Sexual harassment lawsuits and executive women leaving the industry:  this year, sexism in Silicon Valley has made the front-page news. In June, a former executive and co-founder of the popular dating-app Tinder filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company. Whitney Wolfe was allegedly stripped of her co-founder title because she was just a “girl” that would “make the company look like a joke”. Earlier this year, former engineer at the programming network GitHub, Julie Ann Horvath, left the company with public accusations of a sexist internal culture. In August an anonymous female founder offered Forbes Magazine a compelling account of the routine harassment she faces raising money for her start-up.

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.

— Dorothy Gale

A systematic problem

Whoever thinks these individual cases have received disproportionate attention from the media should watch the trailer to HBO’s Silicon Valley and count the number of women who made it to the show’s three minute clip (hint: just one, and she’s a stripper, not a hacker). HBO plays the Valley’s stereotypes with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Yet, critics were surprised to find that the show is only a little more male-dominated than reality. Recently published diversity reports by Google, Apple, and Facebook confirm this disparity: merely thirty percent of the companies’ global workforce is female. For technical positions, this number drops to twenty percent at Google and fifteen percent at Facebook.

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A lower number of female graduates in science and technology is not sufficient to explain this difference. According to a 2008 study by the Harvard Business Review, 52 percent of all women in the tech industry leave the industry mid-career—double the rate of their male colleagues. Surprisingly, women do not give “family” as their main motivation but instead “hostility in the workplace culture”.

The problem begins at the company’s earliest stages. Less than five percent of all start-ups that receive venture capital have even one woman on their board (see a study by the Diana Project). According to an MIT study from 2013, men have a 40 percent higher chance of receiving venture funding than women, even when identical pitches are given.

Lean-in feminism

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.

— Dorothy Gale

As its lack of diversity has become too apparent to ignore, Silicon Valley has nurtured a new breed of feminism in response. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and mother of two, is its most vocal representative and icon. Her advice is to lean-in and overcome internal barriers to success. In her 2013 book, Lean-in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the most vivid examples of female self-sabotage are inspired by her own experience as a manager at Google. While her male colleagues regularly approached her to demand more money and ever-more-challenging tasks, many women had to be pushed to pursue their own advances. Only half of Sandberg’s female cohort from Harvard Business School are still full-time members of the workforce. Regardless of their desires and aspirations, she tells her fellow women   to let their obstacles be external, lean in, and not hold back.

This new feminism has become so mainstream that the underwear line “Dear Kate” hired female tech-CEOs to pose in underwear next to images of code and lean-in career advice.

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The underlying message seems to be: you can also emancipate yourself, if you work hard and lean-in. The unspoken assumption is that this will magically improve the lives of all women. Recently, Apple and Facebook began offering female employees the option of freezing their eggs as part of their benefit package. This development has been celebrated as the latest triumph of lean-in feminism. Forbes magazine reported that the program helps “women employees lean all the way in”. In their official press release, Apple declared they want to “empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families”. In this vision, literally putting family and child bearing on ice becomes an act of empowerment.

The new normal

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.

— Dorothy Gale

Egg freezing as a corporate perk marks a wider societal change that affects both sexes. In her book, Sheryl Sandberg notes the concern of her mother: “There’s too much pressure on you and your peers. It’s not compatible with a normal life.” Sandberg’s response is indicative of this change: “The new normal means that there are just not enough hours in the day.” Likewise, a Business Week feature on women who have frozen their eggs quotes the reaction of the mother of a New York investment banker: “I’m glad you went to business school and work 100 hours a week — and don’t have time to meet anyone — so you can afford to freeze your eggs.” The new normal is absurd.

Of course, the Harvard graduate and billionaire Sandberg does not claim to speak on behalf of every woman. Nonetheless she propagates a breed of feminism that defines work itself as the ultimate form of liberation. While a critique of the workplace used to be an essential component of emancipatory politics, success within the workplace becomes the emancipatory act. This claim would be less problematic if the tech industry did not portray itself as the utopia of work: free food, laid back nerd culture, kicker, and now egg freezing. Despite its apparent lack of diversity, Silicon Valley still promises to be a meritocratic industry. A critique of the workplace itself seems superfluous because the ideal of the hoodied-up geek epitomizes the victory of merit and genius over age and convention. It is in that spirit that the lead character of HBO’s Silicon Valley declares: “It’s not magic, it’s talent and sweat. That’s what the fuck we’re doing”.

A dangerous liaison

The philosopher Nancy Fraser calls this development a dangerous liaison between feminism and neoliberalism. While highly educated and mostly privileged women do indeed struggle to live up to their full potential within the tech industry, long-term inhabitants of San Francisco demonstrate against tech giants pricing ordinary citizens out of the housing market. The industry is not only inaccessible for female developers, CEOs and founders; only two percent of Facebook’s workforce is African-American. For the vast majority of the US population, landing a high paid job in Silicon Valley is virtually inconceivable.

Diversity in tech is not just a matter of equal opportunity. Google, Facebook or the next big thing have long surpassed their roles as Internet companies. Tech companies and their predominately-male-geek employees have joined the ranks of the most powerful global shapers of our future. Does a breed of feminism that equates a corporate career with emancipation really stand to curb or critique this trend? Would the world be a better place if it were run by Sheryl Sandbergs rather than Mark Zuckerbergs?

Lean-in breeds of feminism assume that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker? My generation of graduate interns and underemployed and indebted job seekers has more than sufficient reasons to question the inherently emancipatory nature of work. In August, the German journalist Gero von Randow raised the question in DIE ZEIT: why does this demoralized generation not revolt? Jeff Hammerbacher, one of Facebook’s first employees has an almost legendary answer: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” As long as we tell young women that leaning into corporate careers is the only definition of emancipation, this problematic brain-drain will not change.

For a more diverse and possibly even more egalitarian design of our technological future, we need many more men and women with technical skills and with diverse backgrounds: hackers, security researchers, activists, CEOs and developers. A breed of feminism that uses technology to lure women into investing ever more time toward archiving a single-minded version of success will not contribute to this.


Frederike Kaltheuner is a researcher, journalist, and graduate of the Oxford Internet Institute.