Valley of the Dolls

By Debora Spar

The news from Silicon Valley these days is mixed. From low-slung buildings and gleaming new campuses, firms that didn’t even exist five years—or six months—ago are leading a global revolution in both product and process technologies, turning far-flung ideas into daily routines with a dazzling, disrupting speed. Cars that come at the flash of an app. Hotels that spring from your extra bedroom. Dolls that interact with their owners and watches that know their wearers’ location and weight and video preferences. Despite the oft-voiced fears of American obsolescence or Asian efficiency, it is U.S. firms that are leading this charge, and U.S. entrepreneurs who are conceiving, funding, and mostly administering this empire of the new. In 2014 alone, 37 U.S. technology firms went public, raising nearly $8 billion in capital. And thousands of newly minted college graduates headed west, hoping to found, or at least join, whatever the Valley would next turn out as the new new thing. 

There are also, though, no women. Or at least, so few that the most prominent among them are known by their first names (think “Sheryl” or “Marissa”) and subjected to nearly infinite scrutiny. In March of this year, a California court dismissed Ellen Pao’s gender-discrimination suit against the venerable venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins. But in days of testimony followed eagerly by the media, the case revealed a disturbing landscape of embedded gender issues; the thousand nicks of nuance and tone and practice that, in the aggregate, may explain the lack of female leaders in the technology sector. Only six percent of venture-capital partners are women (down from 10 percent in 1999), and two of the sector’s most storied firms, Facebook and Twitter, have gender- discrimination suits pending against them. 

To be sure, this is a situation ripe for exaggeration and generalization. Not all tech firms, I admit, offer either foosball or free Red Bull. Not all of them disdain suits, or discriminate against women. Indeed, several Barnard graduates count among the Silicon Valley elite, and several of our most impressive students have recently joined the ranks at Google and Facebook and Yahoo. In the wake of the Pao decision, technology firms have engaged in a torrent (or at least a moment) of soul searching, and even Pao herself has settled into a high-ranking position as interim CEO of Reddit, a leading news and social media site.  

The trouble, though—and it is troubling indeed—is that the culture of Silicon Valley, like the culture of Wall Street before it, seems propelled largely by the management styles and practices of men. Young men, in particular, who are often driven by big ideas, early successes, and nearly unfathomable sums of money. Young men who are racing at the pace that revolutions demand, and prone, like most of us, to cluster around those who resemble them. As a result, the culture of Silicon Valley still carries more than a whiff of the dorm rooms and garages from which it was hatched. And the dearth of women in early-stage firms carries inevitably into the higher echelons of power. Apple, for instance, has been in operation since 1976, yet still has a workforce that is only 30 percent female, a number that trickles into the single digits in its upper ranks. Amazon has been selling books and consumer items since 1994, but still counts only 18 women among its 120 most senior managers.

Barnard, of course, is a continent away from these concerns. But the issues of Silicon Valley and the case of Ellen Pao are crucial for us to ponder and address. Because if we want our students to thrive in the world they will inherit, and to shape that world for the better, then we must ensure they have the access and skills they will need. This means building the College’s links to Silicon Valley and the wider technology sector, and strengthening our offerings in some of its basic languages: programming, computer science, data science, and design. Thanks to the great work of some of our current students and faculty, we are already starting to see significant progress. In the past five years, the number of Barnard students enrolled in computer science classes has tripled, and upper-level students are enthusiastically recruiting and collaborating with their younger classmates. Our faculty have formed interdisciplinary teaching partnerships to launch innovative courses such as Coding in the Sciences and Programming Behavioral Sciences. And early this year, we were delighted to receive funds for a fully endowed professorship in applied math and computer science, a position that will enable us to appoint an academic leader to teach these crucial topics in the specific setting of a single-sex liberal arts college.

Over the next few decades, Silicon Valley is almost certain to remain a powerful generator of global change, shaping not only how technologies are imagined and fabricated, but also how society itself is structured and interconnected. We simply cannot afford to cut women out of this revolution, or to consign them to peripheral posts. Colleges like Barnard must do their part to educate the women who can shape the change to come. And the evolving firms of Silicon Valley must find a way to let them in.