Sexism still alive and well in Silicon Valley (and on Newsweek cover)

by Rachel Sklar /  / Updated 

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Newsweek's latest cover story is making waves on an all-too-familiar subject -- sexism in Silicon Valley. Journalist Nina Burleigh surveys the tech landscape and notes that -- shocker -- women are still getting funded at drastically lower rates than men; that women remain scarce in venture capital partnerships; that Silicon Valley suffers from a persistent "bro" culture that is exemplified by frat-like workplacessexual harassment lawsuits and unfortunate presentations at tech conferences; and that women in tech are routinely propositioned, leered at or otherwise inappropriately approached during the regular course of business.  

And to underscore that point, the cover leers at women, too, featuring a hapless woman with a giant cursor lifting and peeking under her skirt.  

The upshot: Silicon Valley doesn't think much of its women -- when it thinks of them at all.  

For those of us who have been beating this drum for years, this isn't news -- just more confirmation of a culture that's changing too slowly and leaving way too much money on the table. Pattern recognition. All-male boardsExcruciating diversity numbers. We've heard it all before, and then some. Even so, a Newsweek cover story like this is a big deal, one more data point to add to the almost comically huge collection of data points that prove pretty conclusively that yes, there is a problem.  

At least we're talking about it. Back in mid-2010, I founded Change The Ratio, an organization geared toward increasing visibility, access and opportunity for women in tech and new media (and other industries, and other under-represented groups. It's a big tent!). The pushback was immediate and defensive, on the one hand proclaiming Silicon Valley a pure meritocracy and on the other bemoaning the lack of fundable, hireable, promotable women. Blame the pipeline -- or blame women, who just weren't merit-y enough. But don't blame Silicon Valley! Heaven forbid. 

It was a frustrating time to be beating that drum. Investors would claim that they were itching to fund women -- where were they? -- but then again and again I'd hear stories of meetings that went nowhere or worse, meetings that went nowhere until, wouldn't you know, a male competitor was funded. Reams and reams of lists were published -- 30 Under 30! 25 Startups to Watch! 95 Future Mark Zuckerbergs! -- and remained mostly serene, milky-white oases of hoodie-wearing dudes.  

Mercifully, the conversation around women in tech has shifted from the clueless "Where are the women?" to the more self-aware "Why is it so bad for women?" Alas, it's still far from where it needs to be, namely "What can be done about the multitude of complex factors leading to these dismal numbers for women?"  

And that is where I quibble with Newsweek most. As glad as I am to see a cover story surface all these issues, it remains hella frustrating to see the cover reduce it to one thing: sex. Which is part of the problem but by no means all of it, or even most of it -- while stories of inappropriate behavior are distressinglycommon, women aren't getting as little as 2.7% of venture funding (or, in a more generous estimate,  4-9%) because they're being pawed at every pitch meeting. It's because the norms of Silicon Valley default to men.  

I get it -- a cover is supposed to stir up buzz

"I think it's brilliant and does successfully what a cover is supposed to do," Lea Goldman, features and special project editor for Marie Claire magazine, told me. "I needed to read this article after seeing it."

Still, it reduces women to sexual objects (and sexual objects tiresomely in a short skirt and heels, which are also weirdly eyeless). That's a cover that says, sure, let's talk about the complex problem of sexism but first, let's check out her bod.

I'm not making light of the fact that it's an issue in the experience of women working in tech -- it is -- I'm just saying it's not the only issue. Here's a depressingly telling headline: "Venture Investors Prefer Funding Handsome Men." It's from a 2014 study indicating that investors prefer pitches when they come from male entrepreneurs, even when the pitches are identical. Clearly, there's a lot more going on here.

And it's leaving money on the table -- for everyone. The data shows that women VCs invest in more women. The data similarly shows that companies with female execs perform better. Never mind that diversity means making better products and finding untapped markets. As one woman on a tech listserv wrote, "I really believe that many VCs hate making money. Because why else would they overlook ideas that originate from anyone but young white men?" For an industry so focused on innovation, it does seem nuts that investors still seem to assume that the best ideas come from the people who look most like, well, them.  

And yes, things are changing -- Andreessen Horowitz just led a $5.1 million round for Christina Mercando's Ringly. Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee is up for TechCrunch's VC of the Year. (Not all VCs!) Women are creating, making, innovating and hustling all the time -- yes, there are challenges but there are also opportunities, and they're taking them. But -- I coined "Change The Ratio" for a reason -- and that reason was, getting better or not, the ratio still sucks. The ratio for women getting funded sucks. The ratio of women in VC sucks. The ratio of women in exec-level positions at big tech companies sucks. The ratio of women on corporate boards sucks. The ratio of women suing companies for sexual harassment sucks. 

It's in everyone's interest to make those ratios suck less.

"Women challenge the status quo because we are never it," says Make Love Not Porn founder Cindy Gallop. She also says, "There is a lot of money to be made by taking women seriously."

Let's hope the tech industry is paying attention. If it is, there's nowhere to go but up. 

Rachel Sklar is a writer and entrepreneur based in New York. She is the co-founder of Change The Ratio and TheLi.st, a professional network for women, and is an advisor to several startups. Find her on Twitter at @rachelsklar

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