A sexist Silicon Valley will lead to a sexist future for us all. This must change.

By Adam Tinworth

23/07/2017 | The last few weeks have not been edifying ones in the world of tech. Silicon Valley is still at the heart of the tech industry, however much other countries and cities - like New York, London and Berlin - have made inroads. And it is evident that there is something rotten in that culture that spread far beyond just Uber and its problems.

Perhaps emboldened by the evidence that something can happen if women speak out, provided so viscerally by Uber, several women spoke to the New York Times, giving their experiences of harassment and prejudice in the valley:

One female entrepreneur recounted how she had been propositioned by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist while seeking a job with him, which she did not land after rebuffing him. Another showed the increasingly suggestive messages she had received from a start-up investor. And one chief executive described how she had faced numerous sexist comments from an investor while raising money for her online community website.

What happened afterward was often just as disturbing, the women told The New York Times. Many times, the investors’ firms and colleagues ignored or played down what had happened when the situations were brought to their attention. Saying anything, the women were warned, might lead to ostracism.

In the two weeks since that article was published, apologies and mea culpas have been published — and heads have started rolling.

Guilt amongst the VCs

Chris Sacca apologies in a lengthy (and later revised) post:

Particularly when reflecting upon my early years in Silicon Valley, there is no doubt I said and did things that made some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged. In social settings, under the guise of joking, being collegial, flirting, or having a good time, I undoubtedly caused some women to question themselves, retreat, feel alone, and worry they can’t be their authentic selves. By stupidly perpetuating a culture rife with busting chops, teasing, and peer pressure to go out drinking, I made some women feel self-conscious, anxious, and fear they might not be taken seriously.

Dave McClure first apologised, and then resigned as general partner of 500 Startups:

Dave McClure has resigned as general partner of 500 Startups, TechCrunch has learned. We have confirmed co-founder Christine Tsai asked for his resignation and he accepted, according to a letter sent to limited partners today.

We reached out to 500 Startups for comment and they also confirmed the resignation. McClure had already stepped down as CEO.

A few token men of power falling on their swords probably isn’t enough, though. There is a cultural problem that is far more serious in its scope and nature than it might appear. This is the culture in which out most important digital tools are being incubated, developed and built.  And, if we’re not very careful, we’ll end up hard coding the ingrained sexist attitudes of some of these players into the new digital world we build.

How photography got racist

If you think that sounds far-fetched, it’s worth considering that photographic film was racist.

And if that sounds like an artefact of the distant past, remember that Google Photos’ machine learning was making some racially questionable decisions, too:

On June 28th, computer programmer Jacky Alciné found that the feature kept tagging pictures of him and his girlfriend as "gorillas." He tweeted at Google asking what kind of sample images the company had used that would allow such a terrible mistake to happen.

That’s only just over two years ago.

Considered in that light, the fact that a male-centric, sexist and often anti-social culture lies at the hart of Silicon Valley is something we should all be concerned about. As we hand over so much power to these digital systems, are we considering the people — and the associated politics — that go into writing these algorithms? Are we thinking about the kinds of people that are priming the machine learning systems that are driving forwards digital progress?

The opinionated, politicised algorithm

Digital tools are not neutral. They are opinionated, shaped by the people who code them and the data that is provided to them. They do not spring full-formed from the aether, devoid of bias or agenda.

We can’t put them away. We can’t abandon digital tools and slink back to an analogue world, defeated. But what we can do — and perhaps must do is take more notice of the sorts of people that are creating the tools we choose, and then voting with one of the most powerful tools we possess in both digital and analogue forms: our wallets and purses.

And, in an attention age, with our time as well.

1 Comment

| Kirsten

We might be living in a digital world - but evidently some men function and behave just as some men always did. Silicon Valley and digitals might look down at "old school businesses" - but are in fact using just the same old mechanisms to boost self-esteem and remain in power. They are talking about a bright future while behaving like in the dark ages. Good this is being exposed now.