December 1, 2014
"It's not just about women not feeling engineering is their thing...it's about the culture of the place that makes people not want to be there even when they have the skills." - Hannah Kuchler
"The team I'm on, we have a fair number of women programmers...but even then I've had the experience of I say something, and it's just not believed until it's repeated by a guy."
- Talia Fukuroe
This has been a big year for stories about women in tech, ranging from depressing tales of sexual harassment at startups to controversy over egg freezing and advice from a prominent CEO on *not* asking for a raise. The spotlight is shining on women in technology far more strongly than when I first covered this topic on the podcast in 2012.
In this episode we focus on Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world. My first guest is Financial Times reporter Hannah Kuchler. She says women making their way in the heavily male tech space face obstacles large and small - and not all of them are discussed publicly for fear of retribution. Talia Fukuroe knows some of this first hand. She works for a Silicon Valley company she says is trying really hard to get things right for female employees. But the gender ratio means that just being female can present a few problems on the job - problems that can't be taken care of by company policy.
This is the second of three podcasts I'm producing in partnership with the Financial Times. Check out the FT's Women in Business topic page - it's a hub for coverage of women in the workplace around the world. I go there all the time.
As I mentioned in the podcast, join the FT’s Communities Forum to receive a curated newsletter featuring coverage of women in the workplace, delivered straight to your inbox every month.
And if you tweet about this show please use the hashtag #FTwomen to help spread the word.
Here's the piece Hannah Kuchler co-wrote on egg freezing back in October.
You can read more about the race and gender statistics of Silicon Valley firms here.
Here's one of many articles on the GitHub story I mentioned in the show.
This is one of the pieces that came out on the Satya Nadella story a couple of months ago.
Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.
This time on the show, we look at life for women in the world’s technology capital – Silicon Valley.
For women who want to get funding for their companies, the relationship with an investor can sometimes get tricky…
“They get into one-on-one situations with a VC and instead of a conventional conversation about a term sheet it’s a conversation about well, what else can you give me in a more sexual way?”
And what’s it like working for one of those huge, well known tech firms where the gender ratio is somewhat skewed?
“The team that I’m on actually, we have a fair number of women programmers, but even then I mean I definitely have had the experience of I say something and it’s just not believed until it’s repeated by a guy.”
But there are plenty of good things about it too. Coming up.
I'm producing this episode of The Broad Experience in partnership with the Financial Times – it’s the second of three podcasts I’m doing with them. And my first guest this week is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent Hannah Kuchler [koosh-ler]. She covers social media and cyber security and she’s also done a lot of reporting about women in Silicon Valley. This after all is the center of the tech world – it’s where Apple was born, where Facebook, Google, and thousands of startups are all located.
Hannah moved to this beat from London about a year ago and she’s found the culture in the Valley quite a change from cynical Britain. Everyone is so positive about everything she says. And if you read the entrepreneurial press you’ll know even failure gets a good rap these days. But one thing Hannah can’t see in a positive light is how few women seem to thrive on the tech scene. A tiny minority of tech startups are run by women. And she says despite the latest well publicized efforts to get young women interested in coding, to see tech not just as a male domain…something’s wrong.
“There have been women in tech for decades – people often forget in Silicon Valley that this hasn’t happened just since the iPhone, this has been an area that’s been a center for women in tech since the ‘60s. And the stats show women just drop out. So it’s not just about women not feeling like engineering is their thing, or not making the right choices at the right time to study maths, or whatever. It’s about the culture of the place that makes people not want to be there even when they have the skills. “
And that culture she says, it’s really driven by startups, and they’re all about getting things done quickly. She says one of the reasons women are thin on the ground is because of how startups hire…
“There’s a perhaps sometimes healthy attitude and scorn of normal HR practices, if you’re moving fast you’re hiring every other day, you don’t have time to go around huge amounts of rigmarole of who you’re hiring and why…but because of that people start to look for their own patterns and that tends to be their friends, and people who look like people who have been successful before, the mini Mark Zuckerbergs, and that means women are often taken less seriously both when pitching to customers and staff and whoever, but the biggest pinch point perhaps is when they’re trying to get funding, which is still a very necessary part of founding a company.”
And talking of founding a company…it’s tough for anyone to get funding. But as we discussed on a recent show, more than 90 percent of venture capital funding goes to male-owned firms. And that’s at least partly because a tiny minority of venture capitalists are women themselves – sometimes male investors just don’t get the point of a particular product if it’s aimed at women; female investors are likelier to do that. But Hannah says some of what happens to female founders is much more serious than being passed over for funding, and it goes unsaid.
“This is when it gets really kind of almost upsetting to hear the stories, is the sexual harassment that can go on between VCs, who have a lot of power over founders, and there’s been lots of instances of people reporting, often anonymously - because there’s still not quite the culture where people can come out and name names - of feeling very victimized. And they get into one-on-one situations with the VC and instead it being a conventional conversation about a term sheet it’s a conversation about well, what else can you give me in a more sexual way?”
And it’s not just investors. You may remember a story from earlier this year about a woman called Julie Ann Horvath who worked at a firm called GitHub. She came out publicly and said a top male executive at the firm made sexual advances, she turned him down, then his wife, who also worked there, started bullying her. It was news. It made it out of the tech press and shone a light on the culture at some firms. Although the firm in question didn’t admit legal wrongdoing it did say there had been errors in judgment. Hannah says sure, some women do go public: there’s the recent story of the female co-founder of dating app Tinder. She accused one of the company’s male founders of harassing her horribly after they broke up.
“But yet, so many people, both men and women, say don’t name names, don’t say anything. And of course if people were actually being properly called out for this, I mean technically what they’re doing is illegal, so being called out by the law would be great, but even being named and shamed, then maybe we’ve got to a stage now where they would be shamed if they were named. But people are too scared, and that is really not a good situation in terms of trying to improve something quickly.”
I’ve heard a couple of these stories in New York, and again, the women don’t say anything. They’re business owners, and they want to get on with their business. Out in sunny California, perhaps there’s even more reason to keep quiet.
“…as I said the culture here is so relentlessly positive that the people I’ve spoken with are like, well, I just had to put it aside and move on, and that’s great. But it’s not great for the next person that walks into that room.”
This kind of thing can still go on, of course, because of the huge gender imbalance in Silicon Valley. Marissa Mayer may be the CEO of Yahoo, but she’s an outlier. Men still hold most of the power there. Fewer women graduate today with computer science degrees than they did in the ‘80s. Within the last several months some of the biggest firms, including Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn, released information about just who works there…
“The stats which were released over the summer – and there was pressure from people like Jessie Jackson to release stats on diversity – and they showed both racial stats in the workforce and gender stats – and it was about on average the big tech companies it was 30% women overall, but 15% in the technical roles. Now those roles are not just better paid but they tend to have a better standing within the company. Companies like Facebook like to say, we’re an engineering first company. And so 15% if you imagine that in terms of the team you might be working in, you’re often the only girl on your team, or maybe there’s one more. And then at startups, there aren’t stats for it, but my feeling is it would be that or lower.”
And we’re going to come back to that thought because my next guest is pretty much living what Hannah just talked about.
Talia Fukuroe has a computer science degree but she isn’t a computer engineer.
She works for a big Silicon Valley company you’ve all heard of as a program manager. Back in the late 90s she was studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“I was one of four women in a class of 120 in my computer science class. There were seven Davids in our class, so there were more Davids than women.”
More Davids than women. And all those Davids, and Steves and Todds, they liked to spend a lot of their spare time practicing what they learned in class. Talia began to feel a bit out of place.
“But just in the comparison that I was in, seeing these guys around me who were, all that they did in their free time, in their hobbies, was code, and that wasn’t me. So I thought well I’m not a programmer, so that’s why professionally I never went into programming.”
She’s done a bunch of different things, all connected to technology, she’s just never become one of the small number of women who code for a living. One of her previous jobs was for Hewlett Packard. She was a system administrator – basically she had to keep the company’s computer system up and running. Which, I said, sounds like a pretty important job.
“It’s an important job, but to be honest with you it’s considered kind of lower on the pecking order. Because there’s a macho-ness, people who write code are like the highest level of machismo, ‘cause these are the guys, I say guys, but these are the people who really go forward and write the new stuff and make it interesting.”
She says the same thing is true of her current job of program manager. It’s a role where she brings people together and makes sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to making a project go the right way. She says she knows this is a typically female job in tech – coordinating rather than coding. But she really enjoys it. She says it’s her calling. And the pay’s not bad – she has three young children to support. And she’s been the sole breadwinner since her husband quit his job as a chef to look after their baby daughter.
And since she has a daughter, I couldn’t help asking what she thinks of all these efforts to get girls into coding – toys like Goldie Blocks or just courses aimed at girls.
She really likes the idea of getting girls interested in stuff that traditionally has been aimed at boys…but…
“I’ve seen websites that are all about girls’ programming and they’re all pink. And that really frustrates me honestly.”
She says look, she gets it. But these efforts to appeal to women through traditionally girly routes – they don’t end with teenagers.
“…so for one example, at the Grace Hopper conference…”
The Grace Hopper Conference is a yearly event for women in tech…
“…at all these conferences they have giveaways and stuff like that, one of the more common giveaways were nail files and mirrors. And I was very conflicted about that, because on the one hand it’s useful, I do use a nail file, I do need one every so often, but it seemed weird to give it away at a tech conference.”
It was odd to be handed female grooming tools in a business setting. And it seemed sort of reductive.
And talking of that conference, this was the now infamous occasion when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was asked about raises and responded that you don’t need to ask for a raise, if you deserve a raise, it will come. Talia was sitting right there in the audience and she says the whole story got blown out of context. For example, Nadella wasn’t speaking specifically about women – but he was at a conference for women in tech.
“Like, what he said was in total innocence, there was no maliciousness about it, but it really worried me that the CEO of a company as huge as Microsoft didn’t know, hadn’t internalized the fact that really everybody gets paid based on merit, but women get paid less based on merit. And I think that he just didn’t understand it.”
She says even though her company is trying to ensure equal pay for equal work, she believes even with official policies in place you still need to ask for raises.
So we’d been talking about all these other things up to now. I wanted to find out about some of her at-work experiences.
AM-T: “Basically I want to ask you, what does feel like being one of these women in tech in Silicon Valley. Do you think about your gender a lot, or not really?”
“All the time. To be honest with you I think about it all the time.”
She says there are more and more women in her immediate circle…
“The team that I’m on right now actually, we have a fair number of women programmers, like more than you see in other places, and the team has made a concerted effort, and that’s been great, but even then I have had the experience where I say something and it’s just not believed until it’s repeated by a guy, or something like that, and it’s frustrating.”
And this kind of experience - it’s added to other things that have been happening to her for ages. She just didn’t know how to deal with them. And then a couple of years ago she started reading various women and work studies and books, Lean In included…and gradually something dawned on her…
“For a long time I didn’t know why I always got the feedback that I was too aggressive in my communications with people, that I was direct and I wasn’t, I needed to be a little bit softer when I was talking to people. For many years going, that was the feedback I got and it was always something I was trying to work on and I never really understood. And it wasn’t until I went through this phase of reading these studies, and it again this is right around when Lean In came out, and I read the studies and lean and read things like the Heidi Roizen study and read about how when women are direct in the way men are direct, it comes off brusquely and you get dinged for it basically. And suddenly the light just came on and I was like wait a minute, all I’m being is...I’ve been trying to emulate the male peers around me and I keep getting told you’re too direct. And then I finally realized the problem is not that I’m too direct, the problem is that I’m a woman acting the way that men are acting. And once I started to change that, and I’ve actively been trying to change that for the last few years, which on the one hand I’m sad about and then on the other hand you just kind of do what you have to do. And I’ve had a lot more success doing that, but it’s something that I’m kind of constantly thinking about. Like, OK, how do I phrase this, there’s my gut reaction of how I phrase something, and then I have to stop and process it and I think OK, how do I phrase this in a way that is going to come off a little more gently?”
She’s far from the only woman who’s had that feedback. But she wonders if it’s more of a problem for women like her who work in such a male industry. She says another thing she’s come up against is the expectation that she’ll do what some people call office housework: stuff like organize events, make the coffee, order the sandwiches for lunch. In many offices it seems women are just automatically asked to do this stuff over men – it’s an extension of the mother role.
And that riles Talia. She tried to explain this to a male colleague at a previous job at a startup.
“We were working at a small company and there were just a few of us in the office so we all would have to wash our dishes, and I was complaining to him that he had expected me to plan an event that wasn’t part of my job and it wasn’t something that I was going to do. And he said you know Talia, sometimes people have to do things that are not in their job description, for example I wash my own dishes. And I was kind of shocked that he thought that washing his own dishes was not part of his job description. The dishes that he had dirtied, by the way. So he thought that that was something that he was doing that was outside of his job, and that was a big thing for him to be doing, and then for me he was like well you know you can just go and plan this thing that doesn’t support in any way the goals that you are trying to achieve at the company.”
She says what was particularly irksome about that chat…
“That very weekend, like the weekend before he’d had this discussion with me, our servers had gone down and I’d personally brought our systems up from an outage, which was not part of my job description but was more company critical than him washing his dishes.”
But in spite of these different perceptions of who should do what and her concern about her ability to be her true straight-to-the-point self, she’s pretty happy in her job. And she’s also happy with the benefits her company offers. And in the US, with its lack of social programs, they are a huge reason people take or don’t take jobs.
“Tech companies in general have good benefits. Like the maternity leave is amazing, and they’ve just increased their paternity leave program. Which is great. So now fathers get up to 12 weeks off. Which is amazing, and good for men and good for women. When men are encouraged to take paternity leave, it is absolutely good for women as well. And I’ll give you a little thing: They have a mothers’ room of course, and the mothers’ rooms are very well done here. And in the mothers room, they have pumps…”
“…for women to use. The hospital grade Medela pumps, which is...I was amazed when I walked in and saw those. Because I was used to having to bring my own pump to work everyday, and it’s not as good of a pump. So little things like that go a very long way. I felt very cared for coming off maternity leave and having that kind of perk in the mothers’ room. I think that they are trying very hard.”
And you know all that brouhaha recently about companies like Facebook and Google offering egg freezing to female employees? Talia says she absolutely sees that as a benefit for women who don’t have kids yet – not some trick to get women to toil through their prime childbearing years.
Hannah Kuchler wrote about the egg freezing move for the Financial Times and she heard quite different reactions depending on who she was talking to.
“You know it’s very interesting, me as a reporter who deals with a lot of people in Europe every day and then deals with a lot of people out here, there was a very stark divide…about, a lot of people in Europe thinking my God, that sounds really overbearing and a huge amount of pressure to put on a female employee and just another sign we’re being made to do stuff that’s against our biology. And out here it was like, oh, it’s just another option. And part of that, it’s not a sexism issue, it’s just an issue of the way people view their companies – and the fact that out here people do provide healthcare, in the US, it’s a company-based thing, so people are used to thinking oh, I want to go to a company that gives me a better healthcare plan. And they saw it just as that.”
Again, in America you think in terms of benefits.
I asked Hannah the same thing I asked Talia earlier. Was she conscious of her status as a woman in Silicon Valley?
“Yeah, I think I am I think I am. You know, these things…your identity is multilayered. At the same time I realize that as a youngish reporter, I’m in my late 20s, I don’t have the same kind of scorn perhaps that I’ve received in other parts of the world I’ve worked in, because people are used to young people doing big things and respecting them. So your identity is more complicated than that. But I certainly feel there are some times when…it’s less a one-on-one interview because of course I’m there and people want to talk to me because of who I represent, and how much publicity they can get from talking to me or whatever. So that’s less the issue. But when you go to big round table events I can often feel very talked over, pushed aside, in fact I was at one recently where a couple of the female reporters left, and neither of my questions got answers. One of the female reporters hadn’t asked one till right near the end and when she did she said I’ve been trying to be very polite about this, but can you answer me this? So they just joked, oh, well now you’re being rude.”
And her question was not answered.
Talking of reporting, you can receive a regular round-up of the FT’s coverage by joining the FT’s Communities Forum – when you do that you’ll get a curated newsletter with coverage of women in the workplace, delivered straight to your inbox every month. You can go to to the link under this episode at The Broad Experience.com to sign up.
And if you’re a guy who works in tech in Silicon Valley or elsewhere I’d love to hear form you – does this sound familiar or do you have a different point of view? Get in touch and you could end up being a guest on a future show.
That’s the Broad Experience for this time. This is the 50th show I’ve produced. Thank you so much for downloading and tuning in and please keep spreading the word as I continue to build the program.
Thanks again to April Laissle for her help putting this episode together.
I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.