November 3, 2017
Editor's Choice: A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy
A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy by Sarah Lacy, Harper Business, 320 pages, Hardcover, November 2017, ISBN 9780062641816
Silicon Valley and the digital age were supposed to help us level the societal playing field, build better businesses, and even improve our democracy. It would form a great meritocracy where it didn’t matter where you were, where you came from, or what you looked like. All that would matter is that you had an internet connection, intelligence, and some hustle.
But instead of a more level playing field, better business practices, and a more robust democracy, it has led to increased income inequality, increased corporate hegemony (and, in Silicon Valley, the place that spawned the revolution, corporate homogeneity), and questions about whether these technologies have, in fact, played a role in undermining our democratic elections and institutions. It is the homogeneity, the fact that tech companies are so blindingly white and overwhelmingly male, that may be at the heart of some of the other problems, and the cause Sarah Lacy takes up in her new book, A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy.
It is a trend that, if you follow the money being invested in Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to be changing. The statistics Lacy shares in her new book are sobering—or, as she suggests, may make you want to drink:
Of the massive $60 billion in venture capital deployed in 2015, female founders got just 7 percent (when surveys break out female CEOs, that number falls), and black male founders received just 2 percent. Black women did not register. Not coincidentally, 98 percent of VCs on senior investing teams are white or Asian males.
The construction of tech firms’ workforces is not any better. Facebook added 1,231 employees in 2015. Only seven of them were black, and just one of them was a black female. The COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, may be the face of women advancement, but the workforce she oversees is 68 percent male, and their technology team is 84 percent male. This from the industry and region that houses the five largest companies in the world, that is the greatest economic growth engine of our time, and is “distrupting” or destroying jobs everywhere else. This is “the new economy.”
Lacy notes a keynote at which two of the leading venture capitalists joke that the thing most successful tech founders have in common are that they are “white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard and Stanford and they absolutely have no social life.” Cool, so basically the old guard, without diplomas and human social skills. And, though there is some lip service paid to the problem, when you survey people anonymously, one thing becomes pretty clear, and Lacy puts it bluntly: “White men in tech don’t give a shit about diversity.” Just last year, an anonymous LinkedIn survey of “six hundred founders, executives, and investors” in Silicon Valley found that:
95 percent of white male respondents didn’t consider this a problem, 40 percent were sick of hearing about it, and 75 percent weren’t aware of any programs to address it …
Lacy explains how she was largely blind to sexism earlier in her career, believing the myth of Silicon Valley’s meritocracy and the idea that there just weren’t enough qualified women in the pipeline to fill the jobs—and how that facade began to crack when she became a mother. She talks of the need for women in Silicon Valley to be “just one of the guys” to fit in and advance, and how the women tech pioneers she looked up to would often credit their success to their masculine qualities, about how she did it herself—whether by nature, or emulation, or a combination of both—becoming “cool dude” Sarah Lacy. She writes about the many microagressions she missed and the form of benevolent sexism she benefited from—for a time—and how she came to realize that she was contorting herself to fit into the patriarchy instead of challenging it.
The problem begins in that talent pipeline she thought simply wasn’t producing enough female candidates. Discussing how 43 percent of female undergrads at Stanford—Silicon Valley’s “feeder” school—experience some form of sexual assault or misconduct, and the effect this fact has on the ambitious young women who enroll there, hoping for a career in tech, she writes:
Instead of learning to code or instead of learning to start a company and instead of meeting with people in the Valley who could advance their careers, they are going to trauma counseling and taking incompletes and seeing their grades plummet. … The widespread scale of these assaults combined with the school’s lack of meaningful changes to prevent them normalizes the idea that women are second-class citizens in Silicon Valley.
It is an idea perpetuated by the justice system—and, in particular, one judge—there. When a jury handed down three unanimous verdicts of guilt on three felony sex crimes charges in a case against Brock Turner, a member of the Stanford swim team:
Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to just six months in jail, less than the two-year minimum for assault with intention to commit rape. Persky’s concern was that anything more would have a “severe impact on him.” This was a pattern for Persky—giving light sentences for young men convicted of violence and assault.
The judge made no mention of the “severe impact” his sentence might have on the young woman who was raped, or on the culture of the school and of Silicon Valley as a whole. But even if you make it through Stanford, and manage to get a job in the Valley, there’s a good chance you’ll be working in a toxically male, sexist corporate culture—like that of TechCruch, where Lacy worked, and tells us that:
When I joined the blog in 2008, there was an online poll placing bets on how long I would last because the abuse hurled at any woman who dared to write for the site was so vile.
And if you achieve real success despite that culture, as Lacy did, being elevated to editor-in-chief at TechCrunch, you may never actually get to assume that title because of an insane chain of events that leads to the ascension of another—of course, male—editor-in-chief while you’re in labor with your first child.
Okay, so that is a pretty specific chain of events—involving political machinations behind the scenes between fellow AOL property, Huffington Post, and the ridiculous, journalistically unethical timing by TechCrunch's founder to start a Venture Capital firm to invest in companies his publication covered—that are unlikely to happen exactly like that again, but that is just a part of Sarah Lacy’s remarkable story. It was after the birth of her first child, Eli, that she heard from one of her friends, and editorial competitors, that her being snubbed for the job was the topic of conversation at a dinner at Sheryl Sandberg’s house with Arianna Huffington and, uhhh, Oprah Winfrey, and how:
By the end of my first week home with Eli, my sister had come to town to help me out, and Arianna was calling me multiple times a day to do damage control and talk me into another job at the company, effectively offering me whatever title and salary I wanted. She sent me some price-upon-request Italian baby loafers for Eli. “You have a weird life,” my sister said.
Perhaps even weirder (to most of us), she didn’t take that offer, opting instead to start her own publication, Pando. It was then that she learned the patriarchy will follow you even after you set out on your own—even if you are one of the rare women to find funding to do so in Silicon Valley. She learned you’ll not only be attacked in the industry press when you do so—a San Francisco Magazine piece named her son Eli as the number one glitch in finding success as a founder, and that was written by a fellow mother. She learned that the backlash would be especially brutal when you break a major story about how hostile that industry is to women, as Lacy and her company Pando did on the fastest growing company in Silicon Valley, Uber. If you do that, she found, you’re going to have to get a security detail—i.e. men in dark suits with guns—and they’re going to follow you everywhere, even when you take your children to Yo Gabba Gabba! Live.
The patriarchy instills in us the belief that a woman has to choose between being a great mother or a great employee—being at the beck and call of one’s husband and children, or that of your boss, 24/7. Lacy explodes that myth, telling the story of how—despite the unfair obstacles and crazy challenges she’s faced—being a woman and being a mother have made her better at work, better at being, better at being in business. Her book is about that journey, about how starting a company and having children are so similar, and gets into the hard data that backs up “why women—including mothers—naturally make great entrepreneurs, managers, and employees.” And there is a lot of data on that topic. We’ve known for a long time now that all the evidence points to the fact that having more women involved in running a company makes that company better, and more profitable. Sarah Lacy cuts to the heart of why things haven’t changed faster despite that evidence—the patriarcy.
The story she tells is personal, heart breaking, motivational, terrifying, honest, and real. It is about working in Silicon Valley, running a business, navigating marriage and divorce, being a single mom, working herself into the hospital, loving her children, and about how other places (pssst, Iceland, even China, where 55 percent of new internet companies are founded are women) are way better at this. It is, at its core, how she believes becoming a mother has made her better at her work, and how working has made her a better mother. Read A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug, and you’ll never think it could possibly be otherwise. If anything, with the stories of rampant sexual harassment and abuse in cultures as conservative as Fox News in New York and as liberal as Hollywood—and, of course, in Silicon Valley itself—it seems that if there is a problem in the business world, or a bug in the system, it is male reproductive organs.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.