Sex and the Startup: Men, Women, and Work

All of the efforts to get more women into tech will fail as long as the culture assumes that their labor is less valuable.

by Kate Losse on March 17th, 2014

Silicon Valley fetishizes a particular type of engineer — young, male, awkward, unattached. This fetish is so normalized in startup culture that it often goes unseen for what it is: the specific, narrow fantasy of venture capitalists, deployed to focus their investment and attention. The disproportionate success of a very few individuals who fit this image has led to a kind of shortcut logic or “pattern matching” which assumes that these outward traits themselves determine success.

Silicon Valley has built an architecture of compensation to distribute value, attention, and funding accordingly.

The focus on this particular type of founder or employee often goes uncritiqued, then, in terms of the stresses, conflicts, and inequities it creates in the startup environment, where there is always less celebrated, less visible, and often much less valued work to be done. Both men and women experience the negative impacts of a culture that fetishizes the simultaneous power and lack of responsibility of its “rock stars,” forcing coworkers to silently accommodate their behavior, often without equivalent support or compensation.

Fetishizing Founders

Contrary to the outsider assumption that Silicon Valley’s sexism manifests mainly in the traditional sexual harassment of women, Silicon Valley’s fetish for the awkward young engineer is unabashed, physical and often sexual.

A t-shirt sighted on a startup employee in downtown San Francisco reads “Who’s your data?”, at once figuring its wearer as male, sexually dominant, and unlike the “daddy” the data replaces, technical and nerdy – data as sexual dominance and vice versa. Technical and sexual dominance are made synonymous on the t-shirt in a way that is not unique to this particular company. An early ad for YCombinator read, “Larry and Sergey won’t respect you in the morning,” positing the young entrepreneur as submissive sexual partner to famous founders and invoking the shame of an ill-conceived one-night stand if he doesn’t found a startup: “They didn’t go to work for someone else’s company. They started their own. Why shouldn’t you?”

Screenshot of the Y-Combinator ad described in the text.

The ad was also run in the Stanford Daily.

Mark Suster makes the desired romance between investor and entrepreneur even more clear: “Make sure when your investor agrees to write you a check you feel like someone beautiful at the altar,” Mark Suster writes in a blog post that encourages investors to “fall in love with entrepreneurs.” While Silicon Valley startups rarely make the connection between power, desirability and technical skill as explicitly as the “Who’s your data?” t-shirt does, the conflation of them is so common it often goes unremarked as anything unusual. If considered at all, the assumption seems to be that because the bodies being fetishized and “fallen in love with” are male, it’s not harassment.

Even at the highest level, the way that Silicon Valley investors define entrepreneurial talent is often not as a matter of business skill. Chamath Palihapitiya argues that having no experience at all is preferable for young hackers, like the ideally cheeky “young rogue hacker who attacked Facebook several times before it hired him.” Instead, entrepreneurial talent is depicted as a function of masculine physical characteristics and even physical force.

A screenshot of the 500 Startups homepage, cropped to show their slogan, which is 'Dare to get beaten, Dying to win.' In the background, a photo of boxer Muhammad Ali being punched in the face by Joe Frazier.

The VC Firm 500 Startups’ homepage employed boxing imagery as recently as February 2014.

“Building a company is a lot like boxing,” Horowitz argues in a recent Fortune article advertised on the cover as “Horowitz is Schooling Silicon Valley’s Young Guns,” deploying at least six metaphors for physical fighting– “clobber,” “down for the count,” “punch,” “pummel,” “adrenaline,” and so on– to describe working at a startup. Or as Paul Graham famously said, “I could be fooled by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” referring to Zuckerberg’s young, male, hoodied physique– here, the hoodie itself becomes attractive in part because of its athletic origins, lending an aura of readiness for physical competition to the programmer. 19, the age that Zuckerberg was when he started Facebook, is often the magical age in these accounts. “You might meet some smart 19 year olds who aren’t even sure what they want to work on,” Graham writes.

Without a business idea to assess, Graham lists “naughtiness” as one of the key things he looks for in a founder. “They tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye,” he says, invoking the pirate’s omnisexual trickster appeal, embodied by Johnny Depp’s performance in Pirates of the Caribbean. Graham and Horowitz’s focus on physical appearance and performance is common not just to investors but to founders and recruiters, who recruit in the fetishistic language of “rock stars,” “ninjas” and “ballers.” This is a world in which a successful hacker can be defined in an SXSW presentation as someone who’s “got coding chops, passion, instinct and great hair”, where the hair that is being referred to is not women’s locks, but the coveted hacker swoop hairstyle worn by young white men in tech.

An example of 'Hacker Hair' is David Karp of Tumblr, as depicted on a Wired Cover.

An example of the hacker swoop hairstyle worn by young white men in tech, depicted on the cover of Wired.

Like the references to boxing and fighting, appropriated terms like “rockstar” and “baller” are in fact profoundly physical terms and also, sexualized by definition. The original rockstars were men who performed on stage and whose power was quantified by their effects on women in the audience, who were deemed ‘groupies’ if they had sex with or wanted to have sex with the star. As such, “rockstar” is by origin a sexualized term that– like “baller” in the athletic context, where famous athletes’ status is defined by their wealth and sexual appeal to women– implies not only the glorification of the employee but also his sexual entitlement.

The Role of Women

If the going metaphor of the startup is that male hackers are stars whose physical characteristics are a source of status and power, the role of women in startups often becomes tinged by differently sexualized and submissive ‘groupie’ expectations. Because even though employers might imagine that startup slogans like “who’s your data” are denatured of their original sexual meanings, they aren’t. Deploying terms for engineers that invoke sexual dominance signals that the startup at some subconscious level wants to emulate a model of power where men perform while others watch and wait, intent on servicing their needs. Some startups even make the desired correlation between women workers and selfless service explicit, as in the app “Geisha” which served links to web designers in the guise of a red-cheeked, submissive female product mascot. The Geisha app deploys fetishized racial stereotypes towards an all-too-common model of tech culture in which men are centered and powerful while women serve them from the position of exotic ‘other.’ The Geisha app’s deployment of racial and gender stereotypes was so blatant that it even received criticism on Hacker News, which prompted the app to change its name.

The Valley’s fetishization of the power of the young, male hacker does not necessarily free him to act out his desires, however; instead it opens a way for the startup to claim his desires as something to be optimized and managed, much as all other aspects of the startup employee’s life, from food to transportation, become something to be managed and satisfied by the Silicon Valley company. That is, if the programmer’s energy is imagined as synonymous with the company’s potency, it also becomes a kind of company asset that must be managed like any other in order to maximize company growth and minimize distraction. A TechCrunch article about a hacker collective whose early members, like WhatsApp’s Jan Koum, went on to be billionaires articulates this perceived aporia succinctly. “In one chat log viewed by TechCrunch, the young hackers discuss… getting laid. ‘Love != productive,’ writes one, ‘Lack of sex makes it hard to work,’ counters another.

The hackers’ chat-room formulation of an endemic conflict between work and romance — where relationships interfere with work but sex, especially the emotion-free kind associated with rock-stars and “ballers,” assists productivity — has become a kind of startup conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley. And it is squarely in investors’ interests to maintain a conflict between romance and work: once the hacker is imagined as helpless to develop relationships, his romantic life becomes something that can be managed and also controlled by the community. So rather than investigating the cultural reasons for the difficulty of work-life balance in Silicon Valley, companies then imagine technical solutions, such as the YCombinator startup that plans to crowdsource funds to import women from New York to date male entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

The Dating Ring startup's crowdtilt page for 'Cross-Country Love: Help Fly NYC Women to SF' attempting to fundraise $50k. The promo video below shows a woman smiling with her hands in a praying gesture.

In a neat trick of the market, imagining successful hackers as desirable but socially helpless creates new business opportunities for startups.

Assumptions, Relationships and Startups

The solution to the difficulty of integrating work and social life in Silicon Valley is not technical, however, but cultural. Flying women from New York is an unscalable technical solution to a cultural problem, which is that in the Valley’s rush to celebrate and fetishize the simultaneously symbolic but inconvenient sexuality of the young male hacker, the tech industry has positioned women, their work, and their sexuality in such an alien, de-centered position relative to men that it is difficult to develop healthy relationships in a startup context. This distortion of social life gets done through a series of assumptions that get assigned to the engineer and that have a correlative, negative impact on women:

1) He is too busy to develop relationships.

This assumption encourages the programmer to see women as distractions, and thus pressures him away from developing relationships with women in order to maintain his focus for the startup. Women are positioned, then, by default as obstacles to business focus.

2) He is “too awkward” to develop relationships.

This releases him of the responsibility to develop social skills, and creates a model where any callousness on his part towards women can be excused by the catchall term ‘awkwardness’. This acts as a get-out-of-responsibility-free card for anything from social ineptness to harassment, abuse and assault. Women, by the same token, are expected to fill in for men’s awkwardness with exceptional social skills, yet without being so emotionally involved that they become a “distraction.”

These assumptions for men are ultimately affirmative– he is ‘too focused on work’, and his ‘awkwardness’ is a sign of genius. The correlative assumptions made of women, on the other hand, are less affirming: in this cultural model, women oscillate between being positioned as ideal, submissive helpers — like live versions of the Geisha app — or potentially aggressive, alien, emotionally demanding threats to men’s focus. The final negative stereotype attached to women — that they are gold diggers who use their sexuality to enrich themselves by attachment to men — further serves to position women as alien and to be feared.

The Valuation of Labor

The roots of the vast gap in power and value between men and women in Silicon Valley begin very early in the life-cycle of a startup, often before the startup officially has employees or executives. For example, in a company like Facebook, which has now come to signify the proof that young, white, male, awkward founders are most successful, women from the beginning of the company did work that had not yet been conceived or compensated as work. Women who casually dated the founders before the company had employees found themselves doing everything from recruiting engineers from their social networks, mediating founder relationships and disputes, providing product feedback, designing social events, and performing emotional and affective labor.

When startups begin hiring employees, the fact that nontechnical work may have been originally done for free by friends often leads founders to continue to devalue that labor, considering it optional or “fun,” perhaps a matter of social obligation, rather than serious and valuable. Engineers become highly prized commodities to hunt and value highly, while labor that isn’t technical is often expected to be freely performed by people who may have other jobs at the company (such as administrators) or who may not have any job at the company at all (such as girlfriends and dates). And because this labor often goes underpaid or not paid at all, it also doesn’t signify when equity is divided up.

The model of sourcing labor from women through relationships is so common in the Valley that it becomes a kind of de facto strategy for male founders starting companies. So, rather than hiring people to manage non-technical duties, this labor can fall to partners, who may or may not be recognized by a title in the startup. In the best case scenario, like that of YCombinator’s Jessica Livingston, a partner who does this work is considered a co-founder and thus has a stake in the company; however in the case of the startups founded by Paul Graham’s coveted 19-year-old piratical hackers, the chance that the founder is married and will provide equity to his date who is doing the nontechnical work is highly unlikely.

Unfortunately, the Valley’s model of the spouse-as-a-service means that regardless of his youth the founder is just as likely to expect a romantic partner to put in work. Thus, Jessica Livingston’s advice at Female Founders conference that “when you’re the nontechnical cofounder, your job is everything that’s nontechnical,” including grocery shopping and errand running, is observed as often by friends or girlfriends with no stake in a startup as it is by women who are recognized co-founders or employees.

All of this is to say that we can trace the overvaluation of white male hackers and the devaluation of other forms of labor and laborers in startups to the origins of startups themselves, and the consequences of that devaluation have a serious impact on not just the economic but the social and dating culture of the Valley. That is, in an industry where men and women are treated as two different types of workers from the beginning — men as stars who must be courted, and women as casual, lower- or no-value workers — men and women come to relationships from very different positions of power. Women who already perform excessive emotional and other labor at work may have no interest in doing more work for a man as his date, and men may not understand why women aren’t interested in playing the submissive role of all-purpose helper in their off-hours.

But rather than transform the inequal way in which labor, value, and relationships are structured in Silicon Valley, the only solution the Valley has proposed thus far is to fly women in from New York for brief romantic interludes.

Clearly, then, the scalable solution to this problem is to renovate the way in which labor, value, and relationships are conceived in tech so that men and women are valued at work on equal footing. And to be most effective this renovation should start in the beginning, when a startup is founded, in order to prevent the valuation gap between young male hackers and everyone else from becoming a company institution.

A Startup Code of Conduct

All of the efforts to get more women into tech will fail as long as the actual environment for women in tech assumes that their labor is less valuable and their positions more alien or more disposable than those of the Valley’s young male stars. Thus, Silicon Valley startups that want to make their startups healthy economically and culturally, and be places where men and women feel equally valued, will have to value men and women equally.

This means:

1) Compensating all labor well.

If half of your employees are living like “ballers” and the other half are struggling to pay rent, you are contributing to the problem of a society in which one half is lording over the other, which in addition to being economically unviable for the undercompensated half, is also toxic for all kinds of relationships within that culture. Resentment (of the rich) and fear (of the ‘gold-digging’ poor) is exacerbated by inequality and does not make for healthy relationships within that culture.

2) Ensuring that men and women are paid equally for equal roles.

Companies that pay women 20% to 30% less than men for the same work may think they are getting away with something, but it will cost them in other ways. Undervalued employees can ascertain by reading contextual clues that they are being undervalued, even if they don’t know by how much, and they will respect founders less for it and behave or leave accordingly.

3) Celebrate employees equally, rather than focusing on one, white male group to exalt.

Avoid fetishizing physical types and instead focus on the range of skills and talents that it takes to make a company. Sexually fetishizing certain types of employees can make others, and even the fetishized employees themselves, uncomfortable.

4) Recognize that work is work.

Identify the work you need and hire people to do all of the jobs that are required. Sourcing labor from girlfriends and wives is exploitation, just as expecting women doing other jobs to also take care of coworkers’ emotional, sexual or romantic needs is also exploitation. This labor is a job that can be fulfilled by therapists, life coaches, mediators, and/or sex workers who are paid for their work, rather than tacked on to existing employee’s roles.

One of the reasons women leave tech is because having to navigate a work environment where they are both undervalued and overworked is exhausting, and having to bear an additional and uncompensated emotional burden for the startup only adds to the unsustainability of the tech industry for the many women who leave as soon as they can afford to. The solution lies in founders, investors, and startups themselves: to treat women and their work as valuable, discrete, and important in the same way that the labor of young white hackers is so valued and celebrated.

In short, if a startup has funding to pay for engineering work, it can pay for all the other forms of labor, technical and not, that go into growing the value of the company. Only then will the prospect of being a ‘woman in tech’ be something that is less an obstacle course to complete and escape than a career to enjoy for the long term.