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Joan Williams

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The "Uppity Women" of Silicon Valley

Posted: 06/05/2012 3:45 pm

co-written with Rachel Dempsey

Silicon Valley was hit hard last week when venture capitalist Ellen Pao's lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins was made public. Among other things, Pao alleged that she had been sexually harassed by more than one male co-worker, and retaliated against when she complained. She also claimed that women at the firm were discriminated against "by failing to promote them comparably to men, by compensating them less than men through lower salary, bonus and carried interest, by restricting the number of investments that women are allowed to make as compared to men."

Without pretending any knowledge about the validity of Pao's individual claims, let's just put aside the false surprise and outrage at the discovery that there's sexism in Silicon Valley. The tech industry is stunningly gender biased. Just read the first paragraph of this article in the New York Times, and then the response of journalist Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing. "Men are credited with inventing the internet," she writes. Important distinction there.

If you need other examples of sexism in the world of the internet, look no further than -- well -- the internet. Take this tweet praising the booth girls' butts at an industry fair, sent on Monday by tech company ASUS. Take the fact that booth babes are a staple of such fairs. Take this Twitter war over astartup ad depicting a woman dancing around in her underwear. Take this advertisement for a coding marathon that advertises the "friendly" women who will serve you beer. Take it all -- far away, please.

So when journalist David Kaplan is quoted in the Times piece saying he's skeptical of Pao's allegations, I'm the one who's skeptical: "The clichés you hear in the valley are about the pranks, the obsessiveness, the Foosball tables. You don't really hear about randiness and mistreatment of women," Kaplan says.

If you're not hearing about the mistreatment of women, it's because you're not listening very hard. But more importantly, sexual harassment is not randiness. Sure, Pao's harassers might have thought she was cute. They might have wanted to get laid. But people think co-workers are cute and want to get laid in literally every profession ever. What Pao (and according to the complaint, other women at Kleiner Perkins) faced was the result of gender discrimination, and it's not going to change until there are more women in Silicon Valley.

In an article titled "The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women," professor Jennifer Berdahl notes that women in male-dominated workplaces are harassed more than women in female-dominated or equal workplaces. What's more, she finds that masculine women are more likely to get harassed than feminine women:

The current research suggests that sexual harassment as traditionally defined for women -- as consisting of sexual and sexist comments, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion -- is primarily targeted at women who step out of place by having masculine characteristics, or 'uppity' women.

In a place as male-dominated as the tech world, women step out of place simply by holding their own alongside men. Kleiner Perkins actually had a reputation as being one of the best places for women in Silicon Valley: a quarter of their partners are women, which puts them far and away above most venture capital firms. One well-known study found that once women tipped over into more than 25% of an applicant pool, bias against them decreased.

But mere representation isn't a guarantee -- particularly when the surrounding environment is so hostile to women. The sexualization of women in tech is often laughed off as an outlet for sexually frustrated (straight, male) geeks. But it's not an outlet for sexuality. It's an expression of sex discrimination. And regardless of whether Ellen Pao has a case, one thing is certain -- Silicon Valley has a problem.

 
 
 

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