Women’s Equality Day: Notes (And Advice) From Silicon Valley

By Heather Kernahan

I have spent my career in tech. Out of university I launched into the dot com craze, then into startups and midsize tech businesses. Then 13 years ago I came to Silicon Valley to work at a global tech company. In an engineering-first organization, it was clear who ran the place and that trickled into every meeting, meet up, customer event and business strategy session. Women were in large numbers in what one executive told me were the pink ghettos – departments like marketing and human resources that were “necessary but not really important to the success of the company.” I worked in marketing and instantly understood that I wouldn’t be respected there.

What I did see at that company were women who worked in engineering who kicked [butt] every day. I watched how they operated in meetings, led teams, launched products and built their personal brands. They became my mentors and answered questions that I couldn’t ask anyone else. Many of them also had stay-at-home husbands like I did. We talked about the pros and cons. There were no women leadership groups in tech companies at that time – or at least none that were widely discussed.

I saw a big shift in 2013 in the valley. The book “Lean In” sparked a different conversation about women in leadership and suddenly the topic was at every event I went to and being covered by the tech media. Though the book wasn’t about equality, it spoke to the ambition that women have and what can hold them back. During 2013 and 2014 I sought out groups that had ambitious women in tech like Women 2.0, Girls Who Code, Anita Borg and Women’s Startup Lab. Tech companies started women in tech groups and talked openly about them. The most progressive companies started reporting their gender data.

Women’s Equality Day gave women the right to vote. There are many more aspects of equality that need to be addressed in Silicon Valley and around the world. Pay is one. Opportunity is another. Funding is another. For a place that has a brand built on innovation, change is frustratingly slow.

My advice for women in Silicon Valley and the tech industry everywhere is this:

Do not be frustrated and sit quietly. If you see inequality or bias, ask a question. Be curious about why someone is thinking a certain way, or why a policy is in place. A few years ago I was buying a ticket for a tech conference, then noticed that there were no women presenters. I thought, “I should call the organizers and ask about it.” I went ahead and made the call, telling them I was no longer supporting conferences where there wasn’t an equal representation of speakers. Damn, it felt good. The next year there were more women presenting.  

Make career decisions aligned with your values. When joining a company you can find out a lot about them on Glassdoor and in other networks. The talent gap in tech is a CEO-level priority, so tech companies need women to succeed. There are more opportunities now to choose roles that align with your values.

Join a group, association or network that is advancing equality topics important to you. Most women I know already have more on their to-do list than is reasonable to accomplish. By joining a group, you can be as involved as reading their content for education and sharing, or work to be a board member.

Every year I go to the Grace Hopper celebration event where almost 20,000 women in tech gather to learn, get inspired, share information and meet with hundreds of companies competing to hire women into tech positions. It’s events like these and the conversations I have each day with executives running tech companies that give me confidence that Silicon Valley will progress on this issue the way we know it can.