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Monday, September 18, 2000

Men at work in Silicon Valley

IT’S a typical slice of daily life at the palm-fringed hub of the new economy: a workplace, undoubtedly, but one where an unusual definition of "work" holds sway. Engineers are chasing each other down the hallways, firing soft-tipped darts though Nerf-guns. Their programmer colleagues are busy playing table football, or hunched over video games. And when real work begins, it is as likely to take the form of a "bug bash" — where programmers stay in the office long in the night until they have fixed a certain number of glitches in the system — as it is a conventional meeting.

Or, at least, this is what the male ones are doing. These are scenes from Valley of the Boys, a documentary by Monika Khushf, director of engineering at the software company Intuit, which alarmed many by demonstrating just how male-dominated Silicon Valley’s work culture really is. Khushf, interviewing male and female engineers from major technology companies, including Sun Microsystems, Apple Computers and Netscape, portrayed a workplace where men spend long hours — weekends included, constructing elaborate model cities in Lego while their female colleagues look on, depressed or simply resigned.


"They’re having a great old time," one woman told Khushf. "And I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh, please!"" These women would not be surprised by a new list of the most influential persons in the valley compiled by the San Jose Mercury, its leading newspaper. Not one woman made to the top ten. And in Britain, we’re no better - our three biggest Internet companies, Freeserve, the auction site QXL and the software firm Autonomy, have one woman director between them. In any sector this would be a cause for concern but in the supposedly revolutionary crucible of e-business, where casually attired workers pride themselves on abandoning the hang-ups of the old economy, it is little short of a disaster.

It’s not as if there aren’t any women entrepreneurs to begin with: according to the National Foundation of Women Business Owners, the number of women-owned business in the USA has more than doubled in the past decade. Indeed, American women seem positively fuel-injected when it comes to start-ups: they are launching business at twice the rate of their male counterparts.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that a new one, focused on the venture capitalists that provide the speculative backing for the valley’s big ideas, is replacing the old boys’ network that has been consigned to history.

Insiders like to portray the new economy as running on little bit of caffeine and ideas, but of course, deep down, it runs on cash -and here, a new boys’ network is vigorously asserting itself. According to Venture One, an organisation that provides information to venture capitalists, only 5 per cent of the total venture capital funding in the states goes to companies with women chief executives. "Of the 3,000 venture capitalists currently working in the USA, only 90 are women," says Diana Reid, of the San Francisco-based Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. You do the mathematics, as they say in San Jose.

Reid and others are starting to mobilise the valley’s women, in a movement that includes Women in Technology International — which holds an annual Silicon Valley summit in Santa Clara — and a range of "incubators", such as the San Francisco-based Women’s Technology Cluster, which aims specifically to nurture technology start-ups run by women. Not that you will ever get anyone in the politics-free valley to admit to being an activist. "We don’t consider ourselves to be an affirmative-action group," says Reid. "We’re just trying to jump-start excellent business plans."

In Britain, the situation is even worse when it comes to venture capital funding. Lucy Marcus, who set up HighTech-Women.com to support women in technology-related fields by mentoring and networking, says there are a pitiful number of women venture capitalists working in London. "I can name them without running out of fingers," she says.

Launched in March this year, High Tech-Women already boasts 700 members. Recent months have also witnessed the launch of Busygirl.co.uk, the first business technology portal dedicated to the women Internet entrepreneurs, and Webgirls.org.uk, another networking organisation.

"In the UK, getting VC finance is made more difficult because the VCs in town have always been traditional city boys of the old-school network," says May Chong of Webgirls. "They are men who have very little experience of doing business with women — let alone women who are younger and more ‘techy’ than them."

The best-known American exception to all this is Carly Fiorina, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and the first woman to head one of America’s 20 largest companies as measured by revenues. Recently named by the Fortune magazine as the most powerful woman in business, she sees the gender divide as a part of a wider problem of conformity — exactly the personality trait that most valley entrepreneurs spend energy trying to deny.

"Diversity needs to become a priority in the hi-tech industry," Fiorina says. "Right now there is a virtual wall between available talent and available jobs: diversity is not a hiring practice nor a hiring priority in many Silicon Valley companies." This, combined with the "less-than-open perspective of many hiring managers" means, says Fiorina, that "this industry has far too much conformity".

Strenuous attempts are being made to change things. The American Computer Experience, for example, offers free places to girls on its computer camps (predictably, computer summer camps are dominated by boys: only 10-15 per cent of campers are girls). Other educational projects seek to educate the educators: surveys show that girls are put off computing by dull programming classes dominated by nerdy boys nursing violent videogames and an inability to communicate in anything other than computer programming languages.

Wendy Tan is one of the lucky British women to be shown the money. At 29, she is the founder and chief executive of Moonfruit, a service provider specialising in the Web site-building tools. "In my career, its so normal being the only woman that you don’t notice it any more," she says. Of the 40 businesses in the investment portfolio of their major backer, the investment-fund firm [email protected], Tan says she is the only female boss.

Ultimately, the valley’s unstoppable appetite for talent may force change. Says Carolyn Leightton, founder and chair of Women in Technology International: "As the demand for talented technologists grows and the supplies continue to shrink, those companies which are committed to removing the barriers for the advancement of women will certainly be the winners." Although it may be drowned out by the sound of the table-football games and the Nerf-gun shootouts, a quiet revolution may soon become an economic necessity.

By arrangement with The Guardian