Closing the Silicon Valley Gender Gap, with Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek Wadhwa boasts quite the résumé. He is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and a distinguished fellow at Singularity University. Wadhwa is also the author of a new book about Silicon Valley's glaring gender gap, Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology.

When Vivek Wadhwa moved to Silicon Valley about four years ago, he did so under the pretense that he was entering into an perfect meritocratic system. He had marveled at the successes achieved by foreign-born entrepreneurs; 52% of the region's companies were founded by people born abroad, 15% by those of Indian origin. Certainly Silicon Valley had found a way to tear down the artificial obstacles that blocked certain demographics from achieving success.

And then it dawned upon him...

My wife and I happened to go to a TechCrunch event called the Crunchies and it was a great event, the Oscars of the tech industry. And in the middle of it, my wife says "Vivek, do you notice something strange?" I said "yeah, we're sitting next to Mark Zuckerberg. Isn't that cool?" She said "no, look around. What don't you see here?" I mean she was getting frustrated with me. And I didn't notice anything strange. And then she said "where are the women?" And there was like a light went off in my head saying what is going on here?

Wadhwa describes his realization as a Twilight Zone type moment. The truth that had been hidden in plain sight immediately became apparent. He looked at the staff and boards of major tech companies and found very few women. At that, women often occupied only marketing or HR positions. He found that Apple had a wholly male management team. Of the 89 Silicon Valley venture capitalists ranked by in 2009, only one was a woman.

This inspired Wadhwa in 2010 to author a blog post for TechCruch titled "Silicon Valley You and Your Venture Capitalist Have a Gender Problem." The post's response shocked and appalled him:

"I was stunned at the negative reaction to it. I was stunned at the volley of criticism on social media, the angry comments posted online. I was stunned at the emails I was getting, even from my friends. You’ve got to realize that I know the who's who of Silicon Valley and some of these are moguls over there. They advised me to stay off this topic. They advised me "look Vivek, you're new to Silicon Valley. If you want to make it here this is not the way. If you're trying to get laid we can help you." Those are the type of comments I was getting back. And I was actually shocked."

The sort of response Wadhwa got should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the recent coverage of #gamergate. The two are pretty much one in the same. The tech industry, like any other boys' club, hates to be alerted to the plainly obvious truths regarding entry barriers faced by women. Instead of being treated like keen social observers, people like Wadhwa who raise their voice are accused of pushing alien agendas that run afoul of institutional customs. But such a response only fueled Wadhwa's passion: 

"My wife Tavinder said 'Vivek, look at what you're going through. Imagine what women go through every day of their lives.' And that is really what put me on this crusade to try to fix this gender gap and to be vocal about it."

In Innovating Women, Wadhwa details the difficulties faced by women who seek to enter the tech industry. For them to succeed, they must swim upstream against culturally-imposed gender roles. They must persevere while studying subjects that, due to those cultural barriers, are dominated by male students. Finally, once they can manage to reach the workplace, they find themselves looked down upon and treated differently, this in spite of possessing skills and qualifications equal to or greater than their male counterparts.

"And it's even worse than that. I tell you, the type of stories I've heard really disturb me. Women being raped, groped, I mean just I don't want to repeat it, it's just sort of horrible the stories I've heard from women, heart wrenching stories of how women have been treated by men. This is just outrageous. It is not acceptable. I mean this is a civilized society we live in. How dare we treat the better half of our population like this."

Luckily, the social justice climate in Silicon Valley has begun to shift since Wadhwa published his blog post in 2010. The tech industry is much more self-conscious now about its diversity issues and have begun to make strides toward fixing them. And while the sentiment is nice, Wadhwa and his book remind us that we don't strive for diversity simply to fulfill quotas. We strive for diversity because it makes for better business:

"All of the research that's been done says that companies founded by women have higher success rates; they spend less money, they produce better results. It's really that simple that financial management is better and they tend to do more sensible things than these brain-dead companies built by my brat friends in Silicon Valley."

For more on why Silicon Valley must strive to include more women, watch this clip from Vivek Wadhwa's Big Think interview:

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