In 1995, the halcyon, dial-up time of tech, a fledgling dating service called Match.com was getting ready to launch. Cofounder Fran Maier was frequently the only woman in the room, offering the lone female perspective during the site's foray into the online dating world, where knowing how women think would be crucial to success.
“I was meeting with the guys [discussing] how to charge,” she recalls. “We’d decided to focus first on women; women would attract the men. The idea was to charge per email; I said, no, women [will] want to send lots of emails, so we went with the membership model."
That model stuck and became the default in the industry.
And this crucial decision was made:
"Later, some engineers said we should include weight ranges on the profiles, and I said, um, no,' ” Maier said.
It's hard to know how Match.com would have fared if Maier's voice had been ignored—or if it would have sold for $50 million a few years later. Her story makes a broader point that has played out time and again: Women often have insights into products and services that are key to those products' success—particularly when they’re the primary buyers. Research has demonstrated that companies with women on the board of directors outperform similar, boys-only companies.
Yet women are still greatly underrepresented in tech’s upper ranks, where their insights may be key to making or breaking a brand. The familiar explanation for the disparity says the “pipeline” is simply full of men, that fewer women are interested in science, technology, engineering, and math, or that people hire and promote people they know.
But there's also a cultural roadblock at play.
A taboo, little-acknowledged reason may be that start-ups "celebrate frat-like behavior and turn a blind eye to discrimination,” according to a recent NPR Marketplace piece.
Though some of these tech bros may like to hang an invisible "no girls allowed" sign on the gate to their industry, the rub is that it’s been shown that companies—and countries—do better when more women are at the top. Catalyst found that companies with more women on their boards have much higher return on investment. And it was a bipartisan group of women senators that was largely credited for resolving the most recent government shutdown.
That's because women bring a different sensibility, says Judy Rosener, author of “Ways Women Lead,” a controversial 1990 Harvard Business Review paper, whose forthcoming book is Organizational Intercourse.
Men are linear thinkers, negotiate in a win-lose manner, and view power as an end unto itself, Rosener explains. By comparison, women think holistically, negotiate in a win-win manner, view relationships as ends unto themselves, and are sensitive to subliminal cues.
“In a global environment with different cultures,” Rosener says, “all the more reason you need female attributes—they’re more likely to pick up on things men won’t.”
But it’s more than that. A diversity of voices prevents groupthink (and mob mentality). And that’s the worry when it comes to male-dominated tech—particularly when you consider that these corporations are some of the world’s most powerful.
What are the implications, beyond the bottom line, when monoliths are in charge?
Consider the gentrification of San Francisco, now the least-affordable city in the country, where longtime residents are being evicted from rent-controlled apartments so owners can sell the buildings and cash in on the tech boom. The transformation of neighborhoods like the Mission and Fort Mason (unaffectionately nicknamed “Frat Mason”) is causing hostility and anxiety: A November New York Times piece quotes longtime locals as describing their newer neighbors as entitled and rude; an artist foresees the once-diverse area becoming “an unbearable ocean of sameness.”
Meanwhile, Bleacher Report cofounder Bryan Goldberg offers satire in return, hubristic tech leaders suggest that Silicon Valley secede, and Airbrite cofounder Peter Shih posts a list of things he hates about San Francisco, including “PMSing weather and girls who are obviously 4s and behave like they’re 9s.”
Over at South by Southwest, “brogrammers” crack rape jokes onstage.
Consider, as Amanda Hess wrote last week, the rampant harassment of women online, and how little is done about it: “ ‘Ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day.’ That’s what women are told. But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, their freedom to live online.”
Such harassment—and the reluctance to intervene by the leadership of the platforms on which it happens—has the larger effect of discouraging many women from voicing their opinions online, fostering yet another ocean of sameness.
“The problem starts at the top in tech companies—from the boards to management to the rank and file, [leading] to a disgusting male-oriented culture,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, who denounced the lack of diversity at Twitter’s board pre-IPO.
“Execs are in denial and unapologetic,” Wadhwa says.
As Maier says, "I can't tell you how many times I've heard men say, 'I have one woman on the board; isn't that enough?' "
But this issue is bigger than token gestures, she says, and "we, as women have to say, no, it's not enough."