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Is Silicon Valley a Meritocracy?

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Every year, The Atlantic sends a survey to dozens of influential Silicon Valley executives, start-up founders, and tech thinkers to take the pulse of the technology industry.

For this year’s View From the Valley, we asked people to tell us everything from who has the best job in Silicon Valley—Tesla’s Elon Musk and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg were the favorites—to their voting plans in the upcoming presidential election. More than 85 percent of respondents indicated they’d vote for Clinton, none said Trump, and the rest were either undecided, voting for a third party, or not voting at all. (“I’d even take a poorly written PHP script over Trump,” said David Cann, the CEO of Double Robotics, in his reply.)

One interesting layer to the political section of the survey was how responses broke down by gender. Women were near-unanimous in their support for Clinton, whereas men were slightly less likely to support the Democratic nominee—a dynamic that reflects attitudes among voters across the country. And, not surprisingly, there were other key areas of the poll where responses from men and women were notably different.

One striking example: Men were nine times as likely as women to say Silicon Valley is a meritocracy.

The vast majority of women—some 80 percent of them—said success in the industry is not primarily based on competence, but men were split down the middle: Fifty percent said it was a meritocracy; 50 percent said it wasn’t.

This data leaves plenty of room for questions. Our sample size was around 50 people, which isn’t exactly robust. And we received nearly three times as many responses from men than women. Still, it’s telling that views on the question of meritocracy were split so cleanly on gender lines. What that suggests, for starters, is that many women and men have profoundly different experiences living and working in Silicon Valley.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Well, duhhh.” Double standards for women are everywhere in Silicon Valley because they’re everywhere, period.

Evidence of the industry’s bro culture is ubiquitous. In an interview with GQ in 2014, Travis Kalanick, the billionaire and Uber founder, referred to his desirability among women as though it were an on-demand service: “Boob-er.” Musk, of Tesla, recently bristled at the observation that he wasn’t following any women on Twitter, writing, “What's up with the phoney [sic] PC police axe-grinding?” And just last month, John Greathouse, an investor and entrepreneur, wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that women in technology mask their gender—on job applications and in funding pitches—as a way to better appeal to those who might discriminate against them. “A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them,” he wrote. “Once they make an initial connection with a potential employer or investor, such women then have an opportunity to submit their work and experiences for an impartial review.”

Predictably, the suggestion elicited a torrent of criticism. Less predictably, Greathouse responded by acknowledging the absurdity of his position—and seemed genuinely remorseful. “I told women to endure the gender bias problem rather than acting to fix it,” he wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “I hurt women and I utterly failed to help, which I wholly regret and I apologize for having done. Women have a tough enough time having their voices heard and my insensitive comments only made matters worse. I am truly sorry.”

There’s some debate as to whether Greathouse’s apology was, in fact, sincere. But the whole episode certainly underscored the sexism that women are expected to endure. Many people will tell you that men and women live in two different versions of Silicon Valley (and, for that matter, the world). One’s a meritocracy. The other: Not so much. The bridge between the two, if there is to be one, surely begins with listening to one another.

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