Sexism and Silicon Valley

Wojcicki: ‘I’m concerned that women aren’t a part of [the tech industry] as much as they could or should be.’ Credit: Getty Images
Wojcicki: ‘I’m concerned that women aren’t a part of [the tech industry] as much as they could or should be.’ Credit: Getty Images

YouTube's new chief executive, Susan Wojcicki, on why women are so under-represented in the technology industry.

The YouTube headquarters, a short drive from San Francisco International Airport, looks just as you’d think it might. A glossy, cavernous lobby houses a young male receptionist dressed in cutting-edge rock-climbing apparel.

Three massive, Jumbotron-style TV sets loom over him, one of which is showing an endless stream of cat videos, lending the place an oddly kitsch Big Brother feel.

Young men wander through, in flip-flops and fleeces, clutching MacBook Airs. Upstairs, there’s a vast open-plan office, and you start to sense the energy that hums behind the world’s largest online-video business.

YouTube’s chief executive, Susan Wojcicki, has only been in the job for a few weeks. The 45-year-old is part of the Google dynasty: she was the search giant’s 16th employee and the first woman to be offered a job there.

But Wojcicki is not giving interviews about her new role. She’s making an exception for a topic that’s burning up more oxygen in the furnace of innovation that is Silicon Valley: the tech industry’s problem with women.

She says she was fiercely driven and somewhat blinkered when younger. Wojcicki made her name overseeing the advertising business that accounts for virtually all of Google’s profits. She’s widely acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in the industry; Forbes says she’s the 30th most powerful woman on the planet.

She’s also a mother of four. (Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, says she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible".) She owns a one-acre plot in Los Altos, California, where she and her husband, the Google executive Dennis Troper, grow their own vegetables and make honey.

A model life, then. But, in recent years, Wojcicki has come to the conclusion that the scarcity of females in Silicon Valley is a problem. She had grown accustomed to being the "only woman in the meeting. You get used to it."

High-achievers such as Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s chief operating officer) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo’s chief executive) make headlines but are exceptions. Silicon Valley markets itself as a meritocracy, but the data says this verdant nook of California remains a man’s world. Only six of the top 100 technology companies in the US are led by women.

Wojcicki is no longer accepting of the boys’ club. "I’m concerned that women aren’t a part of [the tech industry] as much as they could or should be. Our products are missing points of view," she says. "We’ll miss out on the opportunity for women to shape the world around us."

Our products are missing points of view. We'll miss out on opportunities for women to shape the world

At Google, fewer than one-fifth of the engineers are female – a proportion typical of the industry. Even for the men, this isn’t good news. In San Francisco, single male techies so outnumber professional women that a dating website has looked to importing women from New York.

Sexism has botched products: early voice-recognition software didn’t understand female voices. The engineers were virtually all male; they forgot to include women in their tests.

Last year, Sandberg recalled a male tech boss saying he would like to hire more young women but there was a shortage of skilled candidates – a common complaint. Another said he, too, would hire more young women, but his wife feared he would sleep with them. Then he confessed he probably would.

In 2010, 3 per cent of venture-backed tech start-ups were all-female; 89 per cent were all-male.

And trends appear to be worsening. The share of programming jobs being done by women in the US has fallen since the dot-com boom of the late 90s, and females now account for a smaller proportion of computer-science graduates than in the days of the first mass-market PCs.

When Hillary Clinton visited Silicon Valley last month, she cast the conundrum facing women in the same terms: "You lean in because people say ‘lean in’ but, if you lean in too much, other people say: ‘Back off.’"

Females leave the tech industry at twice the rate of men, with a lack of promotions, long hours and a dislike of the culture among the most commonly cited reasons.

Wojcicki sees a supply-side problem. The challenge, she believes, is to increase the number of women qualified to work in Silicon Valley.

She calls for computer science to be mandatory for girls in schools. This would shatter preconceptions and create self-reinforcing peer groups. Role models are crucial too.

For such a progressive place, it has been far too long in the making, but change appears to be coming to Silicon Valley.

Rhys Blakely/The Times/The Interview People

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