Meritocracy, My Back End

Tom Hogan is the cofounder of Crowded Ocean, a marketing agency for startups.

Back in the early ’90s, I worked at Oracle as the company’s first creative director. These were heady days, with the first Friday of every month celebrated by a catered lunch in the courtyard, often with entertainment. 

On one of those Fridays I stopped on my way to my weekly advertising meeting with Larry Ellison to listen to an eight-person reggae band. 

I found myself standing next to the head of human resources, and I asked him, “Does it bother you at all that there are more blacks in that band than there are in our entire company?”

He smiled benignly and said, “Not true. We’ve got over a hundred blacks in the company.” 

When I raised an eyebrow, his smile broadened. 

“We count our Indians as blacks,” he said, holding my gaze. “I’m not kidding.” (An Oracle spokesperson declined to comment on the exchange, but that’s how I remembered it.)

Gender Awakening

I thought of that episode during the recent Ellen Pao case, where a partner at Kleiner Perkins, the venture-capital firm, alleged discrimination and retaliation based on her gender. 

I realized, with both surprise and chagrin, that I’m an oddity in Silicon Valley: I’ve been surrounded by strong women all my life—at home and professionally—and just assume that gender equality is not only obvious in its necessity, it’s inevitable. Especially in a new industry such as high tech.

Crowded Ocean is a two-person marketing consultancy. My partner, Carol Broadbent, is one of those strong women I referred to above. Together, we’ve launched over 35 technology startups, and worked with another dozen companies. Our source of business is the dozen or so venture-capital firms that we’ve worked with over the years. So we’re pretty versed in how the Valley works.

And here’s the sad truth: Silicon Valley (shorthand for the high-tech industry in general) is sexist to the core. Not misogynistic and not actively hostile, but sexist nonetheless. And it’s in no hurry to change.

The Math Does Not Compute

Just do the math. Only 6% of all VCs are women—a number that has gone down in the past few years. Walk through most VC firms these days and the only women you’ll see are receptionists and assistants. And that includes the people waiting in the lobby to pitch their all-male audiences.

Or take the 35 startups we’ve worked with. Twenty-seven of those companies had no women on their executive team at all; only two had women founders. It became a ritual for Carol and me, as we took our clients from founding to launch, to see how long it took them to hire their first woman. 

The record was a software security company that made it to 29 employees before hiring its first woman—a tech writer. And when they did, they converted one of the men’s rooms into a women’s room, complete with a urinal.

Yet virtually every CEO or high-tech executive will assure you that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. And virtually every one of them could pass a lie detector test to that effect. So why the huge discrepancy in numbers? And why are tech CEOs either that clueless or in such denial? 

The Discrimination Game

A parallel can be found in an odd place: the National Football League. Despite the vast majority of NFL players being black, it wasn’t until 1989 that the first black head coach was hired. Were the NFL owners racist? 

Not really—they were just socially limited. The only blacks they came into contact with were in their locker room or in service positions in their stadiums. None of these people were their equals or someone they could relate to. So they defaulted to hiring what they knew best: other white men.

The discrepancy became so embarrassing that in 2003 the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview at least two black candidates any time a head coach opening came up. Whether a result of the Rooney Rule or just common sense catching up to the owners, 15% of today’s NFL coaches are black.

It’s the same problem in Silicon Valley: Founders hire those they’re most comfortable with. Remember, the majority of today’s founders are still nerds at heart—and nerds have a long and rich history of being uncomfortable around girls.

Another sporting parallel: Once Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, you’d think that the rest of the teams, seeking a competitive advantage, would have populated their ranks with this long untapped source of talent. But most teams followed gingerly at best, adding a black player here or there, with Boston not integrating its team until 1959.

In subsequent years, it was common practice that the only blacks on the team were stars—there were no black utility players, no black benchwarmers. If you were black, you were either exceptional or not on the team. (Fact: Last year’s world champs, the San Francisco Giants, didn’t have a single black player on their team.)

It’s the same in high tech. The few women in positions of power aren’t ordinary: They’re exceptional. The same goes for developers: Female coders are the equivalent of Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. Because all things being equal, founders will go with what they’re comfortable with: other men. They may be Chinese, they may be Indian, but they’ll be male.

Does Silicon Valley needs its own Rooney Rule? Good luck with that. Techies are among the most libertarian groups in the world. Whatever their party affiliation, they’re all unified by their hatred of government intervention.

But they do listen to their own. And that’s where to start. I’ll conclude with one last sports analogy. Last year, the Ray Rice episode—where he was caught on video knocking his fiancée out—forced the NFL to face up to its history of domestic violence. It responded with a series of penalties (again, good luck with that in Silicon Valley) and with a public-service campaign in which players, celebrities, and ordinary folks quietly but forcibly denounced any form of domestic violence—fists or words—as unacceptable.

Perhaps the same kind of campaign is needed in high tech. Recently Salesforce, one of the most enlightened companies in Silicon Valley, announced its intention to study and eradicate the gender pay gap. My first reaction was surprise that the gap existed in high tech: I thought, as a new industry, we were beyond that. 

My second reaction was that hopefully, when Marc Benioff is done solving the gender pay gap, he can lead a new campaign. Why stop with pay? Silicon Valley should stop tolerating any kind of gender gap, period.

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