Calling Out the Sexism of Startup Culture

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Brooke Noonan

Finding things that make me feel, then writing about them.

The term “startup culture” gets thrown around a lot these days, but that hasn’t made it easy to define.

In theory, startup culture is a hierarchically flat and highly communicative work environment. In practice, startup culture is Nerf guns and beer in the office. In reality, most companies have some combination of the two.

Regardless of how you define it though, I think it’s safe to say: startup culture is no longer limited to startup companies.

Startup, eh?

My first coding job was in a conservative Midwestern town. My company – founded in the 80’s – had a flexible PTO policy, a non-existent dress code and ping pong in the break room.

Undeniably, it was hard to complain.

But that’s the danger with startup culture. It’s hard to complain. Startup culture is oppressive white male culture, but it’s provocative to say that. To be more precise: startup culture is white, straight, cis-male culture, but in tech even that first statement is a hard sell.

Before I dive in, let me first say that I fully support the destruction of the American 9-to-5 pathology. Flexible hours, better work-life balance and more comprehensive benefits are social justice issues in their own right, and it’s awesome to see these featured at the core of many startups.

And as you may have guessed, these perks were no accident.

A Familiar Tale of Good Intentions

Back in the 1950’s when San Jose was still a quaint coastal town, two men decided to start a new semiconductor company: Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit, and Gordon Moore, author of the paramount Moore’s Law.

At the time, low-level technical employees typically worked on whatever their managers passed down to them. This caused a lot of discontent for Noyce and Moore who not only had technical skills but a vision for the future of their field.

They wanted to start their own company but didn’t have the funds. Their friend and venture capitalist Arthur Rock stepped in to raise $2.5 million, and the company was born.

That company was Intel.

Intel’s story – two engineers disillusioned by the American corporate status quo and one money guy willing to fund it all – repeats itself in Silicon Valley’s history time and time again. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and countless other tech giants were founded in this ground-up way. So it’s no surprise that even today, these companies pride themselves on their uncommonly lax cultures.

But what started as a culture that let engineers run freely with their work has at times turned into a full-blown no-rules lifestyle for male techies.

It’s Scary Easy to Find Stories of Sexism in Tech – Here’s 5 of Them

Just this past spring, Microsoft publicly apologized after having erotic dancers at a corporate-sponsored gaming party – ironically just hours after hosting their annual “Women in Gaming” luncheon at the 2016 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

This type of objectification is not an anomaly. Many tech conferences are still scattered with “booth babes” – women hired to lure male conference-goers to their booth.

This past fall, a Reddit post by an unnamed tech startup CEO went viral. In it, he asks about the legalities of throwing an in-office stripper party. But don’t worry, he says, no pesky women around! When Reddit users asked why his company is all male, he says

Female candidates are usually less qualified for technology and don’t come from strong cs backgrounds as often as their male counterparts. That combined with California’s ridiculous maternity leave laws make female applicants quite undesirable.

Excuse me while I go add “*quite undesirable” to my C.S.E. diploma.

The message here is clear: women are an afterthought in tech. This is true whether you are pointing out casual sexism like former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao or you are reporting sexual assault like Tor Security Engineer Leigh Honeywell.

In Pao’s case, she understandably reacted tepidly to micro-aggressions from her male peers. The result? Performance reviews criticizing her for her “sharp elbows.”

In Honeywell’s case, her abuser Jacob Applebaum “was a charismatic and central figure in the security community…many of our friends and colleagues saw the way he treated me and did nothing about it.”

Let’s Go to the Numbers

According to a recent Fortune report, not only is sexual harassment likely for women in tech – 60% – but it is prohibitive and risky to report it. Of the women harassed in tech, 39% said they did not report fearing that it would hurt their careers. Of those that did report 60% were unsatisfied by the result.

For women of color, the climate is even worse. In a recent study of women in STEM fields conducted by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, a full 100% of women of color surveyed said they’ve experienced gender bias. One hundred percent.

Women represent 29% of workers in the world’s biggest tech companies. Black women represent 3% and Latina women just 2%. It’s worse in leadership positions, with women representing 18% of the workforce and black and Latina women representing less than 1% each.

Which brings us back to culture. Try as companies might to hire more women or establish more inclusive policies, the precious and predictably defensive white male culture still remains. A Harvard Business Review study in 2014 found that as many as 50% of women working in STEM will leave over time because of hostile work environments.

Occam’s Razor

The key issue is that in order to report problematic behavior, women in tech must fight the same culture that gives us ping pong in the breakroom, open air workspaces, unlimited paid time off, and company outings to the local brewery.

In short, women must criticize a culture that on the surface appears unquestionably good.

We not only have to combat potential institutional ramifications for reporting, but also the social ramifications of calling into question an environment that straight white male developers idolize.

And yet, I still hear many straight white men doubt this reality.

Remember Occam’s Razor? From Engineering 101? It says (and I’m paraphrasing) that the simplest explanation is probably the right one.

And there is a simple explanation. Is it that women as a collective group are vindictively and falsely accusing their peers and coworkers of sexual assault, harassment, and creating a hostile work environment? Or is it that these things are actually happening.

Startup culture was built by men for men. Let’s do the world a favor and acknowledge it.