The NY Times article on the bro culture of Silicon Valley, celebrating the male engineers who “own the code,” should look below the surface of the people the article tries to portray. Underneath that testosterone-charged surface, much more is happening.
I’ve been a woman in a man’s world for over 50 years. When I went to Bronx High School of Science, it was dominated by men. Cornell University had three times as many men as women, and so on and. Everywhere I went I was one of very few women. Still am.
The advertising industry, where I started in the Mad Men era, was composed of men and their secretaries, just like the series says. The men started as account executives in training, while the women started as typists. (I’m still a very fast typist.)
The menial jobs open to highly educated women were the reasons I kept leaving the workforce and going back to school. When I finally had a PhD, and could become a professor, I could shut the door of my classroom and ignore my gender. The students were not thrown off my a woman professor: I had the power.
Until I got pregnant and the Mormon dean tried to suggest that I quit as soon as I began to “show.” I politely told him there was no chance of that, and continued to each even as I went into labor, frightening the hell out of my three male officemates. I brought my baby to class in a backpack, and nursed openly. I did not quit. It was the 70′s, and the women’s movement was going to win, I thought. I wanted to be there.
In 1980 I left academe, bored by politics and curriculum committees, to start my first company.
So I am stunned to read all these articles about the experience of women in tech, the field I’ve worked in for the past 25 years. Oh yes, I’ve worked on the soft side of it — marketing, not code. All of my businesses were either PR or marketing, or, as now, now entrepreneurship coaching. But to do any of those well, I argue, you have to know more than the “owners of the code” do; you have to know how to make users care about the code. You have to teach them to use it, and you have to be able to help the guys who own the code stay in business. There are plenty of women in SIlicon Valley who do that really well. The obvious ones are Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, but there are also Clara Shih, Victoria Ransom, Randi Zuckerberg, Esther Dyson, Barbara Bates, Ellen Leanse, Rashmi Sinha — I could go on. They’re in the tech industry, they make valuable contributions, and they don’t spend time thinking about discrimination. And those are just my friends.
The “owners of the code” come to them for business acumen beyond the limits of the code. Like me, they are the owners of the customer, which makes them the owners of the business model. Without the business model, where would the owners of the code be?
Businesses are made up of more than tech engineers, who often sit in darkened rooms with headphones on and don’t even speak to each other in person. They are made up of people with highly orthogonal skill sets: marketing, finance, legal, and product development. The startup tech industry tends to glorify product development to the detriment of building businesses, but the two go hand in hand. And there’s a major place for the soft skills of women.
Very often, founders I advise or invest in are shown the exit door from their own companies by investors. Who do they come to first? Me. I know how to advise them to negotiate, or move on, or bear the shame that mistakenly accompanies this all too common consequence of outside funding. I actually have the skills to help them understand why something is happening to them, and how to see it in a larger perspective.
Let me tell you something. When I was young and attractive, and men I worked with teased me and harassed me, I always knew it was my choice what to do: I could ignore it, or I could capitalize on their interest and have myself some fun. Depending on how I felt about the individual involved, I did one or the other. But I was the boss lady. I owned the company, and even if the harasser was a client, I still knew I was the boss.
Through my entire career, iv’e gone from everyone’s daughter to everyone’s lover to everyone’s mother, and now everyone’s grandma, and I’ve always carried within me the certainty that men can’t do it without me.
I have a deep respect for men, and an even deeper empathy with what they’re facing. Instead of widening the divide between men and women in the tech industry, how about we try to see into each other’s hearts to where those “bro” tweets and Titstare apps actually come from? Chances are, they come from a deep fear — fear of failure — rooted so deeply in male sexuality that we’re not going to dislodge it with workplace HR policies. The man, after all, has to kill the animal. The man has to get it up. These geeks are just guys who fear they’re not going to be able to do that, and who are growling to scare off a predator they feel they can’t kill.
Give them a break, ladies. We got this.