What's It Like To Be A Woman In Silicon Valley?

by Camille Bautista

Let's face it: Silicon Valley has been a boy's club for too long. For an area that prides itself on meritocracy, the gender imbalance can be the elephant in the room; mostly unacknowledged, but definitively unavoidable. And for all we've heard about Silicon Valley's staggering lack of female representation, there are so few women present in the Californian tech hub that we haven't heard much of their perspective.

Even in major tech companies, the lack of female representation is startling: Though an estimated 70 percent of its users are female, Pinterest's board of directors is made up entirely of men. Until last year, Twitter also had an all-male board. Women represent less than 10 percent of venture capitalists; less than a third of employees in the tech sector; and contribute to just 1.2 percent of open-source software. The numbers are even worse for women of color: they represent less than three percent of people working in the technology field.

One woman well-versed in Silicon Valley's gender imbalance is Karen Catlin. Catlin is on the board of directors at the CLUB, a Silicon Valley organization that aims to propel female leaders forward. In her 25 years in the industry, Catlin tells Bustle, she's actually seen computer science's gender gap grow larger.

When she graduated with her bachelor's in computer science in 1985, 38 percent of all CS degrees in the United States went to women. By 2010, only 18 percent of the CS degrees in the U.S. were awarded to women. "There were plenty of women in my classes at college, and on my work teams, early in my career," Catlin says. "As time went on, I noticed a difference."

A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates there's been little to no progress in minimizing the gender gap, both in the computer field (currently 27 percent female) and in engineering (13 percent). Several factors are credited as being behind the male-heavy environment: fewer women majoring in the subjects, for example, and a culture that prizes male dominance.

And it's not a subtle imbalance. Almost every woman working in tech could give you an example of when they were undervalued at first glance, Catlin tells Bustle. "Are you in human resources or marketing?" is frequently asked, Catlin adds.

The bias occurs even in everyday circumstances. "My teenage son and I were home at the time, and even though I was the one who told the technician about the problem and showed him where our modem was, he looked at my son every time he had something technical to explain," Catlin says. "This kind of unconscious bias happens all the time."

So what's it like to live and work as a woman in Silicon Valley? First, the living situation: Several "intentional communities" exist in Silicon Valley, in which techies share a home to foster ideas and creativity — and you have to apply to be a roommate.

Spoiler: Very few of those roommates are women. In spite of attempts to even out skewed ratio in the homes, there remains a startling imbalance. One former resident of Rainbow Mansion, an intentional community, found that men were surprised to even see a woman: When she opened the door for a visitor during one of her house "hackathons," she told Marie Claire, "He couldn't take it and just ran away... Most of the guys in Silicon Valley are welcoming, but some are just very, very nerdy."

Still, there's no single experience for women in Silicon Valley, as design consultant Katherina Nguyen, 24, tells Bustle. There are lots of "nerd-stud" men hanging around, she said, and though Nguyen is often paired with engineering teams that are heavily (if not completely) male-dominated, she's never felt out of place for being a woman.

"Sometimes, I wonder if it'd be easier to be taken seriously and listened to if I were a guy, or older," she says. "But for the most part, people are not too set back by my style, because people appreciate getting things done."

That's not to say there aren't awkward moments for Nyugen. Like when she's told to "make things pretty" in terms of designing a user interface — Nyugen's real specialization is in architecting functions and front-end coding — when her male friends and colleagues aren't asked to perform such tasks.

As a rule, though, Nyugen attests that Silicon Valley operates on merit. If you can code, you can code, regardless of whether you're a man or woman. And support organizations for female entrepreneurs, like Women in Tech and Girl Geeks Dinner, are working hard to foster relationships between driven females in the industry.

"There are still some fundamental differences in the ways men and women communicate and assert themselves, and sometimes, it's helpful to have other women in the workplace to relate to and balance company culture," Nguyen says. "I would love to see more women out here."