Silicon Valley’s tech pipeline is leaking: Female panelists talk diversity at Mind to Mind 2017

By Caroline Ghisolfi and Madison Perna

From left: Alexis Martin, Cheryl Philips, Y-Vonne Hutchinson and Marisa Kendall discuss diversity in Silicon Valley. (Photo by Madison McClung)

Saara Särmä noticed something funny at a panel discussion on climate change at the European Commission in 2015, and then again one month later at another event.

She noticed it so often that she started a Tumblr blog to keep track of all the examples of one trend, now with almost 1,000 examples and over 200,000 site visits: all male panels, everywhere.

On Oct. 20, this trend was challenged as four women took the spotlight at Stanford University’s Alumni Center to discuss the persisting issues of inequality and diversity throughout Silicon Valley.

The symposium, entitled Mind to Mind 2017: Researchers and Reporters Join Forces on America’s Workforce, brought in speakers and attendees from across academia and investigative reporting alike. “Diversity at Silicon Valley companies: What would it take?” was one of five panels in the daylong event and focused on gender and racial diversity.

Stereotypes about who can be successful in computer science and Science, Technology and Engineered Mathematics (STEM) are influencing climates starting in K-12, said Alexis Martin, a panelist and director of research at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. She described a “leaky tech pipeline” in education and business.

But it’s not just about men and women. Last year, Särmä wrote on The International Feminist Journal of Politics that “we need to pay attention not only to gendered inequality in representation of expertise, but also to the hierarchies of inequalities, where some inequalities seem more crucial or easy to address than others.”

“We’re comfortable seeing that in tech a white woman makes…90 cents for every dollar a white man makes,” said Y-vonne Hutchinson, founder of diversity-solutions startup Ready Set, also on the panel. “… But actually the distance is much larger when you take into account African American and Latino women and even African American men.”

A study published by New Republic said that black women make 64 cents for every dollar earned by a white man, and Hispanic women make 55 cents to the dollar earned by a white man.

Audience members line up to ask questions. (Photo by Madison McClung)

The panelists stressed that the lack of opportunity is indicative of unhealthy workplace environments. Panelist Marisa Kendall, a technology reporter for the Bay Area News Group, spoke of her coverage of the Ellen Pao lawsuit in 2017, one that “ignited a global explosion of conversation about sexism in the workplace.”

Pao lost the lawsuit, but the suit brought more attention to the issue. By the time Uber board member David Bonderman was forced to resign in June for sexist comments during a staff meeting, attitudes were shifting.

“These actions are starting to have consequences,” said Kendall.

In August, a senior engineer at Google was ousted after claiming that “biological causes” are part of the reason women aren’t represented equally in tech and leadership.

This summer, California Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, introduced a bill to address sexual harassment in the venture capital industry; startups such as Y Combinator and She Works! aim to widen resources for minority groups and employees who are harassed.

“Who gets access to higher opportunity employment is going to determine the economic power we have, the political outcomes that we are able to achieve, and […] who is advantaged and disadvantaged in American society,” Hutchinson said. “Overall, the future of work is at a crossroads, and I believe tech will be driving a lot of these changes.”

Caroline Ghisolfi is a freshman and Madison Perna is a junior at Stanford University. Both are students in a journalism class covering the Mind to Mind symposium.

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