Why Silicon Valley Needs Feminism, Women Leaders More Than Ever

Writer Alyssa Oursler says, "There is a disconnect between the headline controversies and the on-the-ground attitude of folks in the tech industry -- and we need more vocal, passionate women leaders in tech to help bridge this gap."Silicon Valley is applauded for its disruption and innovation, but it remains light years behind when it comes to diversity. As Roxane Gay wrote in a 2013 essay, “The tech industry is consistently embroiled in one misogyny-related controversy or another.“Living and working in San Francisco, though, I often find there is a disconnect between the headline controversies and the on-the-ground attitude of folks in the tech industry — and we need  more vocal, passionate women leaders in tech to help bridge this gap.A friend of mine is a woman in leadership in tech; she just started a woman in tech group at her company. When Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, came to San Francisco for a reading in February, we attended her event together. At one point in the evening, the interviewer suggested many young women are reluctant to embrace the feminist label, and Strayed shot it down immediately.“Does anyone in the audience think that’s the case? Raise your hand,” she said, before adding: “Of course, no one probably wants to raise their hand now.“Indeed, I didn’t raise my hand, perhaps because no one else raised a hand. Sadly, or perhaps selfishly, it’s the part of the night I remember most.My woman in tech friend also does not describe herself as a feminist. She prefers the term humanist, as does another of my close friends who I would label differently. When they each first told me this, I didn’t argue. I nodded, was quiet, moved on.I want to believe, despite different labels and because of their leadership and independence, that we’re saying the same things. But I can’t shake their reluctance, and my own silence echoes.In her 2014 book Bad Feminist, Gay also acknowledges: “I’m not the only outspoken woman who shies away from the feminist label, who fears the consequences of accepting the label.“A few weeks later, I was at a group dinner with another woman in tech who attended Strayed’s event. I told her about a new event on my calendar and invited her to join. It was being put on by the Bay Area chapter of Women in Wireless and was called “The State of Women in Tech.“She said: “If the goal is equality, shouldn’t it be Men and Women in Wireless?” I understand this sentiment; women are so often lumped together and set aside, but it’s supposed to be applauded when we do it to ourselves? And yet.I mumbled something about seeing her point, then added something vague about the need for women to have a safe space. The group moves on to watching “Saturday Night Live” skits. We laugh at “This Is Not a Feminist Song,” then talk about cats instead.I replay these conversations in my head. I have trouble isolating them. To call these missed opportunities doesn’t seem accurate. To call myself a feminist doesn’t seem accurate either. It feels — I feel — like a failure.At the annual Game Developer’s Conference a week later, Microsoft hosted a “Women in Gaming” luncheon. And yet. A few hours later, it hosted a party featuring female dancers in skimpy schoolgirl outfits. Related: The company’s diversity report shows a workforce that is just 27 percent female.Earlier this year, a survey called “The Elephant in the Valley“ was released. It tallied the responses of over 200 women leaders in the tech industry, with over 90 percent based in the Bay Area. All have at least 10 years of experience. Twenty five percent are CEOs, over 10 percent are founders. And yet.In the survey, 66 percent of respondents said they’ve felt excluded from social networking because of gender. Eighty-four percent have been told they were too aggressive. Another 66 percent report unwanted sexual advances. The report also shows 60 percent who report it are unhappy with the course of action. And 39 percent of those harassed do nothing because they thought it would negatively impact their career.Sarah Nahm is a great example of the kind of women leaders in tech we need. An alum of Stanford University and Google, Nahm is now the founder and CEO of Lever, a company working to re-imagine the hiring process. In an interview, she told me: “If you only know people who are just like you, you will only hire people who are just like you.“She added that diversity — another catchall term these days — is so much more than a pipeline problem. “We also need to think about the post-hire: What is it actually like to be at the company? This really collides with the conversation around culture that Silicon Valley has been having for decades now.“Related: Lever’s diversity report shows a workforce that is 42 percent female.Better. And yet.I wonder: What are we saying when we say we aren’t feminists? And what am I saying when I don’t say anything? The word complicit comes to mind. Complacent. Symbolic. Systemic.I wonder: Are we saying is this is good enough?[bctt tweet=“Silicon Valley needs feminism. It needs more women leaders in tech.”] And it arguably needs them more than ever. While stats and stories can speak volumes, we need to do the same.