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Silicon Valley Has a Gender Discrimination Problem—and These Women Can Prove It

Feb. 18, 2016

Let’s address the elephant in the Valley

Silicon Valley’s gender discrimination problem was brought into the spotlight in March 2015, when Ellen Pao sued her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, for gender discrimination. (Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins. Pao ended up losing). The trial revealed many things, but one thing it did not reveal were any hard facts about how prevalent gender bias is in Silicon Valley.

So we set out with a group of women in the industry to find out how widespread that bias is.* Ultimately, we were able to survey more than 200 senior-level women in Silicon Valley. All of the statistics we share in this article are from our results. Among many important data points, the survey highlights what we have come to call the Goldilocks problem of never being “just right:” 84% of women have been told they are too aggressive, and 53% have been told they are too quiet.

Because much of what we found was both so prevalent and so under-discussed, we call our findings The Elephant in the Valley. Until recently, people haven’t talked about the elephant in the Valley. Our hope is that now they will.

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The upshot: If you’ve faced gender discrimination, you’re not alone
In an ironic twist, the good news of this survey is the realization that women share a lot of similar experiences regarding bias. We hope the numbers can help women understand their experiences not as something they might have caused, but as a systemic social bias that needs to be highlighted and combatted. By creating a community of shared stories, we hope to expose some of these tough experiences to spur a shared conversation on best practices.

One of the themes that comes through clearly in this survey is just how deeply these experiences can shake the confidence of even the most established professional. We want women to know that they’re not the only one whose career path may have been affected by gender discrimination. Hopefully, shaken confidence and self-doubt will not prevent women from continuing to push for more opportunities—especially after they learn that 48% of women we spoke to believe they have been passed up for promotion based on gender. Hopefully, women will not second-guess their abilities as working mothers once they learn that 39% told us they’ve also felt negative repercussions of parenthood on their careers.

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When we released our preliminary findings, we were met with an extraordinary outpouring of support—and a deluge of women who wanted to share their stories. Since launching elephantinthevalley.com, we have received more than 450 submissions from women on topics regarding inclusion, unconscious bias, harassment, promotion and maternity leave.

One sentiment that emerged was the notion of wanting to speak up about gender discrimination but not wanting to hurt the company—or face retribution. As one woman told us, “Networks are important, and if you build a reputation as a troublemaker, it makes it harder to work with people. A truly terrible conundrum.”

That’s why we are offering a safe and anonymous forum in which women can tell their stories. While the cloak of anonymity may be unsatisfactory to a journalist, we believe it is crucial to share these experiences in a forum where there is no finger pointing and where there is no media scandal to divert attention away from the fact that this problem affects all of us.

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Driving awareness
In order to move Silicon Valley’s culture, we have to start with a shared understanding of underlying experiences. That means studying the data but also being bolder about calling out bias in real-time when we experience or witness it. Given the concern about retribution, this is indeed a real challenge. This is why we need company leaders to pay attention.

And we need them to pay attention to the stuff that may seem small because often the “little” stuff forms the foundation of gender bias. For example, 84% of women we questioned say they’ve experienced “clients/colleagues making eye contact with male peers, but not me,” and an astonishing 45% of those respondents experience this monthly. A similar statistic from our survey shows that 88% of women have experienced “clients/colleagues addressing questions to a male peer that should have been addressed to them”—with 56% of respondents experiencing this monthly.

Often, women don’t want to make a big deal about slights/annoyances that don’t have a huge individual impact, but they have a major impact in the aggregate. Consider that 47% of the women we surveyed have been “asked to do lower-level tasks that a male colleague is not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food).”

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And gender bias can be an act of omission as much as an act of commission. A few stats on inclusion are particularly startling: 52% of women reported having felt “excluded from important business events because of gender,” with 66% having felt “excluded from key social/networking opportunities because of gender.”

So if your team members “have lunch meetings at Hooters,” “skinny dip at an offsite” or “continually ask you to plan the holiday parties” (all examples cited by our respondents), men need to recognize how exclusionary (if not outright inappropriate) this is. And women should not be silent about it.

Squashing the elephant
We focused on women’s experiences in Silicon Valley because we were motivated to help effect change where we work—but we suspect these types of experiences extend well beyond one geographic region. Therefore, we encourage other women to ask more questions and understand their communities, as well. No matter where you are, changing the culture requires a common understanding of the data and consistent and unified pushing back when we see bias. We hope these numbers and these stories serve to inform those in power. We hope that they cause men to investigate their own behavior and biases and that they fortify women to speak out. And we hope that they will lead to the type of change that will make Silicon Valley a place of even greater innovation by making it a place of greater equality.

To share your experiences or learn more, visit www.elephantinthevalley.com.

*Our survey was done in collaboration with a group of women including Ellen Levy, Hillary Mickell, Monica Leas, Julie Kay Oberweis and Bennett Porter.

Trae Vassallo is an investor, entrepreneur and engineer.

Dr. Michele Madansky runs a market research consultancy in Silicon Valley.