Silicon Valley has long celebrated failure, encouraging founders to aim big and fail fast, pick themselves up, and try again. In that spirit, there’s one big failure to add to the list: Silicon Valley has failed women, period, and it’s time for the industry to own it. At the current rate, with VCs celebrated for hiring their first (first!) female partners and companies ever so slowly achieving single-digit increases in the number of female engineers and managers, it will take us a generation or more to get to anywhere near 50-50. That is unacceptable. Women not only represent half the population but drive 70 to 80 percent of consumer purchases. If only for the sake of profits, women should not be excluded from the process of imagining and creating new products.
There are a few founders who see the opportunity here. Everyone is looking for a competitive advantage, and some tech leaders have realized that there is an abundance of talent and valuable ideas in the populations that, for the last three decades, have been largely untapped. Looking at their new women-inclusive businesses and work- place cultures can give us some idea of the potential payoffs.
I ran into Dick Costolo in April 2016, 10 months after he had left Twitter, and he was nearly giddy, having just hired another female engineer at his new personal-fitness start-up, Chorus, the fourth company he has co-founded in two decades. From day one, Costolo focused obsessively on making sure he hired as many women as men, even if it took longer to find them. “Once you fall behind, if just two out of 20 engineers are women, it’s impossible to catch up,” Costolo told me. “Any one of these companies, the underlying disease is that it’s 90 percent men,” Costolo says. “Everything, literally everything, is reinforcing the problem.”
Jack Dorsey, who returned to Twitter as CEO when Costolo left, is also taking an innovative approach to improving the environment for women at his other company, Square. New female engineers joining the company are placed on teams that include other women rather than alone with a group of men. The hope is to engender camaraderie and networking and mitigate the “imposter syndrome” that women often experience when they are the only female in a room of male engineers. Still, with a limited number of female engineers, there is a trade-off to this strategy: Some teams will remain all male. It’s an experiment, one that Dorsey believes is worth trying. In the meantime, Square has developed a strong bench of female executives. “It’s not just creating a sense of belonging that’s important,” Dorsey told me, “but also making sure women contribute to decision making.”
And then there’s the most straightforward strategy, that having women in charge will naturally attract more women. Julia Hartz, co-founder and CEO of Eventbrite, says the company’s gender balance is 50-50 and that this has happened organically perhaps as a result of simply having strong female role models at the top.
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