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What Is Silicon Valley's Problem With Gender?

I don’t recognize the place that has been described in the courtroom.

Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

Like many people in our industry, I’ve closely followed the Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers gender discrimination lawsuit. I have been a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for more than 30 years and have considerable experience working in startups, including one financed by Kleiner Perkins. I have seen and worked with many venture capitalists.

I don’t recognize the place that has been described in the courtroom.

From the testimony at trial, and from the coverage in the media, you would think that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of sexism and discrimination. You would get the impression that women cannot get ahead because they are deliberately and repeatedly denied opportunities. You might picture our offices and boardrooms as football locker rooms, with pin-ups everywhere.

It is true that in Silicon Valley women are woefully underrepresented in management, in engineering and in venture capital. It’s getting better; women now are running or are in key leadership positions at Facebook, HP, IBM, Google, Xerox and Yahoo, to name a few. I frequently encounter women in such key jobs as general counsel, chief financial officer and VP of marketing.

However, we still struggle to find women engineers. Underrepresented minorities are even rarer. And venture capital partnerships, like investment banking and private equity firms, have very few women beyond the reception desk.

But is this persistent diversity problem a result of an unwelcoming, hostile culture? Or are there deeper problems that must be addressed?

I’m solidly in the second camp myself, and I offer my own experience as Exhibit A. I’ve been an executive at five major companies in Silicon Valley: Apple, Claris, Palm, Handspring and Numenta. My companies have been financed by many leading venture investors, including Sutter Hill, Merrill Pickard, Benchmark and Kleiner Perkins. I’ve led companies that were unsuccessful in attracting venture capital — notably Palm, which we sold to U.S. Robotics in order to finance the PalmPilot — and companies that instantly received venture capital, notably Handspring.

I have never encountered sexual harassment or a hostile environment. Indeed, I’ve had tremendous support from my prior bosses, my venture investors, my boards of directors, my numerous colleagues and my longstanding business partner. Sure, I’ve noted small slights on occasion, and I’ve encountered occasional executives who were not open to women in leadership positions. But on the whole, I’ve experienced Silicon Valley as a meritocracy. In fact, one reason I decided to come west and join the burgeoning technology revolution in 1981 was my belief that wherever there was fast growth, there would be opportunities for anybody who could contribute to that growth. That is exactly what I found.

So what’s the real problem? And what can be done?

To begin with, we have far too few women and underrepresented minorities coming into our industry from a technical track. Many organizations are focused on this problem, from nonprofits like Girls Who Code and Sally Ride Science, to the compelling work being done at Harvey Mudd College under the direction of President Maria Klawe. We are making progress. But it is slow, and we need to do better.

Second, unconscious bias clearly exists, and we all need training to recognize it and to overcome it. Whether directed at a woman or a black person, an overweight person or a short person, an effeminate man or an antisocial engineer, we need to be more conscious of our built-in biases. We need to focus on the person and her performance, rather than a stereotyped notion in our heads. And we need to continually push our organizations toward more diversity by how we recruit, who we select, how we promote and how we encourage our managers to do the same.

I don’t claim that every firm, every boss and every investor is as enlightened as the ones I encountered. There are times and places where women have experienced serious discrimination in Silicon Valley, much as they have in many other industries or locations. But from my own experience, I can happily say that I cannot imagine any better place or time in the world to have been a woman building a career than in Silicon Valley.

Donna Dubinsky is CEO, board chair and co-founder of Numenta. She first partnered with Jeff Hawkins at Palm Inc. in 1992, where she served as president and CEO. She held this position throughout Palm’s acquisition by U.S. Robotics and subsequently 3Com Corporation, through which time the PalmPilot became the most rapidly adopted new consumer product at the time. In 1998, Dubinsky and Hawkins co-founded Handspring, creator of the category-defining Treo smartphone. Handspring merged with Palm in 2003, and Dubinsky continued to serve on Palm’s board until 2009. Previously, she spent 10 years at Apple in a variety of sales, sales support and logistics functions, both at Apple and at Claris, an Apple software subsidiary. Dubinsky earned a BA from Yale University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School; she is currently on the board of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Yale University and the Computer History Museum. You can reach her @ddubinsky.

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