JOIN THE REVOLUTION
Champions for Change
Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick.
Those days are over.
— Bella Abzug
Who would have guessed that on Super Bowl Sunday, America's manliest night of the year, the issue of women in tech would get some much-needed airtime? As 111.5 million people watched the Seattle Seahawks trounce the Denver Broncos (and revisited the pleasures of Bud Light and Doritos) on February 2, 2014, a young woman's heart raced with anticipation as she trained her eyes on the giant TV at the center of a swanky screening party in New York City.
Debbie Sterling's stomach flip-flopped as she waited for the commercial that would change the trajectory of her nascent toy company. It felt like a lifetime ago, but she had set out only two years earlier to upend the world's image of engineers as a lonely bunch of boy geniuses and introduce a new kind of role model — a spunky, tool belt–wearing action figure with long, blonde, curly hair named Goldie.
It wasn't an easy sell. Big toy companies quickly dismissed GoldieBlox, a product designed to teach girls engineering, complete with a tool kit of pulleys and shafts, as "too niche." But that didn't deter Debbie, who fondly remembers challenging boys to arm-wrestling contests in the second grade. She set out to prove the naysayers wrong by taking her story to Kickstarter, where she planned to raise $150,000 so she could manufacture the first run of Goldie's Spinning Machine, a storybook and building set.
In an endearing video Debbie made her simple Kickstarter pitch while wearing jeans and a sleeveless violet top as she sat cross-legged on the floor of her apartment. Scenes showed little faces lighting up as pigtailed tots played with the one and only prototype. In the video, shot by Debbie's husband, Beau, she told viewers they could inspire their daughters to be "more than just a princess" by helping Debbie fund the first production run. The play sets would mesh girls' love of stories — players follow the adventures of main character Goldie and her friends — with fun design challenges featuring wheels, axles, catapults, and gears. Girls would build simple machines alongside Goldie. The message went viral. In thirty days Debbie raised more than $285,000 and was able to produce her first order of five thousand units, which quickly ballooned to forty thousand to keep up with demand. Suddenly the toy stores were calling her.
Now, fast-forward to Super Bowl Sunday. Debbie, the real-life Goldie, the curly-haired inventor with the infectious smile, was about to go prime time. She hoped the thirty-second commercial would fuel her mission to inspire girls to break into the boys' club and start seeing themselves as tomorrow's builders and problem solvers.
GoldieBlox had won the big-time ad — worth an estimated $4 million — in a small business contest run by Intuit, parent company of QuickBooks and TurboTax. Debbie flew her entire family and twelve team members from San Francisco to Intuit's tricked-out fete on the top floor of Manhattan's Gramercy Park Hotel, which featured glitzy cocktails, hors d'oeuvres passed by servers, and even a photo booth. Just being in the room was a thrill, but the waiting was killing her.
Finally, the familiar drumbeat of the 1980s rock anthem "Cum on Feel the Noize" poured out of the screen over a raucous scene of adorable little girls in princess outfits who were tearing off their glittery tiaras and running through the streets to a park, where they constructed a giant rocket out of their dolls, pink ponies, and sparkly playthings. They sang triumphantly:
Come on, ditch your toys
Girls make some noise
More than pink, pink, pink
We want to think!
As the rocket launched toward the sun, the room exploded in cheers and applause. It was a game changer, and Debbie could feel it as the music faded away.
"We specifically did not want the commercial to be about the product. It 100 percent needed to be about the social mission that we're on and educating parents about shining a light on the pink [toy] aisle and how limiting it can be in terms of what girls think they are capable of and getting them interested in science, engineering, and math," she reflected when we spent the afternoon with her at Toy Fair in New York City two years later.
Mission accomplished. The commercial, and its unapologetically feminist message, touched off the first of many triumphs in 2014, a year that would galvanize disparate groups of people around the country who had long been agitating about the tiny number of women and people of color in key technical and leadership roles in Silicon Valley. That was the year the issue of women in tech started to matter to the masses. The timing was right. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, published just eleven months earlier, was sparking urgent conversations about women, leadership, parental leave, and the pay gap. It was inevitable that the dialogue would turn to inequities in technology itself. Smartphones and digital media had become central to most American lives, and women were the primary consumers, yet they were largely absent from the teams building new technologies. As a piece in the New York Times's Motherlode blog in March 2014 aptly pointed out, "If men could breastfeed, surely the breast pump would be as elegant as an iPhone and as quiet as a Prius by now."
Yet a quiet revolution was already in progress: a frenzy of entrepreneurial activity across the country was uniting female founders and technologists. By 2014 they were working under the radar to launch their own startups, build their own networks, crush male-hacker stereotypes, and inspire their younger sisters and daughters. Like Debbie, these inventors, builders, advocates, and connectors, uniting at the grassroots level, would become the foot soldiers of the front lines, disrupting the business-as-usual landscape of white guys in hoodies and V-neck sweaters and proving that a female point of view matters in tech — and can rock big returns in business and innovation. They are the geek girls rising, and you will meet them in this book.
Where Are the Women in Tech?
But first, it is important to understand why more women weren't already making their fortunes in the digital revolution by the time GoldieBlox shined a light on the problem. And for that we have to look back at the years that preceded the Internet gold rush of the late 1990s — when the world was still on the brink of breakthroughs like personal e-mail, search, and online shopping, which would ultimately disrupt life as we knew it. By the post-recession early 1990s, when we two English majors graduated from college, Wall Street was deemed the place for young feminists fresh from undergrad or B-school to make money. Finance and management consulting were where the action was. And that's where many women with hard-core math and analytical skills and Ivy League degrees went to prove they could go toe to toe with men. As one Wharton alum told us, "Feminism, with a capital F, stood for finance," when she graduated in 1997. A New York Times report about Stanford's class of 1994 described the opportunities in banking and law as "opening up to women as never before" and juxtaposed those more certain paths with the "Wild West" of the Internet, where a bright future was not necessarily a slam dunk.
At the same time the number of women graduating with computer science degrees in the United States was declining from its peak in the 1985–86 academic year, when 37 percent of CS diplomas went to female grads. This, as video games and personal computers continued to be heavily marketed to guys. Movies like 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, whose pocket protector–wearing Gilbert and Lewis decide to form their own fraternity for social outcasts and use their computer savvy to foil the jocks, immortalized the stereotype. The film typifies tech's image problem, which simply turned many women off, according to Jocelyn Goldfein, who became Facebook's first female director of engineering in 2010. Jocelyn had always stood out, the rare girl who had embraced the so-called nerd path as she devoured science fiction and spent hours playing Dungeons & Dragons with her sister while growing up in Austin, Texas. She said it was almost subversive for a woman to major in computer science when she left for college in 1993, so she wasn't surprised when she arrived at Stanford to find few women in her CS courses, although one of her classmates was future Yahoo CEO and president Marissa Mayer. The year they graduated, 1997, 83 percent of CS degrees were awarded to men, according to the university's School of Engineering.
"In the nineties the only people in computer science were the fat, nerdy people, the four-eyes. For men too. But to be a male geek was a different kind of path than to be a female one. It was an alternative path for them versus the jock or frat path, but it was still a path. The women, however, were almost breaking our own bounds to do that," Jocelyn told us.
Jocelyn would go on to work for Diane Greene, senior vice president of Google's enterprise business and the serial entrepreneur who co-founded VMware, the company that revolutionized how operating systems run on computers. VMware was acquired by the EMC Corporation for $635 million in 2004. But most people outside the Valley don't know the story of the female computer scientist who built it. The contributions of Diane Greene, like those of many of her colleagues, had been glossed over.
"Any history that holds up seven white men as the founders of the computer revolution obscures the true collective nature of innovation," writes Jessi Hempel in her Backchannel story, "A Women's History of Silicon Valley," penned in response to a 2016 Newsweek special edition issue about the "founding fathers" that highlighted only the well-known white male CEOs most people associate with tech innovation.
Her point was that for decades, the tech world has suffered from the invisibility of its female leaders. This, too, contributed to the declining numbers of women who were going into computing and engineering when "the World Wide Web hit orbital velocity in 1993," as Walter Isaacson describes the dawn of the web in his 2014 book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. He writes that a key "impetus" was the launch of Mosaic, later known as Netscape Navigator, the first Internet browser for amateurs. It came on the scene in 1994 and changed everything. It marked the tipping point for the personal computer's lightning-speed migration into our kitchens and living rooms — and eventually our purses and pockets. The following year, 1995, was the pivotal one that saw the launch of Amazon, Craigslist, Match.com, and eBay.
Only a decade later, when Facebook was just a year old, nearly 85 percent of men and women would be accessing the Internet at home for banking, shopping, keeping up with the news, and downloading music. The tech-centric culture for everyday people only grew with the advent of smartphones and tablets that were sleek and easy to use, thanks to Apple visionary Steve Jobs and his obsession with making computers friendly.
When the iPhone app store went online in 2008, Silicon Valley was still a hot spot for smart, enterprising young people, even after the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2000. Yet even though women quickly adapted to e-mail and social media, they had not flocked to the Valley in droves during the initial boom. And those who did didn't stay long. Women's representation in computing dropped from more than a third of workers in 1990 to just over a quarter of workers in 2013 — the same number as in 1960, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. Citing hostile work environments, a lack of flexibility, lower pay than their male counterparts, and few opportunities to advance, by 2009, 56 percent of women in tech had dropped out of the industry mid-career — leaving at twice the rate of men. And they were not necessarily opting out to stay home and raise kids. Most engineers who left high tech did not leave the workforce but instead migrated to jobs in health care, education, and administration, according to research led by Jennifer L. Glass of the University of Texas–Austin. So you had a perfect storm for under representation — fewer women majoring in CS and engineering, combined with high numbers of women leaving the industry, especially those who had been in key technical roles. The result? Few visible women in leadership during a time of incredible — and important — innovation.
Pressuring the Valley to Come Clean
In 2014, the age of Netflix, Fitbit, and Snapchat, it was downright disconcerting that so few women and people of color had a seat at the tech industry's table, especially when women were earning more college and graduate degrees than their male counterparts. It's not that no one was talking about it until 2014. There was some media coverage inside Silicon Valley, notably "The Men and (No) Women Facebook of Facebook Management," a 2007 piece by veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher that appeared on the website All Things D and playfully displayed head shots of Mark Zuckerberg and his six male deputies at that time — five white and two Asian guys. By 2010 women increasingly were speaking up about the lack of diversity at conferences and blogging about it. In 2011 Girls Who Code and its media-savvy founder, Reshma Saujani, unleashed a national effort to encourage girls to learn computer programming. In 2012 Marissa Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo and made headlines with the announcement that she was pregnant and planning to take hardly any maternity leave. But until 2014 one critical thing was missing: actual data from some of the biggest tech companies to document the extent of the disparity. Until then, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft had resisted calls to disclose the number of women and people of color working in leadership and in technical jobs. That would change in the months ahead.
"Women in tech didn't matter to people until tech started mattering to people," explained Rachel Sklar, an activist and the originator of the rallying cry "Change the Ratio," when we interviewed her in the winter of 2016. "Tech started mattering to people when, all of a sudden, tech millionaires turned into tech billionaires, and our lives really became transformed."
When the GoldieBlox TV ad aired, the discussion of tech's gender gap was already bubbling up at insider conferences, on college campuses, and across social media. But the mainstream movement to correct it had not yet taken off, and the women who would lead it were just beginning to mobilize.
Right across San Francisco Bay from the GoldieBlox workshop in Oakland, California, one of Debbie's good friends was already working hard to spark a revolution of her own. Software engineer Tracy Chou had been putting together a public database of female engineers that, by springtime, would help force big tech companies like Google to acknowledge that their technical and leadership teams had few women — and even fewer minorities. Tracy says she was spurred to write a pivotal call to action, her October 2013 essay "Where Are the Numbers?," when one day she looked around her San Francisco office at Pinterest, the digital scrapbooking site adored by crafters, home chefs, decorators, and fashionistas, and realized that only eleven of the eighty-nine engineers on her team were women — and they were building a product used mostly by women.
In the spirit of the open-source programming world, in which people all over the globe collaborate on public projects, Tracy, then twenty-seven, set up a basic Google form on GitHub and made a simple request to her peers for some on-the-ground reporting: Share the numbers of women you see around you on your team.
"As an engineer, and someone who's had 'data-driven design' browbeaten into me by Silicon Valley, I can't imagine trying to solve a problem where the real metrics, the ones we're setting our goals against, are obfuscated," Tracy wrote as she called for transparency from companies and entreated other female engineers to help.
The response was swift and damning: At Yelp someone posted that only 17 of 206 engineers were women; at Mozilla, 43 out of 500; at Dropbox, 42 out of 384, and on and on. The numbers showed that, on average, only about 18.9 percent of the people building the technology for an increasingly female audience — more than half the population — were women.
As the data poured in during the next few months, the big guys couldn't keep stonewalling. They were already under fire to release diversity data because Mike Swift, a tenacious former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, kept filing Freedom of Information Act requests. The Mercury News had set out in 2008 to push fifteen of Silicon Valley's largest tech companies to disclose the race and gender makeup of their workforces, and five of them, including Google, had waged an eighteen-month battle to prevent the numbers from getting out — successfully convincing federal regulators that its workforce is a trade secret.