Silicon Valley’s Cult of Male Ego

It creates an environment where a woman’s sexuality is an item for public consumption, a thing which can be approved of or rejected, valued or denigrated by the community.

by Bardot Smith on September 8th, 2014

At this point, it would be abject denial to say that American tech is not broken. Subjectively, in that it contains a culture so repellent that swatches of the most compelling talent in the world avoid the industry entirely. Objectively, in that tech is a centralizing force: An industry built by — and built to serve — a narrow slice of the population, while reaching such a large one.

The increasing presence of women’s skill and success represents a challenge to tech culture. Male dominance is so internalized that challenging it on any level is met with mass resistance. At an individual level, those who speak on the issue are pursued and harassed to the point where many simply opt for silence. Broader discussions of this phenomenon are met with dismissals and assumptions that it’s natural for an entire industry — especially one with an unprecedented global capital reach — to indulge and cater to the proclivities, preferences, and priorities of such a small portion of the population.

The systemic issues affecting the tech and venture capital industries are so deeply internalized that they remain unacknowledged. The effects of this willful ignorance are carried disproportionately by women. While it’s been discussed countless times, most efforts to address the issue in action — no matter how well-intentioned — fall flat beyond bandaging its symptoms. The irony of political correctness keeps us from getting to the heart of the issue, which is, naturally, not very polite:

The tech industry serves The Cult of Male Ego. And masculinity defined via the external is notoriously fragile around sexuality.

Male Ego in StartupLand

A man in a business suit, adjusting his tie, his face turned from the camera.

CC-BY Jonathan Mueller, filtered.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the rampant sexism in the industry, but even wider-scale abdication of responsibility for it. The structure and cadence of the culture remains accepting of sexist attitudes. When these attitudes materialize into sexual harassment and assault, the target is left unprotected, and eventually ostracized.

She becomes responsible both for defending herself against the advances of the offending party and against the mob that rises to protect their aligned interests. She is given the choice to suffer the indignities of being treated as a sexual object amongst peers and colleagues, or to be persecuted for objecting to it. If she fiercely asserts her rights to be there, her boundaries in doing so, her very fierceness is critiqued and used as a crowbar, evidence that she’s — wait for it — not tough enough to handle the culture.

We are acutely familiar with the trend of powerful men using their status to attract women for… whatever they want. Every single woman in and on the periphery of StartupLand has witnessed the females-as-accessories and females-as-entertainment mindset pervasive in most forms of the pressure-cooking, male-dominated industry.

In the case of the tech industry, we add an interesting twist. Tech offers an unprecedented chance at success for the cerebral elite, the nerds, traditionally stereotyped as “beta” males. “Nerds,” once not considered to be highly socially viable, are now flooded with potential access to capital and influence. The industry essentially recruits on the transformative promise of this success, both professional and social.

The myth that science and technology are inherently male domains is itself sexist and responsible for reinforcing the sense of entitlement that men use to justify hostility towards women in the industry. Without a ‘valid’ reason to believe that women do not belong in their ranks, these males would be left to confront the falsehoods of masculinity, the underlying and systemic insecurities disguised by external accomplishment. Maintaining the assumption that women are intrinsically less skilled than they are simply by virtue of their gender protects their sense of technical accomplishment and the delicately constructed masculinity that comes with it.

What happens when these men are confronted with women who are capable of doing the work they do? The fabrication of their intellectual superiority starts shredding at the seams. And in some cases, they can no longer project the frustration of their lack of romantic success onto women via the notion that women at large are simply “not smart enough” to see their value as males. The advantage in attraction they were hoping to achieve through their career success is negated.

Women’s existence and success too often become a sore reminder of their male colleagues’ pre-existing insecurities. Further, women’s cognizant unwillingness to be complicit in their world view is an infuriating, non-negotiable blow to their externally-constructed male ego.

What follows? Misdirected frustration. Aggression. Denial. Hostility. Abuse.

It is that bad.

Modern Witch Hunts

A note in a datebook: 'Silence is the speech of the hollow well. -GG.'

CC-BY Gisela Giardino, filtered.

How this plays out in the tech landscape:

Positive Sexual Expression is Policed and Controlled

Discussions of sexuality are tolerated only when they serve the interests of those in power in a given system. In a male-dominated landscape, women are objects to be admired, critiqued, pursued, conquered, etc. They must not become subjects. While it is not strictly acceptable for men to treat women as objects in professional spaces, it’s frequently chalked up to their “nature.”

For a woman to have sexual agency would mean that she is not dependent on the approval of the males around her. The fear of female sexual agency is so deeply ingrained that should women express themselves as subjects, it is almost always met with disapproval, or worse, justification for mistreatment and abuse.

It is the most direct trespass against paternal authority, grounds for punishment.

It’s nearly impossible to find a discussion of an individual report of gendered harassment and abuse without also encountering attempts to assassinate the character of the women involved. This confirms the construct that women are only deserving of respect and protection from inappropriate male behavior if they behave within narrow confines defined and enforced by — surprise — males in positions of power.

It creates an environment where a woman’s sexuality and its expression are a item for public consumption, a thing which can be approved of or rejected, valued or denigrated by the community at large.

Sexual Abuse is Covered Up

In conjunction, if a woman makes a specific claim of abusive sexual action against her, she is met with an impossible burden of proof, and witch-hunted for potentially “ruining” the career or reputation of the male she is accusing. She is treated as if it is her burden to carry the real trauma she is experiencing to accommodate the males around her, and to preserve the environment that allows sexual abuse to happen on a daily basis. (Meanwhile, communications strategists — like those who handled Github’s Preston-Werner and Marc Andreessen’s post-dustup statements — are getting extremely wealthy cleaning up these stories. But I digress.)

Even when a woman objects more generally to the sexist tone of conversations and attitudes in tech, she’s considered to be starting “drama.” The fact that her recourse for reporting these conditions frequently involve discussing them with men whose interests are aligned with the status quo helps not at all. As a result, she is either excluded or actively purged from the social structures of the workplace. This is true in other industries, but given the smaller numbers of women in tech, it can be devastating to her ability to move forward in her career or create meaningful professional alliances.

She risks becoming unemployable, unwelcome in her own profession.

Crime and Punishment. On Public Display.

Many women drop out of the industry after experiencing persistent negativity or outright hostility. There are distinct disadvantages to playing the game. A woman does not need to behave seductively to “have an effect” on men. Women can downplay their physical presence and become socially cold and distant in the workplace to no avail. Sexual entitlement contributes to the aggression towards women and yet it’s rarely acknowledged, let alone addressed.

The rarity of women in the industry puts them in the unfortunate position of being even more noticeable, and therefore more scrutinized. Their behavior, carriage, personal lives are subject for critique in ways that men need not spend mental cycles on. This is all before the quality of their contributions are even considered. If she is closed to sexual overtures, she is regarded as conceited or arrogant. If she is tolerant of them, she can expect increasing encroachment on her personal boundaries up until the point where she can no longer afford to do so. Both courses result in damage to her ability to focus on personal success.

Consent and she is branded a slut, compliant. Object and she is branded a tease, defiant. Either way, she loses. Game over.

Any woman who chooses to represent this problem through her own voice and experience is met with resistance or dismissal. History in this industry has made it clear to women that their accounts are considered untrustworthy, especially when it comes to how men treat them. Most sexual harassment and assault goes unreported as a result of these attitudes. Generally, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, roughly 10% are even reported. Of those, a mere 2% are falsely reported. Most women choose to suffer silently rather than face the litany of ad hominem attacks that either seek to deny the experience or justify her “deservingness” of it.

A culture that automatically mobilizes to search for a reason to dismiss the claims of those raising dissenting opinions and experiences is toxic. Where there are imposed boundaries of acceptable behavior that women can cross where punishment or burden is “warranted,” no woman is free.

The tech industry, more so than most others, espouses itself as a meritocracy. This foundational myth acts as a cover for the underlying dynamics to remain unaddressed. When the experiences of a category of individuals is invalidated, the motive for maintaining the status quo takes shape.

If they don’t want the game disturbed — it’s because the rules are in their favor.

A Consignment to Mediocrity

A long conference table in a board room.

CC-BY Tyler Merbler, filtered.

From the bottom and the top, the conversations in tech are saturated with echoes of a sanctioned viewpoint and set of priorities.

In the business of tech, VCs are the gatekeepers. They set the tone for conversations and define inclusivity by what they focus on and what they fund. The unique seat of power that results means that even racist and sexist behavior are taken as rational gospel for the industry, and amplified through the chorus of sycophantic forum chattering.

As power in the industry consolidates, VCs are focusing on expanding their brands. Their reputation is crucial to their business, yet they behave with impunity as a result of the power they wield over anyone with the perspective to critique them. The lip service paid to the issue betrays the attitudes festering in private circles behind closed doors, too-often manifesting in public action… or lack thereof.

I left the industry after experiencing intense friction in this arena in multiple different settings. Feeling exhausted by the choice to ignore and carry on vs. constantly defend my position, I became a backchannel to the male psyche. I parlayed these experiences and the lessons I took from them and work with them in an unconventional way. Not every woman desires or has this option available to her. No woman should feel like she has to leave work she likes because it’s become unbearable to be in the environment itself.

Even writing this is a risk. I’m sure that some of the less secure men reading this will feel the need to “correct” me on my own, reasoned opinion. They’ll go to my site, and spend their seconds telling me how (insert whatever irrelevant-to-the-argument personal attack makes them feel better at night) I am after reading this message.*

But I also know that it’s only because the message resonates:

Women’s success and agency are in direct conflict with an industry culture that caters to the priorities — and egos — of males.

The problem with the existing conditions is that they serve so few individuals, yet damage and inhibit the contributions of so many. Tolerating aggression and institutional discrimination in an industry with increasingly global impact is a consignment to mediocrity.

And where’s the merit in that?

* [NB. I’ll acknowledge your opinions of me for $20/min. For $50/min I may even pretend to care].