Entrepreneur

Discrimination in the tech industry does still exist — and we have a long road ahead

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This is a guest post by David Selinger, chief executive of RichRelevance

Members of my leadership team have previously weighed in on the topic of diversification in high tech and specifically Silicon Valley. Now I want to lean in to this topic, in response to a piece in the San Jose Mercury News.

The author, Vivek Ranadivé, chief executive of TIBCO, does not believe that discrimination exists in Silicon Valley. I disagree.

Yes, the Valley has much cultural (and some ethnic) diversity — my own firm comprises employees of Chinese, Korean, Russian, Indian, British, South African, and many varieties of European heritage — so Mr. Ranadivé is correct … but from one angle.

Discrimination does, in fact, exist in tech, though it’s often so “invisible,” meaning that it escapes detection. Mr. Ranadivé’s piece proves by omission: the most powerful form of discrimination, in my opinion, is sexism.

Women have historically not been offered the same professional opportunities as men, and are, therefore, not as familiar in certain situations. We are currently experiencing a dearth of female chief financial officers, presidents, board of director members (just look at Twitter‘s management).

I’ve personally been very fortunate to have a number of women executives at RichRelevance and even a couple of female board members (BODs), but this is not the norm. The tail of history is long and powerful — even if not overt.

Basic reasoning, using our own startup terminology, neatly illustrate this issue:

Day 0 of startup “X”– There are 500 men and zero women on BODs in Silicon Valley

Day one of startup “X” — The founder is looking for a BOD with experience, and therefore must either:

  • Hire a local man with experience
  • Take a “risk” on a woman or man without experience (giving this option only 50/50 odds of adding a woman to the pool)
  • Hire someone non-local (50/50 odds of being woman, at best, but if we assume the distributions are the same elsewhere, this is actually non-accretive)

This means that for every new generation (or “days”) of startups or Silicon Valley companies, we only add 2.5 percent women — at best — to the pool of candidates with experience with every generation.

That means (without including the exponential degradation of this curve—which does exist), it takes at least 20 generations (“day 20”) to get to 50 percent gender parity. Fast forward to 2013, and we can estimate that, at most, about 10 percent of Silicon Valley Board members are women, based on the survey done by Reuters, which observes that only 4 of the top 10 Silicon Valley start-ups have even a single woman board member, assuming a low number such as 5 board members per firm.

This puts us at “day 2” using the above model — and day 2 of a 20-day journey, meaning we have a long way to go.

Especially for experience-oriented roles, this discrimination has a very long tail over time. For training-oriented roles like engineering, this effect exerts a more subtle influence.

This is, of course, just my two-cents on a very important topic that continues to generate quite a bit of debate, but without accepting where we are today we cannot leave the world a better place for our children tomorrow. If we’re at day 2 of a 20-day journey, it’s too early –and, frankly, dangerous and misleading — to declare such a “victory.”

Please heed my warning Mr. Ranadivé and the rest of Silicon Valley.

Note: My own chief marketing officer — a woman, by the way —has shared her perspectives on the gender-related STEM issue, which I also encourage you to read.

David Selinger is the chief executive of RichRelevance, a company that develops product recommendation technology for online retailers.


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