The Golden State of California faces a dilemma. Silicon Valley’s money-making (and tax-revenue generating) culture is under attack by an amorphous group of women, who claim they are ignored, abused, and powerless. Always have been, always will be.
I dare to disagree.
If there is a “bro” culture in Silicon Valley, there is also a “sis” culture. Both reflect an immaturity in dealing with the realities of what it takes to create lasting value in today’s global business world.
Silicon Valley’s roots in military and “hard” sciences paralleled the dominance of those fields by men. The first tech entrepreneurs held advanced degrees in physics or chemistry, were often ex-military, and delivered on defense contracts in the middle of the Cold War. Hardware engineering and manufacturing dominated the region through the 1980’s, career fields women typically didn’t pursue, myself included. Therefore, the experience and wealth created prior to 2000 was mainly earned, rightfully so, by men. They re-invested their time and money to create each subsequent boom, earning healthy returns on that investment, and created extraordinary technology we depend on daily.
There were a few of us women promoted to the executive suites and venture capital offices in the ’90’s. Succeeding in the “man’s world” was a lot tougher than the feminist movement promised. We became focused, hard-hitting, professional, and nimble. During meeting breaks, when men continued their conversations into the restroom, I realized that whining about any unfair advantage got me nowhere. I had to be direct and ask what was discussed, develop key allies, and trust my instincts. Sometimes I was wrong. That is the essence of achievement—learning from mistakes.
When passed over for a promotion or funding, in today’s “sis” culture it is all too easy to blame discrimination. However, there are usually multiple male candidates for that same position or investment. What can they point to as the reason they failed to get ahead? Results-orientation, interpersonal skills, ambition—all these are characteristics needed in the intensely competitive and dynamic market of technology. This is a rough-and-tumble world, where boys become men or don’t make it as leaders. Many women are unprepared for, or shy away from, that kind of competition, hard work, and risk-taking.
The reality is that any time off, from family leave to vacations, may leave a worker vulnerable to not gaining key experience, or missing a great opportunity to shine and be more promotable. That’s life. Making those kinds of choices is a freedom we all have. I didn’t take a single week of vacation my entire corporate career, only an occasional Friday or Monday holiday. Many thought I was crazy. Yet that allowed me to rise to be the only woman in a roomful of men, and usually the youngest, too.
In my experience, Silicon Valley’s professional men are fully aware of women’s strengths and contributions to their business, and readily seek out those who can contribute to bottom-line profits. But women often are afraid to confirm their own value, sitting back and waiting for a promotion to be handed to them instead of asking for it. Perhaps they don’t want to face “No”, taking it as personal rejection instead of the truth: some man or woman worked harder, developed better skills, or studied more relevant courses in college. What makes one person right for a specific job is nuanced, and can’t be dictated based on the whims of a Twitter-storm against some perceived Boy’s Club “Brotopia.”
Too many women are choosing to wield the power of public opinion, government regulations, and attorneys to protect them from these supposed “bro” bullies, threatening retribution based on innuendo, false expectations, vague promises, and unprovable claims. They seek equality of condition, not equality of opportunity. Women do have power and justifiable recourse through management and/or human resources, and ultimately our legal system. But it is as wrong to exploit the law for vengeance, or to compensate for one’s own foolhardy decisions, as it is to exploit gender-specific restroom chats. And men can hardly be blamed today if they fear entrapment and false accusations. Current events prove just how easily a career can be destroyed with careless words or purposeful vindictiveness.
The problem is a lack of professionalism all around.
Unfortunately, professionalism is such a vague term that it is hard to challenge specific behavior inappropriate to today’s fluid workplace setting. Ideally, experienced men should be mentoring the younger generation of boisterous males in how to behave around co-workers. But experienced women should also be teaching young females how to handle dicey situations that are bound to arise. Naïveté is no excuse once you’re an adult. This is serious work, not play. No more cocooned university campus. No more Mom and Dad running interference. Casual dress code or an off-site meeting does not mean anything goes. There are real consequences for your choices.
The most unfortunate outcome of the current outcry against sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, assault, and outright rape is that they have all become intermixed as one big horror. We have laws defining each situation and remedies to handle them as best we can using facts, not emotion. They won’t prevent bad actors and unprofessional behavior, unfortunately, but there are established procedures in order to separate immature actions from civil and criminal wrongdoing. Besides, if you don’t like where you are working in Silicon Valley, quit. Both men and women have done that for years. In fact, many successful entrepreneurs got their start because the working environment was not to their liking.
California’s reputation as a mythical land of milk and honey, formed centuries ago, continues to this day. Utopia in any form doesn’t exist. Nor do unicorns. Women who believe that they deserve wealth simply for landing a job in tech will be just as disappointed as the majority of men. It’s a mirage. Wealth is earned through hard work, skills, luck, and timing. It is never just handed to you. If you face that truth, you might have a fighting chance to succeed.
Ann Bridges depicts the issue of workplace sexual harassment in her Silicon Valley novel, Private Offerings, named a 2015 Best Business Fiction, and emphasizes the importance of professionalism in the workplace to college audiences and others.