Why aren't more women on tech boards?

A sign is posted outside of the Twitter headquarters on October 25, 2013 in San Francisco, California. 

Why aren’t there more women on tech boards in Silicon Valley? The issue came into the spotlight recently with Twitter, which appointed its first female board member earlier this month. That appointment came after the social media company drew heat for not having any on the board.

But pose the question to women in Silicon Valley -- I'm talking engineers, VCs, entrepreneuers -- and the answer you get depends on whether the microphone is on or off. When the mic is on, the answer I generally get is this:

“Every job I’ve ever had was through someone I’ve worked with before or was friends with, every single one,” said Alison Voss, a engineer I met at a recent Geek Girl Dinner.

And with men starting up about 97 percent of the tech companies in Silicon Valley, that means they dominate at networking. And that makes it tough for women to advance.

I met Voss at a Geek Girl dinner, which is one of the dozens of events popping up all over Silicon Valley that’s trying to create women-centered networks.

The dinners are waiting list only and December’s dinner was at Mozilla, the maker of the web browser Firefox.

Voss was there hanging out with her friend Sarah LaFassett, who is an engineer-in-training. She added that start-up culture complicates matters. Like starting any business, LaFassett says you want to do it with people you know, “because you’re going to see them more than you’re going to see your family.”

But Voss adds, “and what that ends of meaning is do I get along with this person, do we want to go snow boarding together and you know, nobody you know is a woman, so those jobs just don’t come to women generally speaking.”

Women like Voss and LaFassett will tell you as more women enter the pipeline, they’ll move up and start hiring more women. And eventually, we’ll start seeing more women on tech boards.

Now, that’s the answer you get when the mic is on. But when mic is off, women tell a different story. 

“Have you been to the fraternities at the universities? They’re behaving as if they’re in the frat clubs,” said Vivek Wadhwa.

By the way, Wadhwa isn’t a woman. He’s an entrepreneur and scholar. And for the last five years, he’s been researching a book on the subject of women in tech.

“I’ve been interviewing hundreds and hundreds of women,” Wadhwa said. “They are afraid they’ll be ostracized and they’ll be labeled as feminist if the speak up.”

Wadhwa says there’s a public narrative that says women are shut out of boardrooms and high-profile jobs because the pipeline to those positions are overwhelmingly male. But there’s also a private narrative in Silicon Valley and that’s of start-ups that celebrate frat-like behavior and turn a blind eye to sexual discrimination. And he says, women, generally keep those stories to themselves.

“They don’t tell you how they go to conferences and they’re groped,” he said. “It’s not everyone who’s bad here by the way, you know. there are a lot of men -- um, men who have daughters or a boys who had strong supportive mothers and sisters tend to be more open-minded about women. Many others are intimidated.”

In fact, there have been a few high-profile instances when women who tweet about what they consider to be sexist behavior are met with rape threats. And personally, when the mic is off, women have told me: Yes, the pipeline issue is real but it’s overblown. They note that many women have made it through the pipeline but are overlooked because tech operates like a boys club.

“I would venture every woman at one point or another in her professional career has seen something that was discriminatory, to you know even being invited to the golf game or the ski trip,” said Fran Maier.

Maier is a serial entrepreneur, who co-founded the dating site Match-dot-com. She also founded, and chairs the board of TRUSTe, a venture-backed firm that manages privacy.

She agrees women in Silicon Valley could speak up more. But then, they risk falling into the “angry woman” category

“Nobody likes an angry woman,” Maiers said. “On the other hand, I don’t think I’m angry, I think I’m pointing out what some of these issues are but some guys might hear me and think I’m an angry women and who wants an angry woman on the board?”

Maier say it’s not just tech. All across the country, the number of women on the boards of publicly-traded companies has remained stagnant for eight years now.

Countries like Norway, Germany and France have tried to change corporate culture by instituting quotas. And Maiers says, we might consider similar measures too.

 

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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