Tech companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve conditions for female employees. Here’s why not much has changed—and what might actually work.
One weekday morning in 2007, Bethanye Blount came into work early to interview a job applicant. A veteran software engineer then in her 30s, Blount held a senior position at the company that runs Second Life, the online virtual world. Good-natured and self-confident, she typically wore the kind of outfit—jeans, hoodie, sneakers—that signals coding gravitas. That day, she might even have been wearing what’s known as the “full-in start-up twin set”: a Second Life T-shirt paired with a Second Life hoodie.
In short, everything about her indicated she was a serious technical person. So she was taken aback when the job applicant barely gave her the time of day. He knew her job title. He knew she would play a key role in deciding whether he got hired. Yet, every time Blount asked him a question about his skills or tried to steer the conversation to the scope of the job, he blew her off with a flippant comment. Afterward, Blount spoke to another top woman—a vice president—who said he’d treated her the same way.
Obviously, Second Life wasn’t going to hire this bozo. But what the heck: He was here, and they had a new employee, a man, who needed practice giving interviews, so they sent him in. When the employee emerged, he had an odd look on his face. “I don’t know what just happened,” he said. “I went in there and told him I was new, and all he said was he was so glad I was there: ‘Finally, somebody who knows what’s going on!’ ”
All Blount could do was laugh—even now, as she looks back on the incident. In the hierarchy of sexist encounters, it didn’t rank very high. Still, it was a reminder that as a woman in tech, she should be prepared to have her authority questioned at any moment, even by some guy trying to get a job at her company.
One reason her career had gone so well, she thinks, is that she’d made a point of ignoring slights and oafish comments. Awkward silences, too. Over the years, she’s experienced—many times—the sensation of walking up to a group of male colleagues and noticing that they fell quiet, as though they’d been talking about something they didn’t want her to hear.
She’s been asked to take notes in meetings. She’s found herself standing in elevators at tech conferences late at night when a guy would decide to get, as she puts it, handsy. When she and a male partner started a company, potential investors almost always directed their questions to him—even when the subject clearly fell in Blount’s area of expertise. It drove him crazy, and Blount had to urge him to curb his irritation.
“I didn’t have time to be pissed,” she says.
But at some point, something inside her broke. Maybe it was being at tech conferences and hearing herself, the “elder stateswoman,” warning younger women to cover their drinks, because such conferences—known for alcohol, afterparties and hot women at product booths—have been breeding grounds for unwanted sexual advances and assaults, and you never knew whether some jerk might put something in your cocktail.
She couldn’t believe women still had to worry about such things; that they still got asked to fetch coffee; that she still heard talk about how hiring women or people of color entailed “lowering the bar”; that women still, often, felt silenced or attacked when expressing opinions online.
“I am angry that things are no better for a 22-year-old at the beginning of her career than they were for me 25 years ago when I was just starting out,” Blount says. “I made decisions along the way that were easier for me and helped me succeed—don’t bring attention to being a woman, never talk about gender, never talk about ‘these things’ with men,” unless the behavior was particularly egregious. “It helped me get through. But in retrospect I feel I should have done more.”
Blount decided it was never too late to start speaking out, and teamed up with other women who had undergone a similar awakening. This past May, they formed a group called Project Include, which aims to provide companies and investors with a template for how to be better.
One of her collaborators on the effort, Susan Wu, an entrepreneur and investor, says when she was teaching herself to code as a teenager, she was too naive to perceive the sexism of internet culture. But as she advanced in her career and moved into investing and big-money venture capitalism, she came to see the elaborate jiu-jitsu it takes for a woman to hold her own. At one party, the founder of a start-up told Wu she’d need to spend “intimate time” with him to get in on his deal. An angel investor leading a different deal told her something similar. She became a master of warm, but firm, self-extrication.
Looking back, Wu is struck by “the countless times I’ve had to move a man’s hand from my thigh (or back or shoulder or hair or arm) during a meeting (or networking event or professional lunch or brainstorming session or pitch meeting) without seeming confrontational (or bitchy or rejecting or demanding or aggressive).”
In a land of grand ideas and grander funding proposals, she found the ability to neatly reject a man’s advances without injuring his ego is “a pretty important skill that I would bet most successful women in our industry have.”
Wu learned how to calibrate the temperature of her demeanor: friendly and approachable, neither too intimate nor too distant. She learned the fine art of the three-quarters smile, as well as how to deflect conversation away from her personal life and return it to topics like sports and market strategy. She learned to distinguish between actual predators and well-meaning guys who were just a bit clueless. And yet to not be overly wary, because that, too, can affect career prospects.
The dozens of women I interviewed for this article love working in tech. They love the problem-solving, the camaraderie, the opportunity for swift advancement and high salaries, the fun of working with the technology itself. They appreciate their many male colleagues who are considerate and supportive. Yet, all of them had stories about incidents that, no matter how quick or glancing, chipped away at their sense of belonging and expertise.
Indeed, a recent survey called “Elephant in the Valley” found nearly all of the 200-plus senior women in tech who responded had experienced sexist interactions. (And just as the print version of this article went to press, a former Uber engineer added to the evidence of Silicon Valley’s gender problem when she wrote a blog post detailing what she said was a pattern of sexist behavior at the company.)