From Twitter lacking a single female on its board to sexist prank apps at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, the past few weeks have seen increased debate about the discrimination faced by women in Silicon Valley.
“My son, I realised, had basically monopolised the computer at home”
The BBC World Service’s Newshour gathered a range of women from the world’s centre of technological innovation to ask: why aren’t there more women in Silicon Valley?
While being one of the most high profile women in Silicon Valley, Google’s advertising chief Susan Wojcicki frequently sees the challenges women face in technology.
Problems can often start before even reaching the workplace.
She noticed that her son was taking over access to technology at home, and shutting off his sister.
“My son, I realised, had basically monopolised the computer at home,” she says.
“My daughter had just given up and let him have it all the time and didn’t think computers were that interesting.”
She tried to remedy this by sending her daughter to a technology-focused summer camp.
However, her daughter came back complaining that there were too many boys.
“I realise how easy it is for us just to let the girls kind of slip away,” she says.
Women are needed
Only a fifth of computer science graduates in the USA are female.
Ms Wojcicki argues that we need women in technology if only to build better products.
She cites studies which show that diverse teams come up with better products, and that as consumers of tech, women should also be more involved in creating these products in the first place.
“We just bring different experiences to the table,” she says.
Furthermore, the growing dominance of tech means that in the near future most aspects of life will involve a technological element.
Computer scientist Dr Telle Whitney agrees. She runs the Anita Borg Institute, a group which promotes gender diversity in Silicon Valley.
She believes that computing knowledge is required to help solve many of our problems, from climate change to online education.
“The overwhelming voice of women in technology about patriarchy and about oppression and about the problems we have is actually silence”
Shanley Kane Blogger
“If you want to change the future, you want to be part of computing,” Dr Whitney says.
Meritocracy and drop-outs
However, the issue isn’t just that there aren’t enough women going into tech.
Women in the technology sector also drop out fast.
Dr Whitney says women leave the industry twice as much as men.
“They are just uncomfortable,” she explains.
Dr Whitney says there is a lot of unconscious sexism and the long hours also make it hard for women with families.
Some women believe that Silicon Valley’s very strengths can also give rise to a culture of discrimination persisting.
“Silicon Valley is incredibly invested in its self-image as a meritocracy,” says Basho’s director of product management and blogger Shanley Kane, explaining the belief that anyone can make it with intelligence and hard work.
“That very belief prevents us from actually critically examining the culture,” she says.
Furthermore, Ms Kane warns that certain men in the community make it hard for women to speak out, so many women simply don’t.
She points to the rise of the ‘brogrammer’ culture over the past five years – a type of young male programmer said to exhibit loud and brash behaviour.
Ms Kane believes this move away from the stereotype of the reserved geek and towards a new hyper-masculine personality is an effort by some men to reclaim power.
“We have an extremely aggressive, hyper-sexual, hyper-masculine stereotype of the geek that’s starting to take over,” she warns, “and that’s extremely threatening to women.”
Women who do speak up, such as herself, can face harsh criticism.
She believes this environment silences debate.
“The overwhelming voice of women in technology about patriarchy and about oppression and about the problems we have is actually silence,” she says. “Most women don’t talk about it.”
“Silence is the default mode.”
“If those girls all decide to come into this industry, they can change it”
Susan Wojcicki Google
The scrutiny women can face also leads some to feel under pressure to perform well at all times, or risk being dismissed for their gender.
Kristen Pownell is a 19-year-old electrical engineering student at Stanford University.
“This year I’m starting my electrical engineering core classes and when I walked into class on the first day I was shocked,” Miss Pownell says.
“My class is 50 people and there’s three or four or maybe five girls there,” she says. “It’s really noticeable.”
She finds it intimidating being one of a handful of women and feels under pressure to prove herself.
“I have this irrational fear that I’m representing all women everywhere and I need to prove myself in order to maintain femininity,” she says.
She believes support groups are valuable and make women feel less isolated, and she does outreach to girls in high schools, encouraging them to study science and technology.
Women can change it
Perhaps the best way to address the problems women face is for more women to enter the industry.
Ms Wojcicki is trying to encourage more women into tech and says there is a place for them.
The tech world is creative and team orientated, she says, and enables people to build products which will be used around the world.
By being part of the tech world she says they can also change the industry’s culture.
“If those girls all decide to come into this industry, they can change it,” she says.
“They can make it different and they can make it be for them in the way they want it to be.”