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Should women in Silicon Valley lean in or get out?

For women in Silicon Valley, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.


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Posted on Mar 22, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 2:35 pm CDT


When you think of jobs so awful that you wouldn’t want anyone you love to do them, working at a startup in Silicon Valley probably doesn’t come to mind. Unless you’re PCMag‘s Sascha Segan, who claims, “Anyone who cares about other people should stay out of Silicon Valley, and tell their loved ones to stay out, too.”

Segan presents a number of reasons why working in Silicon Valley is not worth it, especially for women: the lack of empathy, the sexual harassment, and the extreme individualism, to name a few. His view is that women, or at least his daughter, should not work in Silicon Valley, where they will be mistreated and unappreciated. Instead, they should work in tech hubs in other cities, such as Boston, New York, or Austin. Segan claims that the environment there is demonstrably better for women and that the ruthlessly sexist culture he criticizes only really exists in Silicon Valley.

While I’ll grant that it may be worse there than other parts of the country, I doubt that women working for tech companies in other cities have it that much better. Segan implies that this sexist, hostile environment is created solely by a few assholes running the show in Silicon Valley, but in fact, sexism is embedded at every level of our society—in every type of media, in every industry, in every institution. Any industry where men have historically been the overwhelming majority is likely to be quite sexist because it’s an industry where women’s voices have probably not been heard as loudly and clearly as men’s.

Therefore, some would probably take it even farther than Segan and say that they don’t want their daughters working in tech at all. Or in STEM at all. How welcoming should an industry or a workplace be before a parent would want their daughter working there?

Arguably, you can’t change an industry simply by leaving it. You’d think that women fleeing Silicon Valley in droves would get the men running it to realize that they’re driving women away, but the Valley’s almost religious adherence to the theory of meritocracy will prevent that from happening. If women aren’t working for us, they’d think, that’s just because they’re not good enough—or strong enough. And that’s assuming anyone notices or cares about the lack of female representation to begin with. Therefore, women who want Silicon Valley to change should occupy it, not leave it.

But this view, too, often puts the onus on women to expose themselves to sexist microaggressions and harassment for the greater good. The idea that women (or, at least, feminists) “should” force their way into spaces like technology, business, and politics to “fix” the sexism within places the needs of others before the needs of those women, especially since any complaints they make about the sexism they encounter are likely to be met with, “Well, you knew what you were getting into.” Ironically, the expectation that women always put their individual needs last is a key component of sexism.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily the case that getting more women into a given space makes that space friendlier to women in general. As Segan points out, women who want to work in Silicon Valley are expected to demonstrate the same stereotypically masculine traits as men are—with, of course, the added double bind that feminine women are considered incompetent while masculine women are considered unlikeable. Neither incompetence or unlikeability is a huge help when it comes to getting a job.

Women who do manage to break into and succeed in Silicon Valley are likely to be women who gamely laugh at sexist jokes and brush off harassment in the office—and expect other women to do the same. As Ashe Dryden describes, women who speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace risk retaliation, such as firing. Success for a woman in Silicon Valley therefore seems to depend partially on keeping quiet about the mistreatment she encounters, and the easiest way to keep quiet about mistreatment is to not view it as mistreatment at all.

If telling women not to work in Silicon Valley won’t work and telling women to work in Silicon Valley won’t work, what will? First of all, not telling women what to do. Some women, perhaps even Segan’s daughter, might be willing to risk the hostility of Silicon Valley in order to try to make it better, or just because working for a Silicon Valley company is what they want to do with their lives. These women deserve mentorship and support that acknowledges the difficulties they will face without sugarcoating them or blaming them on the women themselves.

Others might choose to “lean out,” so to speak, and not pursue high-powered careers in Silicon Valley or similar environments. They might prioritize working in a welcoming environment over earning lots of money or making a name for themselves in the tech sector. These women deserve to have that choice validated rather than being shamed for not “leaning in” or trying to make things better for women. Not everyone wants or has to be an activist.

Besides that, it’s important to remember that sexism is a system, not just a handful of men who hate women. Sexism does not begin or end with the guys making Silicon Valley inhospitable to everyone but themselves. There are plenty of people working to change the tech sector, including the previously mentioned Dryden and these two women who started a venture capital firm that literally invests in diversity. But ultimately, there will continue to be sexist workplaces and industries as long as there are sexist societies.

Miri Mogilevsky is a social work student who loves feminism, politics, New York City, and asking people about their feelings. She has a B.A. in psychology but will not let that stop her from getting a job someday. She writes a blog called Brute Reason, tweets @sondosia, and rants on Tumblr. If you would like to be Miri’s best friend, send her cool psychology studies.

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*First Published: Mar 22, 2014, 10:00 am CDT