Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I Don't Want My Daughter to Work in Silicon Valley

As someone who worked in the tech world for over 30 years, my heart goes out to this gentleman who is concerned for his daughter's well being there.

I hired women in the 70's and 80's in an effort to make the engineering/tech world smarter and more beneficial a place in which women could make a living, support their families and learn skills useful for their future work lives.

As the articles published about women dropping out in the 90's proved, I failed.

Or did I?

The culture kills and there is a reason.

Why I Don't Want My Daughter to Work in Silicon Valley

By Sascha Segan

March 17, 2014 


Anyone who cares about other people should stay out of Silicon Valley, and tell their loved ones to stay out, too.

Do we want a tech world defined by compassionless jerks?

I've written before about the toxicity of the Silicon Valley/San Francisco cult of "disruption," which has no empathy for the disrupted, and little place for any empathy at all. But my hackles were raised again by a Business Week review of venture capitalist Ben Horowitz's new book, which confirmed that Silicon Valley's power brokers are passionately devoted to creating a society at war with itself.

The issue came up again with the departure of Julie Ann Horvath from Github, just the latest Silicon Valley bullying saga. Remember that Github is the place that had a minor scandal over code full of racial slurs before one of its code leaders decided to take a "brave stand" against using non-gendered pronouns in code, presumably because the chicks should just get over it.

This isn't about gender, not really. Horowitz makes clear that he welcomes women willing to really get into the 24/7 fight, "Sultans of Swat" who play "motherf**kin' chess." It's a co-ed game of f**k you and grab-ass out there, where the kick in the balls doesn't pay attention to whether your reproductive organs are internal or external.

Some of it may be about age. As The New York Times noted this week, there's a terrifying cult of youth in Silicon Valley, and with youth comes a lot of testosterone and a sense of invulnerability.

What Yiren Lu misses in her op-ed piece, though, is that the men who are funding these young guys are often older, but they don't seem to be imparting much thoughtfulness or wisdom into the mix.

I'm going to let real feminist bloggers do the heavy lifting as to why this culture is more wearing on women than on men: the constant sexual microaggressions, the no-win situations where aggressive women are seen as less feminine but less aggressive women can't succeed, the general atmosphere of a "bros' club including ladybros" as opposed to a people's club of people, and the world where "my right to offend" always trumps your right to feel welcome.

But nobody, men or women, should want this kind of culture defining their tech future. It's defined by rhetoric of emotional violence and a real misanthropy that goes beyond mere misogyny. Compassion and empathy are seen as negatives - values to be selected against, not for. In a nation where political and economic divisions are rending us apart, a little more compassion and inclusiveness could go a long way. If we're going to disrupt, we need to care about what happens to the disrupted, because we're all in the same continental boat. An individualistic culture of "I've got mine, and I'm going to disrupt yours" leads only to a war of all against all, and lives that are nasty, brutish, and short.

I have some friends out there who are fighting the good fight, running Tumblrs that collect embarrassingly sexist Silicon Valley job ads and writing heartfelt pleas on Medium. But we're talking about my daughter, right? I want her to go somewhere she's valued, not somewhere she'll have to fight every day against forces trying to grind her down. Yes, that's what billions of people struggling on this earth do daily, but the goal of civilization is to lessen that particular struggle. I want her to live a life where kindness and understanding are important. And if she chooses tech, fortunately, she'll have options.

The Valley Isn't Tech

I've been in the tech industry, in some form, for 20 years now. There's nothing inherent about technology that creates this toxic culture. Yes, the clean algorithmicity of programming tends to attract the kinds of men who have trouble with messy, analog emotions, but those guys don't have to be assholes.

In my travels, the Silicon Valley culture seems to be restricted to Silicon Valley. In New York, for instance, banking seems to draw most of the jerks, resulting in a more inclusive tech culture. The preeminence of academics in Boston make for a more thoughtful culture there. Seattle still styles itself as a work-to-live town, not a live-to-work town. Austin's blueness in the midst of red Texas keeps folks there a little humble. 

In Toronto, well, they're Canadian. This toxic culture hasn't always defined the Bay Area, either. As Lu points out, earlier generations of programmers made brilliant advances while still keeping their professional attitudes more professional.

For now, there are enough Tom Perkins with their six-packs of Rolexes willing to give cash to the latest "disruptor" to keep things going for a while. It's also hard to measure what isn't being created. But if I were you, I'd keep a close eye on those other tech hubs. If they welcome geeks who really look like 21st century America, perhaps they'll find technologies more likely to bring us together than to pull us apart.

And from one of the article's sources, we learn much more about life on this killing floor:

What Horowitz reveals about Silicon Valley’s testosterone-fueled culture is equally fascinating. This is a business book in the tradition of Sun Tzu. Horowitz loves the fact that a job candidate threatened to “put a bullet in the head” of underperforming sales reps at a previous gig — and hires him, because it shows the guy is determined to win. Horowitz responds to complaints about profanity at work by publicly embracing cursing. A good call, perhaps, when you have such strategies as “the S— Sandwich” and describe business as “motherf—–’ chess.”

When extracting lessons from this celebration of unbridled aggression, Horowitz suddenly switches to the pronoun “she.” To Horowitz, “tough times separate women from girls.” The “Ms. CEO” of this book isn’t leaning in; she’s too busy cussing and poaching and training her people so their asses don’t get shot off in battle. Horowitz has three daughters, and he says this was a “small gesture of inclusion” to let girls see Silicon Valley as a place for them.

It’s clearly not, and Horowitz’s persistent use of “she” comes off as social satire in a world with so few actual women. Horowitz’s battles are fought with other men, an army of entrepreneurs, agents, gurus, rivals, and investors who win through brilliance, courage, technical prowess, influence, an obsessive work ethic, and a deep desire to murder the enemy.

In Silicon Valley, “her” is more likely to refer to your operating system than to your business partner. In the first 90 percent of the book, I counted three females: a human resource staffer, a woman whose husband ran NetLabs, and Horowitz’s wife Felicia, a woman with “award-winning green eyes” whose focus seems to be family and her husband’s success. He doesn’t present a real-life female peer until four pages from the end, when he hires Margit Wennmachers, a marketing guru-turned-venture capitalist whom he dubs “the Babe Ruth of PR” and “Sultan of Swat.”

The surprise isn’t discovering a dearth of powerful women in Silicon Valley. It’s that a man who has worked so hard to promote opportunities for women (proceeds from the book will go to support international women’s rights) seems oblivious to the fact that they’re absent from his own professional life — or why.

Horowitz seemed a little offended when I asked why so few real women show up. He noted that a lot of the action takes place before 2007, and much has changed since. Besides his father, conservative writer David Horowitz, I’m apparently the only one who noticed a disconnect between repeatedly using “she” in a book about men. By the time I got back to my desk, a crisp message from the publicist reminded me that this is a book about leadership, not women in tech.

That’s true. And Horowitz’s ideal leader in a time of crisis is someone who happily signs memos “f— you” and finds it exhilarating to work from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for six months straight. In short, they’re a lot like him. It’s a world where women can have balls, too; as an example, Horowitz cites VMware co-founder Diane Greene, who, he says, uses the same language of leadership as any man. Maybe the hardest thing about hard things is figuring out whether a broader mix of warriors can win the war.

I was disappeared (largely) from those halls of shame in the 90's.

It doesn't really amaze me that not much has changed.

It also explains why the so-called top women in business were Republicans and were revealed as pretenders when they ran for major political offices.


Tom Harper said...

Interesting post. I lived north of San Francisco for a long time (Marin and Sonoma Counties) but moved to Washington 9-1/2 years ago. I was never that familiar with San Jose or the Silicon Valley area, outside of newspaper articles, stereotypes, etc.

But I've seen recent articles about Silicon Valley and the IT culture in general, and it sounds like it's gotten a lot more ruthless and mercenary, like what your post describes. There's been a lot of publicity about Google employees moving into the Mission District in San Francisco and driving out the long-time residents because of higher rents and housing prices. There are even Google buses (for Google employees only) that pull up to the public bus stops and cause traffic jams and longer waits for the rest of the non-Google workers who would like to get on the regular Muni bus and get to work on time. This is stirring up a lot of resentment.

Cirze said...

Thanks for commenting, Tom.

I also saw the PR about the Google bus traffic hazards.

Wouldn't you know it wouldn't be the countrywide job hazard but instead the waiting-for-the-bus hazard crowd that would move the media mountains?


Anonymous said...

I'm a female software engineer SV and not sure about "testosterone-filled environment"...where did you get that from?? The physically weak wussie boys that fill those companies seem be producing more estrogen if you know what I mean....one'd have to look hard for actual testostorne among these....just sayin'. I lift heavy and probably could use 3 of the avearge engineers as a workout weight. Seriously, you have to drive a few miles away for teststerone....all the xeno-estrogens in polluted air and "life in front of the screen" are MAJOR T suppressor.