Silicon Valley wants to be a meritocracy. Here’s why it’s not.

If you're a great engineer, you can get ahead in Silicon Valley — to a certain extent.

MARGARET O'MARA: The Valley culture, the business culture -- you know, the Valley, we think of it as a very present tense, future tense place. But I see the business culture as the product of 70 years of a way of running companies and learning about how to run companies. And if you go back to 70 years, 60, 50 years ago, the worlds of engineering and of finance and business management were almost entirely male, right? Very, very few women. Women were not in many cases allowed to major in some of these STEM disciplines. Like, department chairs would use their prerogative and say no, you can't take this class. And so out of this entirely male world comes a culture that gains its strength in part because you have like-minded people who are both working together and socializing together. The semiconductor industry, which was really the first big home-grown industry in the Valley, was famously incredibly competitive. You had to have a really thick skin to kind of get ahead, there. There was unvarnished criticism. There was an expectation you would work incredibly long hours. Part of what made these companies work was the fact that these men had wives at home, who were taking care of everything else so that they could just focus entirely on work. So those women are really important to the Valley, but they're not in these companies. And it became a really difficult and challenging place for the few women who were there, the few technical women. One of the people I write about in the book is a woman named Ann Hardy, who was a programmer who starts at IBM in the 50s, works her way up to management. Constantly frustrated by the sexism she encounters. At one point, she's managing this whole team -- all-male team -- and she discovers that every single man on her team that she supervises is making more than her. And then IBM gives her a raise. And some of them are still making more than her. So then she quits. She ends up working at a time-sharing company in Palo Alto, and builds the operating system for really -- she's the central technical person for this whole operation, building the operating system for the computer that's at the hub of this time-sharing network. It's so critical, that afterwards, the CEO of her company, who is, I think, a pretty good boss. But he does confess to her later that if I had known that this operating system was going to be so central to our business, I never would have hired a woman to do it. It just was -- it was unimaginable. So you have this world, this Mad Men world, right? Of the 60s. And this is the world that so many people who came up in this industry, they go on to become the venture capitalists, the founding partners, of these iconic venture capital firms that are picking the winners of the next generation. And again, there was this really fierce belief that this was a meritocracy. And in many ways, it was. Early Silicon Valley didn't really care who your daddy was. Didn't care if you came from money or didn't. There was all these incredible stories of people from really modest backgrounds, from the middle of the country. A lot of guys from Texas and the Midwest, end up in the Valley, because they don't have connections. They don't have ways -- other options to get in some managerial job at a Fortune 50 company. They're just smart engineers. And so there was this assumption that, OK, if you're a good engineer, then that's all we want. And you still hear that, today. People like, you know, if you're a woman, or you're a person of color, and you're a really good engineer, like, you're going to get ahead. And that is kind of denying this culture that has really been exclusionary. This culture that still is very, very hard-charging, super competitive, super growth-focused. One that is very -- is a full-immersion bath of you're expected to be on all the time. You know, working at a place like Google is amazing. You get all these perks. You get dry cleaning. You get free food. But it's all a way to keep you never leaving the office, right? You're always there. You're wedded to the company. And look, Google's -- I mentioned Google, but there are many other companies. This is kind of the standard for Silicon Valley. And those perks are part of why people so want to live there, wanna work there. But to recognize how incompatible the expectations are with people who are caregivers for others, regardless of their gender. How incompatible the idea of being a founder or being a startup founder, you know. Living on ramen noodles, doing what you can, bootstrapping your startup. If you're an immigrant, who is sending money home to Mexico every month? If you are a caregiver, a parent, someone who has other people depending on you? The idea that you're going to be a -- or much less, even if you're just a person who just doesn't have a family with money that can help subsidize you living in San Francisco while you're not making any salary and waiting for your stock options to hit. You can't be part of that. So this is the lesson that I think transcends tech, is thinking about recognizing where the blind spots are. Recognizing that, sorry to say, there's no true meritocracy. There do need to be efforts to think about who else needs to be in the room. And it's not just a matter of fairness and inclusion. It's a matter of building better tech. That's part of the Valley's -- what the Valley is struggling with, now. You have these amazing platforms and products that have been dreamed up by this demographically narrow group of people in northern California and Seattle. And they may be -- they're fantastic people. I know so many great people who work in tech. They mean well. But we all have our blinders. We all have our biases. We all have our narrow -- essentially, you know, we come from a certain place and time. And we assume things that may not work in other places. That may be culturally tone deaf. That may be politically disruptive. So if you bring other people into the process of creation and innovation, whether you're building software or whether you're building anything -- any product of any kind. Any business. You're going to build a better product that will have a bigger market, because it will be more informed by what the user needs, and wants, and must have. And what the unintended consequences of that creation might be. You have someone in the room saying, hey, guys, maybe we shouldn't do this. Maybe we shouldn't call it this. They're just -- and that shouldn't be the responsibility of people who are a racial minority to make those calls. But if you have a more inclusive place where those voices -- it's just par for the course that these questions are being asked, it becomes easier. And it doesn't have to preclude being super-successful, and hitting big, and making money, and all those things. Those things can coexist.

  • Silicon Valley prides itself on rewarding good engineers, regardless of gender or race. But that may not actually reflect reality.
  • The Valley started out as a Mad Men-esque place, where women in particular were excluded. That culture still persists in the form of venture capitalists funding many of today's startups.
  • Furthermore, many in Silicon Valley fail to acknowledge how becoming a startup founder is often restricted to certain groups of people and how more diversity can ultimately result in a better product or service.

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