although it may take years to overcome the disparity in both interest and opportunity keeping women on the outskirts of the tech sector.

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