The shiny seduction of Silicon Valley has always fascinated me. Its lingering promise of disruption, its bold personality, its charismatic energy, representing the chance to be part of the daring, high-tech gold rush of ideas that might just change the world one day.

There’s only one detractor that makes me feel a little less starry eyed: the tech world has a gender problem.

On the eve of International Women’s Day, a well-worn narrative is playing out in the press with the Reddit CEO, Ellen Pao, having filed a discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins, highlighting the unfair hiring and promotion practices of the tech arena and reinforcing the longstanding portrayal of the industry as the cashed-up nerdy white males who won’t let the girls play with the big boys.

So for every Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg, there are talented women in tech who’ve been passed over for promotions, received lower salaries, hit on, doubted, belittled, discriminated against or denied investment funding.

Ahem, is this the 21st century? How has an industry famed for its ability to dream big, think outside the box and challenge the norm, developed its own ‘norm’, the rather anti-disruptive, gender imbalance norm?

Women can code and they deserve a seat at the table.

Women can code and they deserve a seat at the table.

The Stats

According to Medium, women make up 57% of the workforce but only 25% of the tech sector. Only 4% of senior venture capitalists are women, and 19% of US angel investors are women. There are only 3 female tech CEOs in the Fortune 500. A Harvard Business Review study concluded it was a “hostile work environment” for many women, and a Babson College study found that just under 3% of Silicon Valley firms that receive venture capital funding have female CEOs.

In a startling 2012 study, Yale researchers found that science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills and were less likely to offer the women mentoring or a job. And those women offered a position received a lower salary than their male counterparts. When the gatekeepers of science have an inherent bias that starts well before the students they seek to educate have even entered the workforce, you know there’s a serious problem.

Does the anecdotal evidence bear out these stats?

The Stories

Alleging that she was passed up for promotions and ultimately fired from Kleiner Perkins based on her gender and on her complaints about gender discrimination while she was there, Ellen Pao is not the first to complain but the lawsuit is garnering loads of attention.

Ellen Pao, now CEO of Reddit.

Ellen Pao, now CEO of Reddit.

As reported in Fast Company in February 2015, Pao’s 2012 complaint calls Kleiner partners out for repeatedly blocking women from opportunities, including calling them buzzkills and believing that women are intrinsically incapable of the leadership potential they claim to have fired her for. The firm has maintained that Pao’s complaints, including not having an office in the “power corridor” and being asked to take meeting notes, are unfounded and unrealistic.

For every positive story about a happy woman in tech (think Tracey DiNunzio of Tradesy who raised $US13 million from the likes of Richard Branson, Kleiner Perkins, and Tim Ferriss and says she never associated any of her failed pitches with gender bias from male investors), there are many more that don’t paint such a rosy picture.

Before Kathryn Tucker started RedRover, an app that showcases local events for kids, Tucker pitched her idea to an angel investor at a New York tech event. Want to know the response to her enthusiastic pitch? The investor said he didn’t invest in women, later attempting to compliment her by telling her she was “more male” than other women.

Sheri Atwood, founder at SupportPay, was told to “hire a young guy in a hoodie” to help her with her pitch to which she responded that her solution was not a 21-year-old-kid-in-a-hoodie problem. Furthermore, the venture capital firm doubted her ability to code, did not believe she created her own platform and drilled her about everything from being a single Mum to her hair colour (brunettes are taken more seriously apparently).

Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, reports that an investor got a little too up close and personal at a bar rather than focusing on her pitch deck, an all too familiar story.

Rachel Sklar - Founder Change the Ratio. Don't forget your wedding ring!

Rachel Sklar – Founder Change the Ratio. Don’t forget your wedding ring!

Rachel Sklar, founder of Change the Ratio, an advocacy group for women in tech, recalls an investor telling women to “wear a wedding ring” when pitching to VCs and recalls another investor confirming he would not invest in women he didn’t find attractive.

Wow. These cautionary tales reek of a Donald Draper workplace mentality but aren’t we at least six decades on from that?

So the tech sphere is riddled with stories of women experiencing inherent bias, sexual assault, intimidation and discrimination. Vivek Wadhwa, author of Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, says he arrived in the tech industry and thought it was the “twilight zone”. “You come here and you notice something really weird. Where are the women?” But what has caused this problem?

The Problem

In October 2014, Ann Friedman reported that tech’s gender imbalance is the result of a complex set of structural and cultural issues that are incompatible with the values it claims to hold dear.

According to Friedman, there’s a PR problem from the start – not enough women actually pursue computer science careers with some experts saying that the imbalance stems from childhood, when girls are given different toys and presented with different role models than boys. Some say girls aren’t interested in a science or tech career because there are simply no role models to look up to and the males are the loudest in the room.

Another reason advanced is that the start-up playground is a risky playground with a culture that rewards aggression, which may leave some women less likely to want to join the party. The meritocracy myth – build great things and you will succeed – again ignores the fact that certain factors in life give certain people advantages and the tech world is no different to any other industry.

Add to all of this the fact many men in the industry hire their friends and look for the “hoodie” stereotype – if you don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg (read: white, male, boy-genius, awkward, sneakers, hoodie) don’t apply – you’ve got a fertile breeding ground for a male-dominated basketball team with the women left hanging on the sidelines.

The Solution

I think it was Abraham Lincoln (and a whole raft of other famous people) who once said: bring me solutions, not problems. So where to from here?

The answer to any ingrained problem surely has to start with education, leadership, knowledge sharing and visibility. It appears the disconnect in tech is the inability to recognise and then address the imbalance, and it’s high time for Silicon, and the tech industry in general, to apply its own global, disruptive thinking to find a creative solution.

A proud example of deliberate industry change is Etsy who increased its number of female engineers by 500% in a single year  — from just 3 engineers to 20  —  after committing to changing its lopsided gender ratio. It’s a smart initiative considering more than 75% of buyers and sellers on Etsy, the e-commerce website that helps individuals sell handmade and vintage goods directly to consumers, are female. Etsy also sponsors a summer Hacker School, that runs an intensive three-month coding program and offers grants to women looking to amp up their engineering skills.

Speaking with Huffington Post, Martha Kelly, an Etsy-sponsored Hacker School attendee, expressed the personal impact of the program on her first day when she blogged, “I never realized the impact of being the only woman in the room until I wasn’t.”

Etsy's Hacker School: Changing the Game.

Etsy’s Hacker School: Changing the Game.

Google now has campuses in Tel Aviv and London for the start-up communities, including a Campus for Moms, where new mums looking to launch products and build companies come through a formal program, but meet once a week and bring their babies with them. There are play areas and feeding rooms, and everyone builds together. Having returned to work when my baby was 4 months old in circumstances where breastfeeding at work seemed literally impossible, this kind of concept and program is entirely refreshing.

More programs and initiatives are needed as well as recruiters, managers and CEOs with a high emotional IQ, an awareness of the imbalance and the courage to take action.

For all those evolved males and females in leadership positions in the tech space and future investors, have a think about what you can do right now to change the environment for women in tech and reimagine the culture. What kinds of programs and working practices will you set up? Will you lead by example?

As the wonderfully inspiring Malala Yousafzai has said, “we cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

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